A lifetime ago, but almost like yesterday, and a little more than 34 years ago, I went to my first Oshkosh. My husband and I drove from Fond du Lac, a few miles south, where I was flying in my first aerobatic contest. I had gotten my license four years earlier and, so far, being a pilot was a great adventure.
New to general aviation, I had read about the big annual gathering in Oshkosh in the aviation magazines I so eagerly consumed. I like to explore new things and places without a lot of expectations, preferring to be surprised rather than disappointed, but for a new pilot in love with airshows and all things aerobatic, I couldn’t wait to see what the performers were like and to watch them fly. Three years later, in 1987, friend, coach and one of EAA’s charter members, Duane Cole, put in a good word for me, and I flew the Oshkosh Airshow for the first time in a Pitts S-2S.
“Osh” is an annual convention, a mission, a tradition, an expedition for some and a pilgrimage for others. “EAA,” “Oshkosh” and “AirVenture” synonymously have real meaning and play a significant role in a lot of people’s lives. We each have our own expectations, memories and ways in which we are inspired for different reasons—airplanes, friends, vacation, airshow, trade show, flying, shopping, networking, selling, homebuilts, warbirds, education, sponsors, camping, camaraderie…and just being inspired by the awesomeness of airplanes. In my case, it’s all of the above.
EAA was founded for homebuilders and restorers in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, in 1953 by Paul Poberezny (one of my very favorite people) in the basement of his home. That year, 150 people gathered at the original fly in at Curtiss-Wright (now Timmerman) Field. Six years later, in 1959, the group had grown so much, they moved the fly-in to a larger airport, Rockford, Illinois. Over the next decade, the fly-in expanded to include other interests such as warbirds and antiques and started to feature an airshow. It’s hard to contain the enthusiasm of an aviator, so as the fly-in continued to grow, EAA began looking for new sites. Aviation legend and one of the original members, Steve Wittman, suggested Oshkosh as a possible site. EAA got to work, and the member volunteers created the infrastructure for the fly-in in over just a few months, and history was made. Yep, and the EAA volunteer spirit is just as strong today.
Flying into Oshkosh is always exciting. Just seeing the numbers of airplanes on the ground and hearing the volunteer Tower operators work their magic with disparate airplanes all landing on the same runway is something that no aviator should miss.
This year friend and student Reggie Mathew offered his A36 Bonanza for our support airplane and carried our stuff—poles and ribbons for the ribbon cut, spare parts, flight suits and my very special dog, Tootie; hence, our flight became the “Tootie Express.” Also along was friend and student Jamie Moncus, from Birmingham, Alabama. Jamie is a relatively new pilot who had never been to “Oshkosh.” When we discovered he had never even been to an airshow, we knew this was going to be really fun to see things from his newbie perspective.
We left St. Augustine on a Saturday morning, taking off in formation. Even though it was early in the morning, we were faced with a rapidly building line of thunderstorms. This was not just convective activity…it was frontal. We tried to fly west to get around them, but when our weather window closed, we did a 180-degree turn back to the east, then headed north up the coast, just ahead of more storms building behind us. After a fuel stop in Greenwood, South Carolina, KGRD, we continued to Owensboro, Kentucky, KOWB. It just so happened, I had recently flown airshows in both of those places, so it was fun to see everyone. But rain was coming, so we took off for KBMI, Bloomington, Illinois, where we found a pooch-friendly hotel and a hospitable and friendly FBO, Synergy Aviation. This was Jamie’s first long cross country in a small airplane, and our “new guy” was beginning to figure out what a VFR trip was looking like…adventure, excitement and fun…and never knowing what to expect.
On Sunday morning, weather was lousy for ducks and other flying machines and still IFR at KOSH. We hung out at Synergy Aviation waiting with other “Oshkosh-ites,” and we knew there had to be hundreds of little airplanes stranded at nearby airports. As soon as the weather started improving, everyone would have the same idea and head, like lemmings, in the same direction. We watched our traffic screens with extreme vigilance.
En route I had been experiencing a glitch in my Garmin G3X Touch, and it was cutting out, leaving me with no comm and no nav for a couple of minutes at a time, so we devised backups. If I lost comm completely, I would wag my wings at the Bonanza and point to my headset—“Hey, no comm!” Then Reggie would stay in the lead, keeping me on his wing, and we would do a formation landing. It’s important to always have a backup plan. When my radio was working, I listened to a discrete frequency that airshow performers like to use and gave weather reports to a flight leading two Mustangs, a performer in his A36, and a couple of T-6’s who were south and west of us. Weather is usually worse along the river, but we got through by staying on a northerly heading, and it started to break up and was blue sky over KOSH. Aha, I thought, the week starts here. I’m already home.
When we landed and taxied to the Weeks Hangar, we were met by my fantastic crew of longtime volunteers, including my “airshow kids.” My “kids” have grown up with me and are now adults with jobs, partners and lives, and I like to complain that they are getting too old, that I need some new “kids.” Two new volunteers, 14-year-old Chris and 16-year-old Hunter, have crewed for me recently, and they are absolutely in love with aviation. I am lucky to have adopted a new generation of “airshow kids.”
It was interesting to watch Jamie’s reaction to seeing the numbers of airplanes parked on the grass, many of them with tarps for their tents draped over their wings. After we picked up our car and shopped for supplies, we turned the corner back to the airport and, looking toward the field, a landscape opened up before us. It feels as though you are standing on a mountain gazing out over a plain. Thousands of airplanes transporting us to another world, gleaming and glittering in the rays of sun breaking through the clouds, and Jamie’s eye widened as he saw the sea of airplanes parked in the north 40. I have seen the view before, but I don’t think I appreciated it any less than he did.
We had a busy week ahead, so we grabbed dinner, compared schedules and discussed which days I would fly the show, which days I would practice or do a photo flight and so on, with plenty of time for everyone to get as much “Osh” time as they could stand. The week was a blast, and we had fun with Jamie’s questions—is that an RV8? No, Jamie, that’s a King Air, or maybe it is an RV8. What about that one? Oh, that’s a Cri Cri—the world’s smallest twin-engine airplane that can launch from the top of a car. We had much fun trying to convince Jamie to buy one and have since thought of ways we could surprise him with one at his office in Birmingham. So far we haven’t found one for sale.
I have spent most of my life around aviation. My earliest memories involve airplanes in some way, so for me, “Osh” is home in a way. Thirty years later, while it’s not my first rodeo, I love the ease with which I can navigate the grounds and show someone new around. For a new pilot like Jamie, it was interesting to see how comfortable he felt, and it makes me proud to know that people in aviation are a truly inclusive crowd. Maybe, after all, that is what “Osh” is all about, bringing someone new. Playing it forward. Lighting a spark, giving someone an appreciation for the things we love. Bring someone new with you to your favorite event. It might help you see a familiar place with new eyes and give you a new appreciation, even if you are an old hand.