Oshkosh Redux

Your first trip to Oshkosh, the world’s greatest aviation celebration, is an eye opener, a jaw dropper. My first was in 2005 as a grunt for King Schools – whilst I was stuck in the booth most of the time, I was able to amble about some and couldn’t believe the numbers and different kinds of aircraft … even pinche whirlybirds.

This year I got to experience a second and third “first” trips to OSH through the eyes of my very good friend and DPA co-founder, George Kovacevic, and my best friend, wifey Laurel. Whatta show.

George and I flew into MKE through ORD on UAL (never, ever, not once again in my life will I fly that piece of unfriendly, cramped, overcrowded sky shite). We drove north and spent a night in Germantown, WI, because accommodations in Oshkosh are harder to find than honest lawyers (hence, non-existent, n’est-ce pas?).

Next morning, Monday, 28July, we drove north, found our rental house just north of the WittmanRegionalAirport terminal building and started the journey. There’s a “free” shuttle bus ($3.00 donation requested) that drops you off at the “North 40” entrance (far shorter lines than any other entrance, especially if you’ve pre-purchased your tix online). North 40 also drops you at the start of the warbirds parking area, and where else would you wanna be?

How many P-51’s have you ever seen in one place at one time? I lost count at 17 and there were others parked in different spots on the field. 25 AT-6’s, 7 or 8 B-25’s, a couple of Corsairs, an F-4F, a beautiful blue Bearcat wearing Blue Angels regalia, a B-24, a couple of P-40’s, Yak’s galore, a B-17, plus Aluminum Overcast, the EAA’s B-17 that flies overtop of the field every hour or so. There were a bunch of training wheel trainers, T-28’s, but I don’t consider them warbirds because, well, they have a training wheel instead of a tailwheel, like all the best warbirds.

There was a Caribou that arrived from Texas acclaimed as the only flying example remaining, and you could count 23 bullet holes in the airplane from its service in Vietnam. There was a P-39 Airacobra that’s a rare plane indeed. There were more warbirds in one place than George had ever imagined, but he was on a headset mission and departed, while I wandered off in search of a hat to keep the Wisconsin sun from doing too much damage.

In what should have been a ten minute walk, an hour later I had found the hat, and George had finally found the headset provider – he had been sidetracked by the myriad distractions that beset Oshkosh virgins. Oshkosh overwhelms – it’s sensory overload for ADHD’d pilots whose attention spans become flea like with a panorama of distractions. Look, a flight of T-6’s overhead. Wow, the “World’s Busiest Control Tower”. Is that a B-17 heading this way? OMG, there’s the Official EAA Merchandise Emporium … and another … and another … and … wait, I’ve gotta get that t-shirt/hat/jacket/model/sweatshirt/whatever. Each second another aviation distraction presents itself.

At my first Oshkosh, we were setting up the booth on Sunday before the show’s traditional opening day, the last Monday in July. I had to dump some trash in a dumpster just outside Exhibit Hall A. As I tossed the empty boxes I heard the unmistakable sound of a T-6 Pratt and Whitney, and another, and another, and another, and another, and … . A flight of T-6’s was arriving and passing directly above me. Then another flight arrived, and another, and another, and … . There might have been 8 or 9 flights arriving and I stood, head raised, slack-jawed, watching each flight. For one moment I looked around and saw about a dozen people nearby – and every one of them stood transfixed, heads raised, jaws slack, watching flight after flight after flight of T-6’s. For my whole life, I’d stop on the street and look up at the sound of an airplane and no one around me would. FINALLY, I had found a place where people had the same disease. MY PEOPLE. Airplane geeks abound at Oshkosh and you’ll never have to explain that sudden stop to look up because your people are doing the same damned thing. It’s as close to heaven as most pilots will ever get.

So George schleps from Lightspeed reseller booth to Lightspeed reseller booth hoping to find a deal. We later learn that Lightspeed threatened to pull dealerships from anyone who varied from the company price line. (Sad, dontcha think? They may be fine headsets, but I’ll never buy one for that reason alone – oh, and, btw, the price is ridiculous.)

We trundled over to the gyro-copter booth to chat up willing salesfolk. George had flown an auto-gyro in Blighty, was tickled by the experience and needed to make inquiries. I thought they weren’t very practical, but cute as heck.

We stumbled through the vendor hangars to complete George’s wish list, then drifted into the vintage aircraft section to ooh and aahhh.

Readers of this blog might be aware that I’m an aviation dinosaur who revels in aircraft of age. There were some beautiful examples of early aviation artwork. Of particular note, we saw a gorgeous blue Albatross parked in the grass. There was a Stinson Tri-Motor that had flown for American Airways and the existence of which I was unaware.

We found a gathering of Lockheed 12A’s (seven of them, as I recall), known as the Baby Electra, and one of them had been used in the movie Amelia as Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10 (sporting the signature of Hillary Swank, on the inside of the cabin door.) All of them were beautifully restored.

There were more Howard’s than you could shake a windsock at. There was a pretty, if peculiar, red Stearman, with wheel pants and an R-985 Pratt & Whitney, apparently dressed up to look like, I don’t know, maybe a Waco?

There was a magnificent Travel Air D4D restored in a bronze color and a stylized female shrieking along the fuselage, called the “Sky Siren”.

We moseyed over to the ultralight realm and bumped from booth to booth spying all kinds of bizarre flyable creations. There were people who built parachutes with electric engine harnesses that you slipped into and then “flew”. There were itty-bitty airplanes. There were powered parachutes and ultralight helos and Breezies and all kinds of flying machines. There were even electric-powered aircraft (imagine the extension chord?)

By the end of the day, we trammed and bussed it back to our digs, found a local bar with draught beers for $1.75 at happy hour – Nigl’s on Ohio Avenue, between 8th and 9th. At Nigl’s, one of our newfound friends directed us to Roxy’s, a steak house that apparently everyone knew about except me. Roxy’s was a revelation in downtown Oshkosh and it was so good we returned to it on Friday too.

George’s debrief of his first day at Oshkosh was about as I expected. He was almost speechless, which for George is almost impossible. Asked what his favorite part was, he couldn’t find one. The enormity and diversity of Airventure had claimed another gobsmacked victim. After careful consideration (and a few more adult beverages) he declared that the ultralight area was his fave – because that, it appeared to him, was the only area where new aviation ideas were entertained and brought to fruition. As an aeronautical engineer and “rocket scientist”, his opinion is hard to argue against.

For the rest of the week we plodded about the grounds, nursing tired hamstrings with frequent tram trips. (There are three free tram lines that travel much of the show, supplemented by school buses – when was the last time you rode a school bus? – that take you to, say, the EAA’s Museum, the Seaplane Base, outlying parking lots, etc.) We returned to the ultralights, the vintage area and the warbirds most frequently. We even haunted former colleagues at the King Schools booth, laughing at their pain.

Thursday night, Laurel arrived, having chosen a $275 one-way car rental over the United Airlines-caused pain of killing 4-5 hours at ORD. We drove out to Butte des Morts, to the White House, a restaurant inhabiting a turn-of-the-last-century-building near the banks of the lake of the same name as the town. (Or is the town named after the lake? Or … does it matter?) Food and drink were grand, as always.

So I get to see the show through another newbies eyes – those of my schweetie. Her primary ambition was a visit to the Seaplane Base, located about 4 miles east of Wittman Regional on the banks of Lake Winnebago (yes, namesake of the ubiquitous motor home – actually built in the town of that name.)

We hopped the red tram to the Seaplane Base bus stop ($3 fee collected as you board the bus outbound from the base), hopped the school bus to the base. The bus disgorged us onto a wooded trail which looked a prime breeding ground for Wisconsin’s state bird, the mosquito.

The Seaplane Base isn’t a hub of activity, but it has charm, especially if you’re an aquatic aircraft advocate. It’s a lagoon-like body of water separated from Lake Winnebago by a spit of land. There’s a boat that tours the lagoon so you might inspect the seaplanes moored therein more closely (another $3, I think). Seaplanes and amphibs of various types land and take off with uneven regularity. (There are rumors of seaplane rides available, but I’ve never found the source of the rumors … or fact.)

There’s a concession stand which purveys the usual Airventure comestibles: brats, burgers and, as the digestive process proceeds, plenty-o’-bile. It’s a pleasant diversion, although not the nirvana described by so many of my amphibious associates.

Laurel was happy, although she and George did doze on the boat ride about the base. It would probably have been a blast if one of our colleagues had brought a seaplane and had offered a ride or three.

Laurel’s other mission was to visit the Four Paws Aviation booth to thank Eric and his colleague for the Doggles and doggy headset that I’d purchased a few years ago – both of which Skye dog favors in her airborne adventures.

On both days of Laurel’s visit, we dodged thunderstorms that haunted the airport, hustling into – of all places – the Helicopter Association International tent. (They were polite, at least, to the stampede of fixed wing folk who rushed their venue.)

We beat feet from the show before another thunderstorm threatened the Thunderbirds first performance, seeking solace inside our small rental house on Ohio, near 18th. The storms came and went, the Thunderbirds commenced, and we were able to catch bits of the show in our collapsible, foldable beach chairs that Laurel found and proved a boon for tired legs. The highlight of the Thunderbirds show was a half-dozen passes from the solo performers who blasted by us, maybe 150 feet above our front yard. Ably assisted by Dale Simonson’s Mai Tais, ‘twas a fine end to a fine week.

Saturday was a half-day for us. Laurel and I toured the warbirds before too many departed, then met George for a trip to the Museum. The museum was fine – not the best aviation museum ever as many had suggested – but it was fine. They focus on the contributions of experimental aircraft as one might imagine with an homage to Burt Rutan and Frank Christenson, but there was a charming section devoted to Lindbergh, the Spirit of St. Louis and the most famous flight in history. It was, as I wrote, fine.

What was my favorite part of my favorite aviation expo? Easy. It was watching the enormity of Oshkosh through the eyes of two of my favorite people ever. It brought me back to my first visit, when I wore the same poleaxed look George displayed at the end of his first day. I loved Laurel’s childlike wonder as she tried to wrap her mind around all that she saw.

Oshkosh is a blast, but it’s best when it’s shared with people who love airplanes with the same passion that you do. Will we go back? George is talking about flying the 182 back, but well before the hordes make the arrivals procedure look like LAX on a bad weather Sunday night. Of course, he’s hinting that he might like camping under his wing – silly lad. Were I to go, it’d be as a paying guest at someone’s home near the show. I don’t do camping – even in airplane heaven.aluminum overcast

Posted in Personalities