THE WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATION CELEBRATION THRIVES. Despite the poor state of the economy, pilots and aviation enthusiasts turned up in record numbers for the yearly celebration of all things aviation.
Is Oshkosh ever really over? It’ll be weeks, maybe months, before my mind catches up with my body. And by the time my brain and body are back in sync, it will be time to begin thinking about next year, so it never truly ends. In addition, this year, all of us who were part of the overly dry/wet/hot/ cold/tired/ energized/smelly masses in attendance learned one very important fact: That part of aviation represented by Oshkosh doesn’t appear to care what the media is saying about the economy. Doom and gloom be damned, these people were going to indulge themselves and their passion no matter what. In short, Oshkosh was not—repeat, not—the disaster all the hotshots expected and the rest of us feared. In fact, it was just the opposite.
I normally arrive a couple days ahead of time and watch the event build, but this time, I showed up on the afternoon of the day before it started. It looked as though I had arrived in the middle of the week and the show had started without me. The north transient aircraft parking area flowed to the horizon, and the main show line of aircraft had already filled all but the last few rows of the nearly two-mile-long parking area. I’m certain that in the 43 years I’ve been making the trek north, I’ve never seen those areas more packed. Then, a few days into the show, the car parking area, which is measured in square miles, not acres—and had recently been expanded—was completely full for what may have been the first time ever. People were parking their cars in the shopping malls around the airport, and cars were backed up down the highway for 12 miles. Twelve miles—absolutely amazing!
Warbird numbers were down just a little, but that’s only if you consider having a couple dozen Mustangs, five P-40s, a Lancaster, a Hurricane and literally hundreds of other warbirds as being “down.” Antiques were also down a few airplanes, possibly the result of some really scary weather before and during the week. Show plane numbers, in general, were the highest since 2005 and topped all but a few years. In every area, human attendance was also up. In some cases, way up! The latest figures show that people attendance increased an astounding 12% over last year—and last year was a pretty good year. All of this despite more rainy days than we’ve had for quite some time (a few days, we all walked around smelling like wet dogs).
Let us put this all in context: Right in the middle of what’s the worst and, unfortunately, most uniquely depressing financial/social/political mess in modern memory—a time when jobs are being lost and long faces are the norm—EAA AirVenture 2009 was a runaway success, a blazing star in an otherwise dark room. Why? We can’t explain it by saying that the media’s coverage of the economy is wrong: unemployment numbers and foreclosure rates don’t lie. But when put against that backdrop, how are we going to explain the success at Oshkosh? Common sense says that the show, an extravaganza of totally leisure-time consumption, should have fallen right on its nose. Or at least it should have been a wheezing caricature of a once-proud event. But it wasn’t. In fact, other than greeting friends by saying, “And how’s your business doing?” there was absolutely zero indication that anything was wrong outside of the airport’s perimeter fence, in the “real” world.
I have a couple of theoretical explanations for the foregoing, all of which are stone-cold guesses (I doubt that even the so-called experts can explain it). One is that people have looked around at the shambles of a used-to-be strong economy, shelved their fears and decided, “There’s not a single thing I can do about this mess, so I’m going to Oshkosh and enjoy myself.”
A second possibility is that aviation attracts a slightly higher (sometimes much higher) and more stable economic segment of the population, so the ripples from the economy as it sinks below the surface haven’t affected these people as much.
A third possibility, and the one that I think is closest to being correct, is the old axiom, “Aviation isn’t a career or an interest, it’s a disease, and the name of that disease is ‘passion.’” Okay, so I made that last part up just now, but it’s true, nonetheless. Sport aviation is fueled by something that appears to be nearly impervious to the effects of caustic media coverage, and it ignores those government policies and decisions that some think are ridiculous. That having been said, however, don’t make the mistake of thinking that sport aviation folks aren’t worrying about money just like everyone else. And don’t think that this economy doesn’t have them scared spitless. At the same time, don’t underestimate the healing nature of a passion that’s so fierce, it becomes part of a person’s soul: Pilots derive at least part of their identity and much of their confidence from it.
Considering the foregoing, however, a serious question has to be asked: Is the unbelievable crowd we saw all week at OSH the bright flash a lightbulb makes just before it dies? I seriously doubt it. If need be, aviators, airplane builders and fringe enthusiasts will develop a taste for baloney sandwiches, if that’s what it takes to keep them in the aviation game.
Hmm. If the economy keeps getting worse (and I really don’t think it will), we might all start thinking about investing in baloney futures. And in that case, aviators alone will cause baloney futures to skyrocket. And don’t forget: You read it here first, folks.
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.