Plane & Pilot columnists Budd Davisson and Patty Wagstaff.
If, at any given time, there are around 200,000 people on the grounds at the Oshkosh orgy of aviation, then there are probably the same number of reasons why they’re there. Truth is, many of us can’t accurately articulate why we put so much time, money and effort into what’s an essential, life-saving journey for us. Like the swallows coming back to Capistrano or a whale’s ingrained urge to go home to begin a new generation, many of us can’t not be there. We base our own calendars on the event, and everything is measured as before, and after, Oshkosh. And, yes, I know the actual name is AirVenture, but I’m old school, so it’s Oshkosh to me.
When I’m at Oshkosh, I have it pretty easy, because I spend most of my time dashing around the grounds like a water bug on a golf cart. I don’t walk the many miles so many of my compadres do, simply because I’m a camera-toting word guy who’s supposedly there to work. But, it’s really not work. The physical demands aren’t that high, but the mental demands are there. So, as I sit here on the day after attempting to type, I feel as if all of my bones and muscles have turned to Jell-O. My arms actually tingle, and I know why: After making the pilgrimage 47 times, I’ve come to recognize the symptoms of adrenaline letdown.
Where the last nine days have had the Red Head and me on high alert from five in the morning until we’d collapse into bed with droopy smiles on our faces 16 hours later, this morning, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing was forcing me to get up! And, as my floppy body fell into the office chair at 0700, my brain was still 1,500 miles to the north. Oshkosh had totally drained me of my physical energy and robbed my brain of the ability to form even the most basic of thoughts. But, it could still remember—so images from up north are even now rotating through my mind like a random, never-ending, always-rotating screen saver.
One image that returns periodically has nothing to do with airplanes, but features the emptiness caused by one of the occasional torrential thunderstorms. We had retreated to the car just before a big one hit, and we couldn’t see 20 feet in front of us. We were creeping down one of the internal roads into a large exhibit area, when the rain stopped as quickly as it had begun. Suddenly, I had the crazy feeling that the world had come to an end, but we hadn’t gotten the memo. We were in the middle of an area that was normally wall-to-wall people, but now was totally vacant. Not a single soul was in sight. It was eerie! Then, like a family of rodents sensing the departure of a marauding owl, people began cautiously emerging from dark doorways and from under tent flaps. They were casting furtive looks at the sky in the process. Definitely eerie! In seconds, the vacant scene was replaced by the usual excited crowd.
Another image was the once-in-a-lifetime sight of seven Lockheed 12As lined up wingtip to wingtip. One of the classiest airplanes ever, each was shinier than the last. With something like only 14 still flying worldwide, it’s unlikely that any of us is ever going to see that sight again—except in our memories.
I’m not certain what my favorite airplane on the field was. There were lots to chose from, but I think it came down to a three-way tie between Don and Ann Pellegreno’s XNQ/T-31 Fairchild trainer (which I’ve lusted after for years), Mike Rinker’s tough-looking Curtiss-Wright B-14B or Richard Zeller’s customized Travel Air D4D Speedwing. Each tugged at different heartstrings for different reasons. However, Dorian Walker’s “common sense” reproduction of a Curtiss Jenny excited an interest I didn’t know I had: It’s an exact replica of the iconic JN-4D, but with a GM V-8 in place of the infamous OX-5, so it can be flown like a modern airplane without worrying about “when” an engine failure would happen rather than “if.”
The airplanes were great, but it’s the old friends that I ran into or spent time with that cast the warmest glow over what was a sometimes-gloomy event (lots of clouds and rain, however, didn’t dampen the spirit of the event one iota). Some, like Mary/Jim/Sparky/Bruce/Tyson/Phil/Doug/Livy and on and on, are supposedly my cohorts in journalistic crime. But, after so many years, they’re much more than that. We’ve worked together during that high-pressure special week so often that there’s a definite Band of Brothers bond between us. And, most are close friends of the heart.
This year, I was able to carve out more time than usual to have a burger with some of my oldest friends on the planet. Eric and I go back over 50 years, and our bond is closer than brothers, but we only see each other at Oshkosh. Patty has been our almost-sister for over a quarter century. Ron and Pete populate my everyday life at my home aerodrome, and it was great fun showing them the world of Oshkosh. Rich is an Internet friend, and we got to know each other much better via face time. Ron J. and I commiserated over the vagaries of ancient Stromberg carburetors, as we often do over the I-net.
Some of the best moments of the week, however, occurred spontaneously. I’d be blasting from Point A to Point B, when someone would holler my name. I’d screech to a halt to shake the hand of someone who just wanted to say, “Hi,” and toss a few words my way. Those were the moments that made the week special. They’re constant reminders that I have lots of friends I haven’t yet met.
Ostensibly, Oshkosh is about airplanes. But it’s not. The airplanes are just an excuse for the tribe to get together. The Oshkosh brand of aviation runs deep in a person’s soul and, in many cases, defines him or her. It’s not just about utility. It’s not about status. It’s about something extraordinarily complex and difficult to describe because the exact flavor of passion is always unique to the individual. Still, every member of the tribe recognizes it in others and totally understands it. For a week, a magical thing happens, and we’re all in a strangely comfortable place where we know we belong. No questions asked. Small wonder we keep coming back.
See you next year.