For me, the most amazing thing about Oshkosh '13 (per usual, I can't bring myself to call it AirVenture) is that this was number 45 for me. Okay, so only 43 or 44 were at Oshkosh (I'm never sure how to count them), which started in 1970, and three at Rockford. Yet, as I step on the grounds, I still feel like one of the new kids on the block. This, even though I'm continually running into the ghosts of many friends who meant a lot to me, and long ago—airplanes and friends that still do.
This year was one of homebuilt anniversaries, and I had friends—mechanical and otherwise—among the bunch. For instance, the amazing little Wittman Tailwind is an impressive 60 years old. And there were lots of them in attendance. However, it was the lines of Thorp T-18s celebrating their 50th anniversary that really tugged at my heartstrings.
When I was still in undergraduate school, I decided I was going to build a T-18 and talked the engineering school into letting me use the lab and its workshop to build it. Further, I got them to agree to use the T-18 as our senior structural engineering project. In the course of doing that, I got to know John Thorp quite well and, when I graduated, he got me a job with the company in L.A. that was, at the time, building the Thorp Sky Scooter. Of course, as soon as I arrived in L.A., they declared bankruptcy, but I didn't care. I was in SoCal and up to my butt in neat airplanes.
I got my first flight in a homebuilt airplane at that time. It was at Van Nuys with Bill Warwick in his 180 hp Thorp "Tiger," and "Tiger" was the appropriate name for it. That one flight totally reset my definition of the word "performance." Wow! But, every time I see one of the airplanes, I always flash onto John holding court with local homebuilders Saturday morning over coffee. And I remember that many of my aviation roots started there.
Then there was the little V-tailed Davis DA-2A, and I envision Leeon Davis leaning across the front seat of his station wagon after he pulled over on I-35 south of Wichita. He was looking out an open window at me standing on the side of the road, duffel bag and guitar case in hand. He had an amazed look on his face, "Budd, hop in. I didn't know you were going to Rockford!"
I was hitchhiking from Oklahoma where I was in graduate school and rebuilding a wrecked C-195 at the same time. He tied his self-designed little DA-2A down next to my 195 (under it, if it looked like hail). When we got to Rockford (my first), I immediately became part of the action: He took me around the pattern in the Davis twice, pronounced me checked-out, and put me to work hopping passengers while he sold plans. I logged something over 15 hours in 15- minute hops around the pattern. That was the first homebuilt airplane I actually flew. So, when I saw one at Osh '13, how could I not have an attack of nostalgia? I still think it's one of homebuilt aviation's best-kept secrets.
One of the most impressive homebuilts on the field was overlooked by many, but it was chosen Grand Champion in 1964 for a reason: the builder, Jim Lloyd Butler, had created an aluminum piece of art, not an airplane. Butler's MM-1 set the mark and was only bested by his own work: His retractable gear version took Grand Champion two years in a row in the mid-'70s, which I got to fly for a Pilot Report. Now, that's amazing!
The most enjoyable moments at Aero-Mecca North for me had nothing to do with the hardware. It had to do with sitting around a lunch table under a tent with those I consider friends of the heart. Some of them go back 50 years, and we came together over music, not airplanes, but Oshkosh is our yearly rendezvous. I can't explain how important those times are to me. More than the airplanes, the awards or the action, it's the friends that make the moment.
It's hard to pick out what was most impressive about Osh '13. Was it the B-29 that reminded us of days long past, when heroes were commonplace? How about the fully armed and restored Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon (the first I had seen fully restored)? Or the sole remaining WACO S3HD semi-military biplane that tugged hard at everyone who walked past it? It was pure bi-winged testosterone!
Nope, the most impressive thing about Osh '13 was none of the above. It was the huge number of people in attendance, young and old, that had every reason to stay home and watch the happenings on TV, but weren't about to let anything keep them away.
I'll never forget the sight of an ancient flight line warrior, his legs badly misshapen by time and his arms arguing with two canes as he struggled to make his way to the show line. He had come a long way and had much further to go. But, he wasn't going to give up.
I saw many variations of the fragile couple clinging to one another, their eyes bright with excitement, as they helped each other through the crowd. The patches on their jackets said that they had probably already been going gray the first year that I attended Rockford. But, they weren't going to give up their life just because the years and miles had taken their toll.
And then there were the many in motorized wheelchairs. Their bodies having been mistreated by nature, they would have been forgiven, if they decided to give up. Instead, they were doing battle with life to keep from losing something that obviously meant the world to them.
I don't think I've ever been to an event of any kind that had such a large number of people who just wouldn't accept the fact that, in the eyes of the rest of the world, they were beaten. They refused to recognize that nature had played a cruel joke on them and had stolen their youth or their health. Or both. So, they weren't beaten. They refused to let what they saw as inconveniences keep them from the things that they loved. And their very presence taught each of us a lesson and made a very obvious statement: regardless of the obstacles or the years, the passion that's aviation never yields. It never fades. It's always alive within us. And it only takes the sight of a cane or a wheel- chair to remind the rest of us that we're damn lucky. And it forces us to ask ourselves whether we have the spirit to keep on keepin' on as those folks do. I'd like to think so, but…
What's truly amazing about Oshkosh is how year, after year, it continues to amaze us. And that's amazing in itself, isn't it?