In summer, musicians trek to Tanglewood, psychiatrists converge on Cape Cod, and social X-rays head for the Hamptons. People like me, however, who have built their own little airplanes, set course for a small Wisconsin city once best known for manufacturing fire trucks and overalls: Oshkosh.
There, amid an enormous T-square of concrete that for a week in August becomes the busiest airport in the world, we find adulation and occasional scorn, comradeship and infuriating crowds, good advice and bad, friends to be made and fools to be suffered, and just about every rare airplane in the country that isn’t ensconced in a museum. This is the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in—the world’s biggest airshow, aviation flea market, and love-in for unusual aircraft.
Oshkosh is the one place we aircraft builders are adored, admired, understood, and safe among our own wacky kind. At Oshkosh I’m not subjected to questions from people like my wife’s boss, who seems unshakable in his belief that I’ve built a model airplane. Or my neighbor, who smugly turns away when I admit that yes, strictly speaking, my airplane did begin life as “a kit,” as though it were some kind of bolt-together Sears barbecue grill.
My airplane is a thoroughbred. It is an Italian design, a Falco, and has two seats, the strength and agility to fly aerobatics, and a purity of line that makes it faster than any factory-built machine of the same 180 horsepower. The credit goes to Stelio Frati, a shy, elderly Milanese with an equine face hidden behind thick, heavily tinted eyeglasses, who designed the Falco in 1955 and went on to create many other propeller-driven and jet trainers, utility and sport airplanes, and small transports. The Falco remains his favorite.
What I get credit for, however, is the decision to paint my little wooden Falco in a mock Italian Air Force color scheme of lurid red, industrial gray, and red-white-and-green rondels of the sort generally seen on pizza shops. It is the aviation equivalent of buying a Fiat and decorating it like Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari, but I have no shame. (Well, almost none. My 83-year-old mother, bidding me adieu recently, shouted across an airport ramp crowded with passengers awaiting the local commuter, “It’s darling, Stephan! It looks like the models you made when you were 10!” I could have died.)
Since I last wrote about my airplane’s journey by jitney-and-truck caravan from an upstate New York barn to a nearby airport, the Falco has matured into an entirely reliable traveling machine. It has taken me on business trips and pleasure journeys. It has been hosed by rain, hammered by turbulence, chased by summer thundershowers, and had its wings iced over. It has flown into major airports and grass strips, has landed both on its wheels and on its belly (the latter when a friend who borrowed the airplane neglected to put the landing gear all the way down), and has carried me to and through a variety of adventures.
At Oshkosh, the biggest adventure is simply landing, which is something like approaching a tipped-over beehive without getting stung. Airplanes wheel, dart, and bank onto short final while the tower gleefully stirs up a swarm of business jets, biplanes, World War II fighters, and Cessnas. “Silver and red Navion, keep it comin’,” a controller radios. “Turn final now. Now, Navion.” Suddenly I realize he’s talking to my gray and red, vaguely Navion-shaped Falco. Apparently there are no paisanos in the tower who can tell the difference.
I’m in the middle of this madness because I’ve been rash enough to enter the Falco in the Best Homebuilt judging, competing with airplanes so finely crafted that the insides of their wings and bilges are more perfectly finished than the exterior of my entry. To be named a Custom Built Kit Grand Champion at Oshkosh is the homebuilder’s equivalent to getting your bedroom on the cover of Architectural Digest.
My first mistake: I fail to thoroughly re-polish and detail the Falco before trotting, panting like a puppy, to the judges’ shack to register it. Three judges with clipboards swarm over the airplane before I’ve even unloaded my bags. “if the engine’s still warm, guy’s just flown in, we’ll ignore a few bugs on the leading edge,” on judge confides. “But otherwise, the airplane has to be absolutely clean. Other than maybe dust from spectators walking past.”
Swell. The Falco has harvested most of the gnats between Poughkeepsie and Oshkosh, there are fingerprints on the wings where passersby have fondled them, a thin film of crankcase-breather oil coats the belly, and the cockpit is a clutter of charts. At least I threw out the half-eaten Egg McMuffin.