When you really look deep into the soul of EAA's annual Airventure general aviation celebration, it is as much about people as it is about airplanes.
We already know going in that pilots and others in the aviation community are some of the nicest, good-hearted, friendliest people on this planet, the kind of people who will give you the shirt off their back if you find yourself in Wisconsin in late July and really need a shirt.
But Airventure is also about the people who make this mammoth event a reality. One of those "behind-the-scenes" EAA staffers that goes many extra miles to put this show together each year is Dick Knapinski of EAA Media Relations, who can be found on Twitter as @EAAUpdate. Recently, World of Flying tracked Knapinski down and asked him questions aimed at pulling back the curtain a bit on how EAA manages to organize Oshkosh each year, and how they strive to make this year's show better than last year's show.
In part one, Knapinski talks about how they debrief each year's Airventure, and how the 2009 show exceeded many of his office's expectations and goals.
World of Flying: Tell us about Dick Knapinski the pilot, how long you've been flying, hours, ratings and type ratings, airplanes flown and owned, and what got you into flying in the first place.
Dick Knapinski: I’ve always been one of those people who looked up when an airplane passed overhead, even as a kid. That habit didn’t make me a real effective shortstop, but it certainly hatched a love for aviation. I also spent many hours as a boy accidentally gluing plastic airplane model parts to my parents’ kitchen table. After some years away because of early career and family obligations, I came back to flying in 1996. I currently hold a Private Pilot SEL certificate and fly a 1967 Piper Cherokee 140, which should be great with the Cherokee 50th anniversary celebrated at Oshkosh in 2010. I also have some hours in an RV-6A and various other aircraft.
WoF: Who makes up the team that you work with in the AirVenture Media operation?
DK: We have three full-time people on the EAA communications staff, and all are involved with what happens at Oshkosh, naturally. We also add a college-age summer intern each year and overwhelm that person with aviation and public-event experience. In addition, one of EAA’s full-time staff from the publications office, Livy Trabbold, heads the group inside Press Headquarters on-site with an additional five volunteers between the front registration gate and Press HQ. They do a terrific job with more than 900 media representatives from all over the world.
WoF: I want to begin with having you describe the de-briefing process after each AirVenture. What do you look for, how you determine what can be improved, how you categorize what went right, and what went wrong.
DK: The de-briefing process begins even as each year’s fly-in ends. We get feedback from volunteers and area chairmen, then suggestions from staff members, and of course the thousands of comments, e-mails, letters and phone calls received from AirVenture visitors, campers, exhibitors, sponsors, support organizations and more. We also send out thousands of online surveys to visitors – both EAA members and non-members – to gauge overall reactions. Each comment/suggestion sent to us outside the surveys is important and we try to answer every one that is reasonable. We realize that each person has different expectations and goals of a trip to Oshkosh. All of this input gives us some trends of the good and bad and what will be the most important issues to address in the coming year.
WoF: Describe how you set the 2009 show goals, how they were surpassed, and what you think contributed to the success of the show in spite of the recession.
DK: We had entered 2009 with an idea that AirVenture would be at about the same level as 2008, which was a very good show. We also had a major site change and upgrade that needed to be communicated extensively, because we understood that if people were unpleasantly surprised by site changes or discovering things may not have been where they were in previous years. And we hold ourselves to some pretty high standards, a mindset that goes all the way to Paul Poberezny and the earliest days of the organization. The good news is almost every goal was met or exceeded. Attendance was up 12 percent over 2008, there were more exhibitors on the grounds, we were parking cars in areas we had never parked cars in previous years, and many more measurable results. Why? First, it was a great lineup of people and airplanes. Second, Oshkosh is more than just the lineup. There’s a reason I often call it “aviation’s family reunion,” because seeing aviation friends and sharing that experience with others is as much in the fabric of the event than any individual highlight. Third, even with the recession, there may have been a pent-up feeling of “What the heck, I’m going to do this for myself.” Or if a person was going to visit only one show, let’s make it the big one. It was also part of the trend in 2009 that showed air shows across the country had increased attendance.
WoF: Tell us one thing great that happens in your office each year at AirVenture that makes you especially glad you have the job you do.
DK: Perhaps the most gratifying things that occur on a yearly basis are those comments and notes we receive from people that find their expectations are exceeded. Comments like, “I knew Oshkosh was big, but it was more than I ever imagined”; “My dad and I came, and Dad had the time of his life seeing the warbirds he repaired back in the war”; or “My kids are now total aviation junkies after two days at KidVenture.” Those type of comments make you realize that what you’re doing is bigger than an individual or an air show, because you’ve created a deeply personal memory for someone. And then there are the volunteers, both in our media area and throughout the grounds. I can’t say enough about what they do to make the event special. A successful event is very personal to them and it shows.