“Looking for co-pilot to OSH. Call Tom.” A phone number followed. It was handwritten on the back of a Phillips 66 aviation fuel order card and taped into the window of the FBO’s front door, implying an urgency beyond the fuel cards decorating the bulletin board inside by the Coke machine. I was 14 years old, and I can still remember every digit in that phone number, as I called it with my mother nearby, doubtless wary at the notion of letting her son haul off clear across the country with a complete stranger. We had some friends in common, some of whom vouched to my parents that my ride to Oshkosh wasn’t a psychopath while delicately avoiding the fact that about a dozen of his flights had ended in ways that some would describe as “aircraft accidents.” Sure enough, pretty soon I was packing my bag for a trip to Oshkosh, that fabled place I had spent countless hours reading about on the FBO couch while I absorbed old magazine issues as the textbook for my ground-schooling.
That 1995 trip remains the only time I’ve flown into what is now AirVenture. This year, I had hoped to fly the Mooney up that way, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans for the world. Instead of packing my camp gear and tiedowns, I’ve been shopping online for merchandise from a show that never happened and reminiscing about the last time I landed on the dot and taxied to the North 40 campground for a week of hanging out with all the friends I had never met. I was 650 miles from home, accompanied by a total stranger, without a cell phone, and if I had a credit card, it was my parents’ and for emergency use only. I called home on a payphone to check in a time or two, but for the most part, I was wandering around without much in the way of supervision, fear or worry. The week was magical.
Tom and I ducked into the EAA Young Eagle tent, where we proudly declared I had surely just set a record for the longest Young Eagle ride, and the volunteers did a fine job of remaining enthusiastic despite my claim being the 73rd such claim made that morning. They set me up with some swag, and I went merrily on my way.
Going to an event like AirVenture with hardly a nickel to my name was a completely different experience from what it would be now. Instead of being lured into thinking I had to drop thousands of dollars on the latest gizmos, I walked around in awe of the technology that was then emerging. For perspective, the Garmin GPS 90 handheld was the cat’s meow; LORAN was still a hot ticket, and, for the most part, VOR/DME was still the way most pilots were flying IFR. Many of us would stay home with that level of “roughing it” these days.
In the warbirds area, I sat in awe as Chuck Yeager and Flying Tigers pilot Tex Hill recounted their wartime stories. Yeager I had certainly heard of; Hill I quickly learned to appreciate. When I went through the autograph line at the end of the event, Yeager’s “whaddya want, kid?” certainly contrasted with Hill’s easygoing personality—and I learned that the big names could be even friendlier when I later met Bob Hoover, who had been there and done that but still took a few moments to ask about my flying experience and aspirations.
Tom Poberezny, Charlie Hillard and Gene Soucy flew their final performance as “The Eagles,” and their iconic rainbow-striped biplanes still manage to evoke fond memories among those who saw some part of their 25-year run on the airshow circuit.
I met Richard Van Grunsven as he mopped morning dew from the RV-8 prototype, fielding questions about the (then) new design that many of us would later see as one of the most popular homebuilt designs of all time. I rattled off the plans number for the kit my grandad and I were building, and one of the employees asked if I’d flown in an RV yet. Two days later, I was circling Lake Winnebago from the backseat of the RV-4 demonstrator that now lives in the EAA Aviation Museum on the field.
It was a champagne life on a beer budget, though, and at least once I wandered across the bridge over U.S. Highway 41 to the Piggly Wiggly, where I was in line for a deli sandwich behind Delmar Benjamin, who was piloting the Gee Bee R-1 in the airshow. The ponytail was a solid clue to his identity; the embroidered Gee Bee on his back erased any doubt. His brief answer to how it flew, “just like it looks,” wasn’t nearly as dismissive sounding in person as it seems 25 years later. It was his turn to order a sandwich, and a brief answer kept the line moving.
In the campground, I met our neighbors. A couple parked next to us had flown down from Canada. A man nearby handed me his business card. We talked several times that week, and I held onto his card for years. Mort Crim, it turns out, is something of a legend in broadcasting; the man whom I recently learned inspired Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character was just the guy with a Seneca who was my neighbor for a week.
My Oshkosh experience was amazing but not atypical. There are a lot of people whose names and contributions are nearly fabled, yet most remain approachable and engaging when we cross paths at these events. The big fly-ins serve to pair a face and a personality with the names we read in aviation news stories. We gain perspective and scale by seeing an airplane or device on display in person that an online catalog or photo album may fail to capture. And we make lasting friendships, united in a love and passion for flight that often transcends all manner of socioeconomic divisions.
For those of us who thrive on the camaraderie and excitement of fly-ins and air shows, 2020 has certainly been a letdown. As COVID-19 rattled the world, we waited with baited breath as the team at Sun ‘n Fun waited until what seemed the last minute to make a decision to postpone—and then cancel—this year’s event. AirVenture got scrubbed with much more advance notice—the amount of information that emerged in the weeks between those two decisions gave the folks in Oshkosh a solid foundation to base their decision upon. Neither call was easy: These events are financial powerhouses that can make or break the organizations that host them, as well as the exhibitors and vendors who participate. Both decisions were correct.
Having to sit out a year of visits with aviation friends and industry pillars hurts—but I’ve accumulated a disproportionate number of shirts and memorabilia from a couple of airshows that didn’t and won’t happen this time around. Both Sun ’n Fun and AirVenture have their memorabilia for sale online. While online merchandise sales will be a little more than a drop in the bucket, it’s a way to show support for these events that contribute significantly not only to our lifestyles as aviators but also to the communities around them. Exhibitors are offering discounts in the spirit of the fly-in discounts they had planned, and I plan to support them, as well. The money I had planned to burn flying to Wisconsin is about to get added to my Mooney’s panel project, based on a rebate I just saw advertised on an engine monitor.
Hopefully, we’ll have some fly-in opportunities soon. I’m already seeing notices of some small fly-in events, where everything will be outside and spread out. One nearby will be hosted on a 2,000-foot grass airstrip—that will be one way to make sure that the crowd doesn’t get too large. The handshakes, hugs and backslaps may be far in the future, but I’m certainly ready to see what fly-in events can become as we emerge into whatever the new normal will be. But then again, normal is overrated. Didn’t we learn to fly as a means to escape normalcy?