How to Do Oshkosh

What to see, where to eat, who to talk to, and how to make the most of the great big airshow in the quiet little town.

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FLYING A 1969 TRAINING MISSION WITH THE AIR NATIONAL GUARD UNIT BASED IN MILWAUKEE, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Poberezny orbited an expanse of rural Wisconsin. Looking out the window of his KC-97 tanker, he concluded that the several thousand acres of verdant pasture below would suit his purposes perfectly. For 40 minutes he circled the area, memorizing the roads, railroad tracks, lakes, and rivers of the site, 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee: Oshkosh.

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More than three decades later, the name of the town has become synonymous with the world’s largest annual celebration of general aviation, hosted by a group Poberezny founded in 1953. The Experimental Aircraft Association has grown into an international organization with more than 170,000 members. It has built its week-long AirVenture into a phenomenon that draws almost a tenth of the globe’s general aviation fleet and attracts more than 800,000 participants from around the world. (By contrast, in 1970, the year the event first moved to Oshkosh from Rockford, Illinois, attendance was fewer than 10,000.) “This is the big Disneyland of Aviation,” Poberezny says.

Mike Shade, an airframe and powerplant mechanic from Bluffton, Ohio, has come to almost every show since 1977. He and his 15-year-old son plan to fly to the show this year in a 1939 Luscombe. “It’s still the only place where you can see everyone, get tuned in to everything that’s happening,” he says.

Repeat visitors often display patches from each year’s show on hats or shirts to show off their veteran status.

“No matter what else is happening in the world, this is the one event I always attend,” says U.S. Senator James Inhofe, who has been coming to Oshkosh for 26 consecutive years.

“This is my mecca,” says Ron Judy, a pilot and cattle rancher from Gate, Oklahoma, who first started coming to the show in 1978.

Poberezny’s son, Tom, now heads the EAA and runs AirVenture. Tom Poberezny is both praised and criticized for transforming the county-fair-like fly-in into a glossy, commercial mega-show, replete with corporate sponsorships. It has become much, much more than a gathering of folks who build airplanes in their garages.

Although the event doesn’t start until the end of July (this year’s dates are July 29 to August 4), some attendees arrive at the EAA’s Camp Scholler (a field southwest of the showgrounds, named for the director of the group’s charitable foundation) as early as July 1. The weekend before the event, various activities take place at airports within 200 miles of Oshkosh. T-6, T-28, and P-51 warbirds assemble at Kenosha for a formation clinic and fly-in. Yak pilots do likewise at Manitowoc. Mooney owners congregate at Madison or Watertown. Bonanza pilots rally in Rockford.

Hotel rooms, rental cars, and reasonable air fares evaporate months ahead of time. During the week of the event, restaurants and bars see more than five times their usual number of customers. Overall, the one-week windfall for the local community is an estimated $200 million.

Negotiating an event this size takes savvy. I first went to Oshkosh in 1973; I wish I had known then what I know now, a dozen Oshkoshes later. Want to learn from my mistakes? Read on.

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