As this column is being written, I’m sitting in an open-sided tent at Sun ’n Fun. The annual event is held in Lakeland, Fla., which is about 50 miles west of “Mickeyville.” It’s raining, it’s colder than an auditor’s heart, I got soaked looking for a sweatshirt, so I’m wearing a garbage bag in a vain attempt at limiting heat loss—I look like I’m homeless. Plus, I’m shivering so much that typing is becoming a chore, so excuse any typos. The ’08 air show season is off to a typical start.
Less than 24 hours ago, I was complaining because I was hot and sweaty, plus the dust was starting to bug me. Two days before that, I was paddling around in the mud because it rained three inches in an afternoon. I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this because any hard-core air show type already knows exactly what I’m talking about. Especially when it applies to the bigger, longer shows like Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh.
I don’t know what it is about those of us who brave almost anything to flock with other folks (who smell just as bad as we do) just to be around unusual airplanes. Obviously, the common bond is airplanes, but another shared trait appears to be a total lack of common sense—at least when viewed from the outside world. If people from the real world were to carefully scrutinize the fly-in experience, I doubt that they would be kind in their evaluations. They could probably comprehend the entertainment value of an air show performance. Beyond that, however, it might be hard for regular people to understand the draw. Most fly-ins consist of a lot of people who know better, but spend lots of money and time battling questionable weather and getting hot/cold/wet/sunburned while sitting around under airplanes. That may be a little more difficult for civilians to wrap their heads around. To most of the population, it appears about as exciting as watching paint dry amid a bunch of noisy hardware.
One factor that makes this whole pilot-versus-nature thing so complicated is that the vast majority of us spend practically all of our time being protected from nature by our offices, cars or homes. We know it’s out there, but our exposure to it is through windows. Yeah, I know, lumberjacks, farmers, ranchers and other hearty souls butt heads with nature on a daily basis, but not the rest of us. We’re pantywaist geeks compared to them: I’m fairly certain that eight hours a day at a computer isn’t likely to hone anyone’s survival skills to a razor-edge sharpness. For that reason, although moseying around airplanes for a day or two may not qualify us for pioneer status, it’s close enough.
As I’ve gotten older, the sand pouring through life’s hourglass has had an interesting effect on me at fly-ins. For one thing, I no longer give a damn how I look. Comfort is everything. Whereas I’ve spent most of my life in cowboy boots, now you couldn’t pay me to spend a day at a fly-in wearing Justins. I never thought I’d ever look down and see a pair of sneakers poking out from under my jeans, but there I am sporting some sort of footwear with a big “N” on it. I hate to admit it, but as wimpy as they look, they do wonderful things for lumbars three and four.
I also buck air show convention and don’t wear a baseball hat announcing my love for a Pitts, Bearhawk or Thruxton Jackaroo (look it up). If I did, it would guarantee entry into dozens of conversations about said airplanes. Instead, I sport a broad-brimmed, air show Stetson (actually not a Stetson, but a Ritter, custom-formed to my potato-shaped head) that throws a healthy shadow over my nose and ears. Because I don’t have a single airplane image or logo anywhere on my body, I forfeit automatic entry into any specific airplane community, but that’s okay—my nose thanks me for the shade.
And on the subject of noses and the sun: I researched sunblock until I found some magical stuff that, in bulk, is probably labeled Vinyl Latex (or perhaps Navajo White). I’m tempted to apply it with a two-inch trim roller in an attempt to keep my hide from falling off—I really lather it on. FYI, I use Panama Jack’s SPF 45 because it dries and doesn’t get in my eyes. If they made an SPF 200 that you had to apply with a putty knife, I’d use it.
I also freely admit to being a hard-core wimp, at least when it comes to my personal comfort at fly-ins, which is why I put those folks who pitch tents at places like Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh up on a pedestal. I couldn’t do it. After a day at the aerodrome, my skin feels as though it’s crawling with billions of many-legged little critters and I can’t stand myself. I absolutely can’t wait to jump into a shower, grab a cool one and put my feet up before I take a brain dump into my laptop about what I’ve seen and/or done that day. If it’s humid (meaning anything over about 20% and 80 degrees), you may find me lounging in the nearest horse trough on the way home from the airport. Walking through a car wash also looks attractive.
So the air show season is off and running, and we’ve all been looking forward to it. Especially me. And I’m easy to spot. Just look for the guy in the cowboy hat who keeps looking down at his feet and shaking his head in disbelief.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.