Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Remarkable People

Even Mother Nature can’t dampen the spirit of Oshkosh

ETERNAL NEWBIE. Beautiful aircraft make each of Budd’s trips to Oshkosh feel like the first.
Even though it’s been a few months since coming home and unpacking, getting the Oshkosh adventure totally out of your head isn’t easy. Part of that is because no matter how many times you journey to the world’s greatest aero-orgy, it’s hard not to marvel at the good fortune of being a part of such an amazing group of people doing amazing things in amazing flying machines.

For me, one of the most interesting things about Oshkosh is that even after having attended the convention 44 times, it still feels fresh every single time I set foot on the grounds. This year, however, I had to be careful where I put that foot or it would disappear up to the ankle. And that’s probably what most of the world knows about AirVenture 2010: It was really wet. In truth, however, the weather during the week was some of the best we’ve had in years. Of course, the foot or two of rain the week before created lakes, ponds, streams, swamps and inland seas that caused huge problems with parking. Ever seen a class A motor home sunk in up to its axles? Not an easy fix! Still, the indomitable spirit that is the EAA persevered, and a few days into the week, you could barely tell anything unusual had happened.

One of the feelings I can’t shake every time I drive through the gate is that I’m one of the new guys: I feel like a newbie who’s there to be awed and impressed. Of course, that feeling could be brought about by the fact that even though I’ve been there a bunch of times, I really am still awed and impressed. Logically I should feel like an air show veteran, but I don’t. I feel exactly as I did the very first time I hitchhiked from college to my first EAA convention in Rockford in ’66. As I turn off the highway, there’s still that little tingle of excitement and anticipation born of wondering what I’ll see next. Or who I’ll run into.

It’s the people you meet that makes the week what it is. Wet or dry, hot or cold, windy or calm, it’s the people who make the show and generally leave the longest impressions. I have a leg up on most people in that while I’m at Oshkosh, it’s part of my job to spend time interviewing some of those who brought interesting airplanes to the show. (Yes, I just put the words “job” and “Oshkosh” into the same sentence—hard to believe, isn’t it?) But “interviewing” is too formal a word for what actually happens. The so-called interview always degenerates into an enthusiastic conversation about airplanes and life in general. And it’s an absolute fact that people with interesting airplanes are almost always interesting people. And fun to talk to. This is especially true when they’re telling the story of their life, which culminates in the creation or rehabilitation of the airplane that attracted me to their soggy little piece of paradise in the first place.

Invariably, when I start talking with these folks about what they’ve created, I’m humbled by the magnitude of their achievement. Their airplane may have started out as piles of rusted parts from several different locations. Or it’s a replica built primarily from photos, model plans and imagination. A good example of the latter would be the replica of the 1936 Caudron C.460 racer created by copartners Mark Lightsey and Tom Wathen.

The original Caudron was a mind-blowing, supersleek speedster that clocked over 300 mph in the 1936 races. But, none exist today. And that was reason enough to build it. Mark scrounged up all the photos he could find and started cutting wood. The end result is a saber-like blue torpedo that looks as if it falls out of the sky with the authority and grace of a crowbar. But the real kicker is that he flew the tiny thing from Southern California to Oshkosh. Now THAT’S the definition of confidence in your skills. And your engine.

Cam Blazer’s beautiful little 90A Monocoupe was one of my favorites. When he got it, it hadn’t flown in 40-plus years, and a good portion of that time, it was tied down out in the weather. It cycled through a half-dozen owners before Cam got down to it and tackled building a brand-new wing and having the fuselage completely rebuilt. The wing is one piece, tip to tip, and is a project so daunting that every previous owner bailed out of the project rather than spend that amount of time and money. Cam, however, put his nose (and his wallet) to the grindstone, and the result was one of the prettiest little airplanes on the field. It’s impossible to comprehend the amount of time and dedication it takes to see a project like that through to the end.

It’s often the family aspect that makes Oshkosh what it is. It was terrific fun watching the Colvin family: Clu and Jennifer with Piper (eight years old), Lear (six years old) and Baron (two years old)—not much aviation influence in that family is there?—camping under their hulking Consolidated-Vultee L-13, each of them fielding questions about their unique airplane. The same could be said for the lively banter between Paul and Carolyn Applegate as they sat in front of their Waco YKS-6 cabin biplane, their tent and two of their three kids behind it. (“Shalyn is going to be sooo sorry she didn’t come this year.”) No one was having more fun or doing more to keep aviation alive for the next generation.

And then there were the veterans. Maurice Hobson told us of having a front-row seat to just about every major invasion of the last three years of WWII, including Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Between the recession and the storm clouds, there were lots of dark predictions about how AirVenture would suffer. But looking around the grounds, it was as if hundreds of thousands of people hadn’t gotten the memo and didn’t realize they were supposed to be slouching along with long faces. It appeared they had all made the decision that they were going to enjoy the week, no matter what! And they/we did.

If you’ve never been to Oshkosh, aka AirVenture, you owe it to yourself to go at least once. Of course, you’ll come back again. And again. It’s like a gigantic aero-pistachio: No one can eat just one.


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