Airplanista Magazine Feature Story: Best. Oshkosh. Ever.

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This digital aviation magazine content was originally published in the August, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine and can be viewed here.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Magazine Editor

Runway 18/36 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is 8,002’ long. Even though it’s big enough to easily land a 787 Dreamliner, the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh show grounds stretch far beyond the thresholds. From the South 40 where classic Seabees can be found, to the North 40 where one lone PZL Wilga stood tall among a sea of Cessnas, Pipers, and Beechcraft V-tails, the “world’s largest aviation celebration” drew Airplanistas from around the globe to join in one gigantic aviation family reunion.

(OSHKOSH) The anticipation has been killing me for weeks, waiting for wheels up, direct Wisconsin. As I start this journey, this story and this adventure, I am on United 353 climbing out of FL240 headed for Airplane Heaven. The Airbus A320 underneath me won’t be flying over Ripon today, following the railroad tracks to FISK towards a greaser on the purple dot, but I am still an aviator inbound to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, and life is good.

As departure for my most anticipated AirVenture trip grew closer, I found myself almost addicted to the #OSH11 tweet stream. I’d become giddy seeing the photo of the very first airplane camper in the North 40, and spent too much time analyzing the Accuweather extended forecasts. As friends and readers of this magazine departed and ultimately arrived at the show grounds, I became like a jealous tweenager when I’d see them standing on ConocoPhillips Plaza while I was stuck at my studio still working.

But when it became my turn to head off to the shores of Lake Winnebago to bask in the smell of AvGas and grilled Brats, the trip came together perfectly. The Friendly Skies changed my routing into Appleton, eliminating a KPDX - KSFO leg, and even gave me a free upgrade to Economy Plus so my knees wouldn’t have to be jammed against the back of seat 7E. And when I plugged in my earbuds and could actually hear the flight deck ask for push back, I knew this was going to be a fantastic trip to a fantastic place.

I had planned my three days at AirVenture to include the Tribute to Burt Rutan on Thursday and the night air show on Saturday. This meant several days of reading about the show already in progress. To an Airplanista like myself, watching a video of the B-29 FIFI arrive while I was still days away from my own departure was like being waterboarded. To view EAA’s exceptional daily video updates meant seeing people I know enjoying all that Oshkosh can be, from the Bacon Parties to the hangars full of gear and toys, to the acres and acres of gleaming flying machines.

My travel day was Wednesday, the day major rains came to what was beginning to look a lot like #SLOSHGOSH2. Even with a major thunderstorm covering the entire state of Wisconsin - and causing a flow situation into KORD - I arrived in Cheese Country, USA six hours earlier than had been planned. And anyone who has ever done this show knows that an extra six hours of EAA’s big shindig is golden. Soon I would join half a million of my closest aviation friends for our annual family reunion, aerobatic exhibition and ginormous trade show.

No matter how many times I trek to Oshkosh, I am never quite prepared for AirVenture. I created a schedule using Adam Fast’s awesome, but like everyone else trying to pack too much into a few days, that schedule got hammered early on the first day.

AirVenture is not just a big show, it is not even a really big show. It is so much bigger than big in a physical sense that even with trams and shuttles, I am never ready for the endless walking required to get around.

One minute, I’d find myself in the Vintage aircraft area, and realize the favorite lens I want to use to shoot warbirds was stashed back in the EAA Photo trailer, in the camera bag I got tired of lugging everywhere. After a couple of hikes and tram rides, I’d end up at my intended destination in warbirds, only to realize I wanted to shoot the Tribute to Burt Rutan happening in 10 minutes a mile away on ConocoPhillips Plaza. After banging out a couple of quick shots and without a Sherpa to help carry my overloaded backpack, I’d begin the hike over to where Rutan was speaking, arriving late as the crowd was dispersing. Maybe had I not made what felt like a lifesaving hydration break en route, I might have got the shot, and the story. Repeat this chase-your-tail calamity all day, every day covering Oshkosh and it starts to quickly resemble the journalism Ironman Triathlon.
This show is covered so well by the many exceptional aviation dailies, weeklies and even EAA’s own AirVenture Today newspaper, I will not attempt to present a day-to-day report on AirVenture 2011. But I will offer some of my favorite moments during my three days of aviation bliss.

Early on Thursday, it was my pleasure to gawk at the collection of Burt Rutan’s designs in a place of honor at show center. The ridiculously wonderful Boomerang looked a little unconventional but was said to be Rutan’s favorite design. Also on display was the recently-renovated Catbird which was built for speed, and it showed. A surprise was a Rutan Model 72 Grizzly, which Rutan built to show he could design an airplane with STOL characteristics. Complimenting all of this aeronautical history was a Model 115 Starship, a very rare sight these days. All of these display machines made demonstration flights throughout the week.

Friday at AirVenture was crazy busy for everyone working the show, as crowds pushed attendance to record levels due to the arrival of Boing’s 787 Dreamliner. Mid-morning, the 787 arrived over the show grounds, doing a “quiet pass” which showed just how little external noise this next-generation airliner produces. Once parked at show center, the Dreamliner appeared larger than I had imagined, and was mobbed all day.

Of note to this writer while peeking inside the landing gear wells of the -87 was the unusually high amount of intricate wiring harnesses. This massive array of wires - all held together by possibly the largest collection of zip-ties in one place - demonstrated the high level of technology employed on the 787.

Saturday was another busy day for the exhausted EAA staff running the show. Crowds swelled again, and an afternoon gust front that moved through caught many on the grounds off guard. Personally, I have never experienced a tornado, so the massive, dark wall cloud moving towards us from the north was a little unnerving. Standing by the EAA Photo trailer as the 45 mph gusts raked KOSH, I found myself looking around to see what sort of projectiles upwind from my position were about to be launched horizontally towards the giant Birch I was using as shelter. Nearby, when a pair of Port-a-Potties blew over - thankfully without people inside - I knew it was time to bail out and scrambled into the AirVenture Today newspaper office.

While the gusts were strong enough to cancel the afternoon air show, no serious damage to people or property were reported. One close call was discovered as I climbed aboard the bus to the Seaplane base from its South 40 terminus. Inside the bus were enough leaves and twigs to fill two large trash bags, debris that entered through a roof vent when a large tree limb crashed down on the vehicle during the storm. Luckily for the terrified riders, the bulk of the limb, which was large enough to close the road to the Seaplane Base indefinitely, just missed the rear of the bus.
In usual AirVenture fashion, when the skies cleared, the fun resumed. Just outside the Ford Motor Company tent, Da Blooze Bros, a “Blues Brothers” tribute band, cranked up the excitement before country music star Aaron Tippin took the stage in Theatre in the Woods for an energy-filled patriotic celebration.

The concerts were a great way for show guests arriving for the night air show to get their Oshkosh on as they meandered towards the flight line. Once the skies darkened, a spectacular scene erupted over runways 18/36 as a variety of twin-engine, single-engine and jet-engine airplanes laden with pyrotechics at every corner lit up the night. This very popular event was complimented by a massive fireworks display which I viewed from near the front of the FIFI, which was illuminated in the eerie wash of dramatic blue lights. From a purely artistic perspective, it was a magic AirVenture moment. Unfortunately, I was late for the last bus back to my “hotel” and after three days of shooting, meeting, hiking and interviews, I had nothing left in the tank to even pull my camera out of the pack one last time and capture the scene.

At Oshkosh, after “work” is done for the day, the social aspect of AirVenture begins. The people who have phones not connected to the AT&T network begin tweeting about bacon parties, s’mores gatherings, movies in EAA’s Fly-in Theater or an off-grounds excursion to sample some serious Wisconsin cuisine.

And when you want real Oshkosh food served by perky roller-skating car hops, gather a bunch of AvGeeks and head to Ardy and Ed’s Drive-in. In a demonstration of how impromptu flash mobs can quickly be formed through social networking at AirVenture, one night, four carloads of Airplanistas made a burger run through a time warp to this incredible burger joint that is seriously stuck in the 1950s.

We descended on Ardy and Ed’s and went completely bonkers gorging ourselves on such delicacies as the “Drive-in Double” burger, which mates a giant Bratwurst patty with a beef patty, grilled onions and just the right “animal-style” condiments to create the best burger this writer has ever tasted. It was a consensus among my group that procuring this burger will now become a mandatory requirement of any future trip to Oshkosh.

Located right down the street from the Oshkosh Truck plant, this little jewel of a drive-in drips pure Americana. In a city known for building bad-ass fire engines, military vehicles and overalls, somehow, life moves slower while standing in the parking lot cracking jokes with the car hops and cherishing every second surrounded by so many wonderful Airplanistas.

Maybe this will sum up the visit to Ardy and Ed’s; As each car entered the lot while we all stood and chatted and ate, I would do my finest imitation of the ATC controllers who guide the VFR traffic into the show over Fisk. As a car pulled in, I’d crack the crowd up by shouting “Blue Camry, Ardy and Ed’s, ROCK YOUR WINGS and welcome to Oshkosh!” with a strong Wisconsin accent. It was great fun, the precise kind of incredible bonding moment that makes a trip to Airplane Heaven each July a requirement for this pilot.

I did not come close to seeing everything at the show because it is impossible to do so. But I did accomplish my goals of solidifying Airplanista Magazine’s role in the aviation community as the publication that cares about GA advocates, activists, volunteers and anyone else who devotes their life to helping grow the aviation family, increase the pilot population and raise awareness in the public about the positive aspects of learning to fly.

I spent three luscious days at AirVenture hearing from readers who thanked me for producing this magazine each month. It was both gratifying and clarifying, as this trip confirmed that covering this niche is my calling and that I’m maintaining the desired heading to make a difference in the community I care deeply about.

This story would not be complete without an acknowledgment of the hard work that the EAA staff and volunteers perform all year long - but especially during show week - to bring this massive show to life. Can a few minor grumbling points be found? Sure...I personally would love to see a much wider selection of food on the grounds, along with an increased amount of drinking water stations. But the evidence of perfect planning is everywhere at AirVenture when you stop once or twice and just marvel in the sheer size of the World’s Largest Aviation Celebration.

If there were a scoring system in place to judge air shows, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 would rate a 10. Anyone who thinks differently is obviously not a real Airplanista.

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