David Franson
August 2, 2012

Oshkosh: Is The Familiar Atmosphere Of The World’s Largest Aviation Event Eroding?

Fifi at EAA

The recently concluded EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is an amazing event. It brings everyone from kids whose interests are just being peaked by building model airplanes to high government officials such as the Federal Aviation Administrator to the same place at the same time to observe–and revel in all things aeronautical. This year, attendance once again topped half a million visitors, transforming the scenic and hospitable little town of Oshkosh (population 67,000 for 50 weeks of the year) into a major metropolis and the control tower at Wittman Airport into the busiest in the world.

The campgrounds, hotels, and even the airport grounds are turned into vast communities as flyers make the pilgrimage to this midwest Mecca of aviation. Those who own airplanes often fly them to Oshkosh, park in designated areas surrounding the runways, and camp under the wings of their aircraft. Others will come early and stay late, living in RVs and campers for a fortnight (or more) , in order to have a front-row seat for the great air shows, forums, and aircraft displays. Among the favorites are the annual gathering of vintage warbirds, many restored to a level better than new. There are also the visits of precision flying teams like the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, and seldom seen aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Virgin Galactic White Knight and SpaceShip Two.
The heroes of aviation like Gene Cernan, last man to set foot on the moon, and Dick Rutan, who flew around the world non-stop, rub elbows with ordinary folks in an informal and warm (especially this year when temperatures topped 100 degrees) atmosphere.
EAA AirVenture has been taking place, in some form, for more than 4 decades and it’s one of those events that combines a sense of tradition and familiarity with new and exciting things each year.

One tradition many of the aviation industry’s regulars grew used to over the past 25 years was the Aero Club sponsored by FLYING magazine that offered a cool, air-conditioned respite for FLYING advertisers, readers, guests and friends. The magazine, one of aviation’s most popular, even provided lunches for scores of visitors each day. The Aero Club became a gathering point and popular location, especially for members of the aviation press, who congregated next door at the EAA Press Center for news announcements, daily briefings, and press conferences. This year, though, the Aero Club was transformed into a VIP hospitality site managed closely by the EAA. High profile aviation personalities, government and industry officials could still be seen coming and going, but the “by-invitation-only” and stricter control of the building and surrounding space contributed to an overall feeling that AirVenture may be transforming into a more “exclusive” event. The presence of new, comfortable and well-appointed viewing chalets on the front row, constructed between the public area and the runway, also added to the perception that some of the familiar interaction that makes AirVenture unique is being altered. Needless to say, any barriers that separate notable personalities and officials from the masses who make Oshkosh such a special event will likely be perceived as a negative, but it may be a sign of the times and of AirVenture’s success. Security concerns at large gatherings MUST be addressed more rigidly these days, and an occasion as big as this one poses more and varied threats to individual safety. Still, the overall friendliness and camaraderie of the aviation community comes through as people help each other cope with the heat, develop relationships in campgrounds that lead to annual reunions and sharing and situations where an incognito aviation icon, Dick Rutan, chatted amiably and at length with a small exhibitor without ever being recognized. When he walked away, a colleague had to inform the unsuspecting exhibitor of his visitor’s identity. He reportedly said something like ” I thought he seemed pretty knowledgeable on the technical stuff!”
Oshkosh brings out the best in most everyone who visits each year. It’s one of those events that you miss going to and long to be a part of when you’re unable to attend. Here’s hoping it doesn’t become too big or too stratified.

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