Decades ago, I stopped trying to describe Oshkosh—the fly-in, that is—to anyone who hadn’t been there. If I were to try, I’d say it’s a weeklong fury of activity in four dimensions that, improbably every summer, spins wildly and beautifully to life, a full-tilt barn dance held upon the head of a pin, an event that transforms a sleepy regional airport into a roaring, fossil fuel-powered Swiss clock of a city for a weeklong run of choreographed insanity, a magic that’s too powerful for any one person to fully understand. Yet every year, it gets set loose, and we all get to be there as the magic happens, each of us trying to catch as much of it as we can.
The legends of the early days of the fly-in are inaccurate. It’s often spoken of as an impromptu get-together of a few friends on a sleepy weekend morning. Somebody brewed a pot of coffee while somebody else set out the lawn chairs. But “Oshkosh,” which wasn’t held in Oshkosh full time until 1970, was an impressive, though modest, fly-in from the beginning. It was done that first year, 1953, at Timmerman Airport in Milwaukee, with a good number of planes and pilots. It was a real live fly-in from day one.
Paul Poberezny was the heart and brains behind it. It was Paul, an accomplished aviator who started flying as a kid and would eventually design a couple of simple airplanes and create a movement that became the amazing world of homebuilding, who got the whole thing going in the early 1950s.
But it was much more than homebuilding, too. The organization he founded, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), was at first all about bonding over wood wings, loops and summertime. But it would grow into today’s EAA, which encompasses everything from grassroots activism with its Young Eagles program to full-fledged lobbying for pilots’ rights. It’s too long a list, but EAA runs dozens of programs and several publications, has a gorgeous air museum, oversees groups of enthusiasts for everything from antiques to jets, and has a reach that’s global and still expanding. Did Paul envision all of this? It’s my guess that he did.
What became of that modest first fly-in made him proud, and rightfully so. For anyone else, that would’ve been enough. The weeklong event, known as AirVenture these past 20 years, is the crown jewel not of EAA but of all of personal aviation. You won’t hear me pining for the good old days—okay, maybe a little. The show has changed. It had to. But it has changed into something that’s bigger and better, with more places for more kinds of pilots and more kinds of planes. That’s exactly as it should be and exactly as Paul wanted it to be.
There’s not much left of the original Oshkosh, though there’s a lot of it left. The entry gateway at Oshkosh, known semi-officially as “The Brown Arch,” is the most identifiable landmark left of OSH. Well, at least OSH as I knew it when I first set foot on the grounds 30 years ago. It’s not the only piece of history that has survived the transformation of “Oshkosh” into AirVenture, but it’s the most poignant, for sure.
There are a number of other artifacts about, some that have held on simply because it’s easier to leave them standing than to do something different. The amount of work behind preparing, putting up and then taking down this show is staggering.
There are still a couple of the old exhibit halls, which were really only modestly sized sheet-metal hangars originally meant for a handful of planes but that EAA once used as exhibit halls. With no air conditioning and the combined heat of hundreds of people tightly packed into them, often on days that were already too hot, those old buildings had their own microclimates. It was a weeklong marathon for the exhibitors. There are a few other old buildings from the early days, from big old barns that pre-date the arrival of EAA in late 1969 to little ticket-taking stands that look to be from around the era of the Hoover administration. They all need to stay, in my opinion. They capture the charm of the place so effortlessly.
Even the old press building, that’s to say, the old and current press building remains. It’s a ranch-style yellow-brick dwelling that was surely someone’s house at some point. For one week and a handful of days per year, it’s chock-a-block with media types banging out their stories about new planes or old ones on laptops set on a plywood counter hooked to EAA’s heavenly Wi-Fi so they can send news of the show back to home offices in South Africa or Indonesia or Indianapolis. They’ve supplemented the old place with a nice, portable building with forced air in which many of the press conferences are held. Those portable buildings are everywhere at OSH, and they do the trick nicely, providing a little shade for those hot days and a bit of a breeze if they have one of those big rolling fans to plug in. Everything is a constant hum at OSH.
Speaking of which, the one thing that no structure there can do is block out the plane noise, especially when a particularly loud one rips down the flight line. A friend once quipped that when it happens in the middle of a press conference, “It could be the Almighty himself, and he’d have to wait until after the Texans had passed.”
For the week, the noise, or, before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., the silence, defines the place, and the character of that sound has changed over time. My friend was right; the North American AT-6s are the worst, or the best, depending on your mood and the importance of the conversation. Their high-pitched Hamilton-Standard growl is unmistakable. There are others that are worth the ticket price, like the sound of the Merlins, 12-cylinder engines growling by as P-51s “strafe” the field. And for sheer volume, let me count the decibels. Concorde was loud. The Thunderbirds are loud. But when it comes to sheer knock-you-on-your-butt loud, nothing beats the Harrier jump jet, which, when it’s showing off its ability to hover, shuts down chatter for miles around. Literally. I can’t think of a louder sound I’ve heard, and I came within a foot of getting hit by lightning when I was a kid. It was like that. But unlike the thunderclap, the Harrier has staying power.
Many parts of the old OSH are long gone, the most memorable of which is the old reddish yellow-brick control tower, situated on a grassy rise, like the kid in school pictures posing for a group photo on his tiptoes. On hot days at OSH, the base of the tower would be surrounded by weary showgoers who had stumbled upon a rare commodity: a soft place to sit in the shade. That old original, built in 1963, has been replaced by a new tower that’s twice as tall. The modern structure might be better in a thousand practical ways but has none of the character or charm of the original, with which it coexisted for a couple of years, the old one finally getting the wrecking ball in 2009, which was a bad year for aviation all around. There are numerous things like that, parts of the fly-in that are gone from the real world but live on in the hearts of those who’ve been going forever, or for at least a big chunk of forever. We see ghosts everywhere.
The Brown Arch remains, though, almost as a monument to those artifacts, like the old tower, that couldn’t be saved. The Arch itself is a chocolate-brown wooden wave-shaped slab spanning the entryway and suspended by a stone pillar on each side. It is adorned with small flags of many countries and in orange-yellow letters. It’s reminiscent of a scout’s woodcarving project, perfect for the event, which used to be, I remind myself, all about experimental aircraft, specifically ones that are made from scratch or from a set of plans. The Brown Arch spot that today marks the entryway to the flight line is largely decorative, occupying a space not far from where the show grounds used to start. The actual entryway is a 10-minute hike from what used to be the entrance of the show. And many square miles of other EAA properties sit to the west and the south of the show grounds. It’s a company town.
I specifically remember the first time I set eyes on the EAA Arch at Oshkosh. It was 1991, and I was a greenhorn. I knew that Oshkosh was in Wisconsin and they had a big air show there, but I had no idea, none, what I was about witness. It wasn’t just me, you see. No one who ever visits OSH for the first time has any idea what they’re about to see. Its scale, its breadth, its scope, its character are unlike anything in the world. All of that completely defies understanding, even in theory. You need to go there, and if you aren’t nodding your head right now, that means you’ve never been.
That said, as soon as I laid eyes on the Arch, I knew that I was entering sacred grounds. The rest was a mystery, though it was clearly the great unknown. The Arch, I could tell, had been there for a long time, longer than I could understand, and had seen people pass under it who changed life in the sky; hell, people who’d helped create life in the sky.
People who’d been coming to Oshkosh for years got that. I was an imposter. I didn’t know the stories. I had no map of the place in my head, as I do now, no cast of characters, no arcs of change, no timelines of growth. I knew the planes pretty well, but I didn’t know them there. And there, that spot, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in late July at Wittman Regional, puts everything in a context inescapably deep and as old as flight itself, a spirit only partially knowable and prone at any moment to start up in a puff of blue smoke and take off for parts unknown.
After 30 Oshkosh fly-ins, I’m still a newbie (well, on these grounds, at least), and I’m not alone. We are all imposters in a world older, longer, broader and deeper than any of us could know. I remember during one of my first shows, my dad and I were down by the flight line grabbing a burger at the Homebuilt Cafe when an old tri-tail Lockheed Constellation sweetly grumbled by, accompanied by the spontaneous oohs and ahs of the crowd massed along the flight line, the spontaneous vocalizations matching the speed of the Connie perfectly, an audible wave of appreciation. I mentioned to the older guy sitting next to us how beautiful that plane was, and he agreed, adding, as if he were talking about his boyhood paper route, how much he loved that plane too, remarking about what adventures he’d had flying it “over The Hump” back in the day.
It’s a place where amazing stuff like that happens every day, so much that you simply can’t remark upon it all. It would wear you out. I’ll be hurrying on my way to a press event when a P-51 and F-16 appear overhead in close formation, the sounds of Allison V-12 and GE F110 combining into a holy growl of past and future improbably mixed into today’s soundtrack. Then some other incredible thing grabs you by the ears.
You learn to take it in and breathe when you get the chance. Those little moments of relaxation are everything. Watching T-34s above, like waves at the shore, blanketing the sky with song, me leaning back in the grass, a late-afternoon soft-serve cone in one hand, propped up by the other elbow, ignoring the words waiting to be written about something else that happened that day. The words would just have to wait another 15 minutes or 20. They would get written. Boy, do they get written. And not just words get written. Somehow, work gets done here, though I’m not entirely clear on how it does, though now I get the rhythm of OSH, the energy, the looks in the eyes of people you pass, their faces telling their stories as sure as patches on a blue windbreaker, tales of what OSH is to them, that is, how they traveled to get here, to this very spot, as warbirds roar overhead.
We wander these grounds with legends, and I’ve been luckier than many in working with a few and meeting many. At OSH, you’re among friends regardless. Smiles are everywhere. They are the light that Oshkosh is bathed in.
Paul’s smile was remarkable. It seemed to fill the place. I’d see him tooling around in Red One, a brightly colored VW Beetle (modded into a convertible), passing by and greeting his fans; hell, his people. I didn’t know Paul well. But he knew me. Despite meeting so many thousands of people every year, somehow he remembered my name after our first short meeting and, to my astonishment, every year thereafter.
OSH is nothing if it’s not about friends, the perfect reunion setting where tens of thousands of kids at heart can spend their days around airplanes and cool new technology and their evenings renewing friendships. After hours, when the departures are done for the day and the exhibit halls are emptied out, the get-togethers get going at restaurants, campgrounds and rented homes around town. I’ve done them all over town. At the North 40 airplane campground, with everyone standing as near to the grill as seems polite, a beer (or soft drink) in hand, swapping lies and other good stories. And I’ve done them at what passes for fancy places around Oshkosh, which is at heart a middle-class, blue-collar town.
My favorite is the White House, otherwise known as the Lake Buttes Des Morts Gun and Supper Club (I kid you not), where I dined many times over the years with great friends, many of whom are still great friends despite our new orbits. Those pleasant dinners somehow turned unstoppably into roaring celebrations of life, thanks to a seemingly bottomless expense account and no shortage of stories to tell. Celebrations, after all, are what Oshkosh is about. Celebrating things that fly, and lives that do, too. Raising a glass to new planes, to new kids, new jobs, even one time a new hip—no lie!
And then there was the politics. EAA, like any big organization, has its drama and its issues, but some things are better left unsaid, at least right now, and thanks to Jack Pelton for saving…well, for saving the whole ball of wax and making it better than ever.
I’ve seen so many brands struggle through the changes, some weathering them, others falling away. I was there for the epic parties that Icon threw, the even more extravagant displays from Eclipse—say what you will, Vern and company could put on a show.
And I even got to see the second of two reappearances of Jim Bede, there at Oshkosh for the last time years ago, rolling out his latest scheme, which, yes, absolutely was based on big promises and big deposits. There’s a country fair vibe about OSH. It wouldn’t be the same without the hucksters, the barkers and the sales pitches, the guy hawking tickets to win a Piper Cub over by the tower. The traveling pros with their wireless mics, selling everything from fancy ladders to sunglasses—and all of it, every product they pitch, will change your life, or so you come to believe if you watch for a while.
Hucksters come in the aviation variety, too—well, come and go. You learn to smile as the 30-something winning leaders of new companies tell you in breathless terms at their very first Oshkosh press conference about how their plane will correct the aeronautical misunderstandings of all who came before them. Such brash deception, or maybe just self-deception…at some point, even the confidence man can no longer tell the two apart.
And the planes I flew there, inextricably woven into the picture of Oshkosh in my heart. Ultralights, jets, a blimp! A lot of plain-vanilla piston singles that I loved just as much. The trips up, in my own rented or borrowed or partnered planes, my beloved Skylane, three years ago, my first and possibly only trip to OSH ever in my very own plane, though I have flown in via some manner of small plane 15 or more times, tying down at more than a few central Wisconsin airports over that time and always thinking I really should have braved the traffic and gone to OSH.
And the planes I merely watched fly, that we all watched fly. Concorde right around the time of the crash, the arrival of the Airbus A380 complete with famously terrible landing that, thank heavens, didn’t result in disaster. The arrival of the highest-tech planes on the planet, too many to name—the F22, the Osprey, the 787, and a generous handful of eccentric Burt Rutan designs, Starships, Grizzlies, Ezes—all painting the sky as they flew by, their signature silhouettes indelibly paired in my mind with their songs.
And the restorations! My word, what beauty! My favorite? Ha. There have been too many. The Boeing 307, the first real airliner—it was perfect. And not one but two Boeing B-29s, one of which, Fifi, I got to go flying in. The Sikorsky/Johnson Wax S-38 amphibian that traveled the world when adventure was the only route you could take. And then just last year, That’s All Brother, the Douglas C-47 that led the charge at Normandy…there are too many to remember, never mind list here. In fact, one of the greatest purposes of Oshkosh is to be the place restorers bring their masterpieces to show them off. I can’t speak for them, but knowing an adoring crowd of a hundred thousand airplane lovers would get to see my work of art in action? That would keep me going.
The planes we fly in with have changed, too. When I first started going to OSH, Rutan-designed canards were the most common homebuilts, as they perched, nose to the grass, in the parking area by the Blue Barn west of Knapp. Today, those spots are taken by an even greater number of Van’s RVs. The people have spoken.
And the people were always first. Get it right, it’s a show about people, always was and always will be, people who love airplanes, yes, but people first. I am not ashamed to admit I remember the people as much as the planes. They will last, dear friends all, some for a season, some for a lifetime.
The camping. How did we survive it? Rain or shine, and there was a lot of rain, leaky tents, deafening thunderstorms seemingly engulfing the campground, swallowing it whole, jagged shafts of light, coloring the jade underbelly of the storm, illuminating as though from within the blue and orange tents and flashing off the sheet metal of our parked planes riding out the storm, testing the resolve of their tenuously staked yellow nylon tie-down ropes. The midnight insanity of the North 40 campground with dear friends, Cindy and George, bringing us all together, everyone somehow getting increasingly funny as the night turned to morning, by which point not a soul was funny any more. Somehow we survived on a few hours of sleep, starting our overbooked days by 7 a.m., the first planes starting up in the campground on the click of the hour, the piston engines grinding to life spot by spot around the North 40, their songs battling for dominance with the yodeling cacophony of the Oshkosh Wake Up Call through bad speaker horns. Regardless of what last night was like, there is no putting off the day at OSH.
Regardless of the weather, OSH happens. Last year was nearly perfect. But somehow I remember the years it was anything but. Those shows of ceaseless rain, Wittman Regional Field a patchwork of ponds reflecting the blue skies of the morning after the storm and swampy parts, marked off by the lack of airplanes. And the years of remorseless heat, less common but more devastating…people dropping to the ground mid-hike and being carted off by squeaking golf carts to the first aid tent. You survive the conditions and take what you can from the event, which is always more than the weather could ever take away and always more than you could hope to digest, more than one could dream of experiencing.
There were bad years, too, too many, though somehow your brain filters some of it out, at least the sadness of it. The losses. Friends who weren’t back that year and won’t ever be. The hardest losses are from the crashes. Life and death. It’s part of the glue of what we do, of who we are, this knowledge that life can be short or long, and we might not get a vote, so fire up the engine, mix up the controls and go flying. Then, later, we can raise a glass to those who share the heavens with us, if not the skies.
And in their honor, and in our own, I say, let’s make EAA Oshkosh AirVenture 2021 the greatest OSH of our lifetimes, like the last one, and the one before that.