Airplanista Aviation Magazine Monthly Column: Dick Knapinski: The Countdown Clock

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the July, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Dick Knapinski

Dick is a private pilot who flies a 1967 Piper Cherokee 140. He currently is Communications Director for EAA, a position reached after a long, winding road through broadcast and print journalism, not to mention a passion for gluing airplane model parts to his parents’ kitchen table as a boy.

Here in the EAA offices in Oshkosh, there’s one guy who keeps a little hall monitor on the wall outside his office. The monitor never says anything to us who pass by it every day. It doesn’t have to. One look says it all.

The hall monitor is a digital EAA AirVenture countdown clock. In August, its owner resets it after the fly-in finishes, at about 355 days or so. Each day when we walk by his office, the number diminishes. It doesn’t seem so bad when it reads 300, or even 200. When that clock gets inside 100 days remaining, though, our mental motors switch on. We also swear at the clock’s owner. It’s time to kick prep work into high gear.

As you read this, we’re inside four weeks to opening day at Oshkosh. The campgrounds have officially opened and volunteers are coming in greater numbers each day. Even after 20 years, it’s still exciting to watch the AirVenture grounds grow, but it’s more than a little anxiety-inducing as well.

There are all the unanswered questions: Did we miss anything? … Didn’t we say last year we were going to replace that part before next year’s event? … Ah, heck, it’ll be OK for one more year … Did the supplies come in yet? … What does the weather forecast say?

Anyone who has planned anything from a church card party to a mega-event the size of AirVenture knows that feeling. If you sit still, it’s time lost. There’s always one more thing to get done. And something will not go the way you planned.

There are well-meaning people who start their phone calls to you with, “Hey, I know you’re really, really busy, but…” This statement is an ill wind and usually bodes no good. Something is about to be added to your list.

A lot us of make lists. Then we compare lists. Then we make more lists to track the combined lists. Plus one more list to tell us where we put all the lists and who to call in case you lose the list.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I’m a person who has worked in a newsroom or something like it for nearly 30 years. The adrenaline rush of a deadline lets me know I’m alive. Just after July 4th, however, the task at hand here in Oshkosh as opening day rushes toward reality always seems more enormous than what could ever be accomplished.

Somehow things just start to mesh. I wish I could say there are magic pixies who drop in on, say, July 17, and put everything into order, make the flowers bloom and the port-a-potties clean. The reality is that it’s a tremendous amount of hard work by EAA volunteers, staff, contractors, suppliers, local folks, and lots of others. AirVenture is an example of what can happen when people say as a group and individually, “I’m not going to be the one who will let this fall short.”

As July ticks by, there are Oshkosh milestones that tell us show time is near. More campers appear in Camp Scholler. The exhibit tents begin to get roofs and walls. Truckloads of golf carts arrive. Boxes and crates and pallets of programs, schedules, signs, chairs and a zillion other items are dropped off. The guy on our receiving dock has probably signed more autographs than Brett Favre.

Then, one day the week before opening day, a single airplane lands and taxis into the North 40. The pilot and sometimes a passenger pull out a tent and pop it into place. They’re not here to work. They’re here to watch everyone else come in. Our own aviation Brigadoon is about to become real again.

I know each of the airplanes that lands at Wittman Regional Airport carries people who have their own dreams and goals for their personal Oshkosh experiences. Each of those hopes is different, but I see the work everyone has put in to make each of those experiences a great one. I hope you take a moment to appreciate what they do.

It also launches my own personal set of superstitions. I’ve got a few that I get kidded about. One of them is that I never wear the current year’s AirVenture cap until opening day. I don’t know where I picked up that habit – probably because one year I forgot about the hat until the first official day and the routine stuck. For me, there’s something about arriving on the grounds at oh-dark-thirty A.M. on opening day, reaching across the truck seat, and putting that brand new cap on my head. It’s the start of a great adventure for that hat and me, a journey where we don’t know what will happen over the coming seven days, but that it will be memorable for its own reasons.

So, it’s nearly time to put on the new cap. It’s show time at Oshkosh. I can’t wait, and I hope to meet you there.

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