When I started to learn to fly, I began reading aviation magazines and soon heard about the big, big annual fly-in called “Oshkosh.” I heard about this amazing EAA-hosted gathering of airplanes, pilots and enthusiasts somewhere or other in Wisconsin. I have to admit, I was intrigued mostly because I had been wearing a pair of OshKosh B’gosh overalls, my favorites. I practically live in overalls, which, to me, are the perfect article of clothing—practical, cute and comfortable, and, oh, those pockets. The idea of visiting the place that was famous for overalls seemed almost as interesting as the fly-in itself.
The IAC Aerobatic Championships used to be held in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, just a few miles down the road from Osh. The competition was well attended and attracted some of the best akro pilots from around the world. I decided I would fly my first contest at the 1984 Championships because I had been there as a spectator the year before. I flew my Super Decathlon down from Alaska, and I wasn’t sure what was more exciting—trying my hand at competing or having the chance to go to Oshkosh for a day.
I have a picture of myself standing by the famous arched entrance. Oshkosh in 1984 was a big deal, but not as big by today’s standards. As I look back, I think there was more of a grassroots feel then, but it was still the same clean, neat, friendly and organized event it is today. Besides, how can you miss the jackpot when you combine sunshine, airplanes and flying? Honestly, it was heaven being surrounded by such cool pilots and airplanes, but my favorite memory of the day was a revelation. As my then-husband, Bob, and I sat at a picnic table on the grass eating lunch, I noticed a group of airshow performers sitting at the next table. Relaxed and talking, a couple of them were in flight suits, and I remember the others wearing red and white, but that could be my imagination. In any case, I don’t remember a word they said, but what I do remember is the cool elusiveness of the group and the idea that they were skilled enough to perform in front of a crowd at Oshkosh. They were the real deal—airshow “performers”—and I wanted to be one. Since I had gone to my first airshow the year before, I was completely intrigued with the idea of being an airshow performer. Of course, I’m still a performer, and today, when I’m at Oshkosh, I wonder if someone is watching or listening to me and my friends and thinking the same thing I did, “That’s what I want to do.” I hope so!
It’s always been an honor to fly Oshkosh, although there was a day, before my time, when performers could show up at the morning briefing and raise their hands when asked who wanted to fly that day. That system is long gone, and now it takes an invitation, usually given the year before, to perform. A new performer who wants to fly Oshkosh needs to be seasoned and have some experience, and also must have a surface level waiver issued by the FAA. They need to have a good reputation, and it helps to be recommended by other performers. In my case, the eminent airshow performer and instructor, Duane Cole, vouched for me, and I flew my first Oshkosh airshow in 1987, three years after sitting at the picnic table.
In 1987, I was flying a single-seat Pitts S-2S, and although I had a surface level waiver, the rule for every performer then was that they had to fly their first performance at 500 feet above the surface. After that they could then fly their surface level show the next time they performed. I actually thought this was a good idea at the time because performing at Oshkosh isn’t like any other show. I like to say that when I’m flying at Oshkosh, I’m performing in front of “100,000 of my closest friends,” and that’s not far from the truth. Surveys show that airshow demographics puts spectators who are pilots around 18% to 20%. At Oshkosh, the number of pilots (and other performers, who we’re also trying to please) is much higher. There’s added pressure and excitement that affects everyone, to some degree, even the most experienced performer.
What’s a day in the life of a performer like at Oshkosh EAA AirVenture, other than intense, exciting, productive, challenging and exhausting? A typical day at this year’s event was on Friday: 0800—breakfast with “Wings of Hope,” a nonprofit organization of which I’m a member of their honorary council; 0900—autograph signing at the Ford tent, Ford being a signature sponsor of EAA AirVenture; 1000-1100—IAC Building to watch Debbie Gary give a presentation about her airshow career; 1130—Airshow Briefing; Prepare to fly airshow (after pushing airplane to flight line from the IAC Building where it’s on display); 1600—perform in the coolest airshow in the world; 1900-2130—dinner at the EAA Flightline Shell tent with Bob Hoover and the Aeroshell boys, among others.
Days start early and go to the later innings, but you can’t maintain that every night, so most nights are earlier than people think. There’s such a great opportunity to visit with friends you only see once a year and, of course, you have to save time to check out all the cool airplanes on the flight line. When I want to relax, I like to sit in my car near the runway and watch the stream of arrivals, with various degrees of success on landing on the green dot. For airplane nuts like me, this is heaven.
The key to making it all happen is my awesome crew. My crew are trusted friends who have helped me at Osh and Sun ‘n Fun for many years and who I can easily sit in a car with for hours and not have to say anything or find that they annoy me, a prime requirement. We generally see things the same way, have the same sense of humor. I enjoy their company and presume they enjoy mine. Plus, they know airplanes and how to pre-flight them for airshow work, mount cameras and keep people from touching anything. I also have some other great volunteers. Some of them are my “airshow kids,” who I’ve virtually watched growing up at airshows. They’re now corporate and airline pilots and flight instructors. Somehow, together, we make time for it all and then go home and sleep for a week.
Part of the fun is flight planning the trip to and from. Every year is different, depending on where you start from and which airplane I’m flying. This year I flew my 1959 V-tail Bonanza from St. Augustine, loaded with bags and supplies like ribbons and poles for the inverted ribbon cut. I invited an aerobatic student to join me on the flight, and he stayed for the week, crewing and helping out.. It’s not unusual to find a line of thunderstorms just west of Oshkosh, moving west to east across the plains, and this year was no different. We made it in just before the rain started.
Flying home is always the more critical piece of the trip because fatigue is my leading cause of making mistakes, and there’s no doubt I’m more exhausted than I realize at the end of the week. I’ve found that flying home on Mondays after a busy weekend, I’ve filed more NASA reports than on any other day of the week, usually for something like inadvertently flying into the wrong airspace or being at the wrong altitude. So this year I was grateful to have another one of our awesome students fly back to Florida with me. I put him in the left seat, while I enjoyed a mini-nap or two. As usual, the VFR-only flight turned out to be a challenge because we had weather to deal with on our entire route, always out running another intersection of thunderstorms. The storms finally closed in on us, and we had to land and spend the night in North Carolina. We got an early start the next morning and made an uneventful flight home to Florida. Being able to perform at Oshkosh for so many years has been an astonishing, rewarding and awesome part of my career. There’s always room for new things on my calendar each airshow season to fly new places, but the week of Oshkosh simply isn’t negotiable. I would have to say that Oshkosh’s EAA AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun are the two most important events in any airshow season. This year’s Oshkosh was an amazing display of organization, coordination and harmony, with almost 600,000 visitors over 10,000 airplanes, daily airshows, trade shows, workshops, press events, breakfast, lunches and dinners. What else in aviation can compare to this?
I’m sometimes asked “What does Oshkosh mean to you?” I give EAA credit for everything they do, including running a world-class museum, the Young Eagles and other outreach programs, for their lobbying efforts for pilots and all the other things they do to promote aviation, but if all they did was run a world-class fly-in and daily airshow every year, that would be enough to impress me. The event affirms my belief that aviation is a great place to be for so many reasons—faith in technology, stories of personal accomplishment, growth of the sport of aviation and appreciation for its history. But maybe, most importantly, it’s the collective consciousness and energy of all of the above and every one of the participants who creates momentum to keep aviation going into the future (lest drones take over the world).