The invitation system that aviation uses for its greatest gathering is as arcane as it is strangely heart-warming. It feels real to me when the FAA and EAA conspire to remind us, via the official Oshkosh AirVenture NOTAM, of the VFR arrival melee that somehow winds up getting many thousands of airplanes and their slightly harried pilots safely to the field.
But even before then, I think it starts with the EAA giving us a theme, which, as often as not, has to do with what cool airplanes it’s managed to wrangle for its A-List roster. Still, as far as themes go, unless there’s a big anniversary (and even then), it’s hard to keep track of such things, let alone get into the swing of them. After all, we already know that there are going to be amazing airplanes and aviators there. Who needs a theme?
That goes double for this year’s event. Who needs one! But if you insist, I hereby proclaim that the theme for Oshkosh AirVenture 2021 is that Oshkosh AirVenture 2021 is happening.
The date, of course, has been on the calendar for years—that’s how any world-class event, like Oshkosh AirVenture, rolls. So, that part, unlike the arrival of retirement parties and babies born, is known with some great degree of certainty far in advance of the event. We know the date for next year’s event and the one after that. Even beyond that, it’s going to start on a Monday in late July.
It was really just last year’s extravaganza that wasn’t that left a hole in our calendars. Event organizer EAA let us know well in advance that the 2020 show wasn’t happening, and it didn’t. As the coronavirus pandemic was snowballing into the hellish form it would eventually take, the spring 2020 airshow in Florida, Sun ’n Fun, called off its show only when it was painfully obvious that, No. 1, it shouldn’t happen and, No. 2, it couldn’t happen.
Within the next month, as the pandemic began to claim more victims and its reach expanded logarithmically, there was zero doubt, and because the preparations and expenses involved with getting Oshkosh ready for the show come far in advance, EAA had to make the call, and it did. Oshkosh AirVenture 2020 was not to be, and while few doubted the painfully necessary wisdom of the call, it still hurt. In fact, for many pilots, at least those of us whose families and close friends had been spared COVID-19’s terrible toll, the cancellation of the year’s big event was sad confirmation that, despite the disease and death toll numbers and press conferences and guidance and blowback and bickering, it was the fact that OSH 2020 was not to be.
The EAA even had to issue a statement reminding pilots that there was not going to be an airshow, and any attempt by pilots to fly in camp and generally pretend otherwise would result in there being nowhere to park or camp or do any of the things that folks normally do. And folks stayed away, thankfully. Why anyone would want to go to an empty Wittman Field at AirVenture time is beyond me. It would have been nothing but sad and lonely and quiet. Why would anyone even want to do that?
There’s been some talk of AirVenture being a close-to-normal event, but I have no idea how that could possibly happen. Nothing about OSH is ever normal. So imagine a world with hundreds of thousands of passionate aviators who’d gone without a gathering like this for two years, the vast majority for whom the world is only just now absolutely safe to go back out into. Then go ahead and dangle visions of hundreds of RVs and silent-screaming F-22s and radial roaring Skyraiders and bucolic yellow Cubbies…along with an entire week of hangar flying with their equally aviation-besotted buddies.
If you expect that not to be huge, then I’m not sure what you’re missing. This OSH will certainly be the most joyous one ever, but it stands the chance of snowballing into one of the biggest events in its long history.
That living, humming, breathtakingly busy shrine to things that fly and the people who fly them is Wittman Regional in the lovely but usually unremarkable burg of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Wittman in July is normally the base for a weeklong collection of planes and pilots that, for the sheer scale, variety and joy behind it all, outdoes anything the planet ever sees or ever has seen anywhere else…but last year was anything but normal, except at Wittman Field, where things stayed pretty normal. The ground in late July at the expansive GA field was green, quiet and, well, empty, like hundreds of other medium-sized airports around the country during a pandemic. It’s a bizarre thought. But it was the case, though if you weren’t there, and we weren’t, and neither were the protest airshow goers, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the quiet because “quiet” is the last word you think of when the subject of OSH comes up. Bringing the noise is what it’s all about.
Just what AirVenture will look like is unknown, and EAA plans to keep it that way as it adjusts its plans to fit with the current pandemic landscape. There are some things that seem likely causalities, though, and they are all events that in a typical year would jam lots of folks together in tight quarters. According to the EAA’s latest guidelines, at least as of this writing, the Monday night concert won’t happen, nor will the Young Eagles Volunteer Award Dinner, the Runway 5K run/walk, the WomenVenture social nor the Seaplane Base’s Watermelon social, among others. Check with EAA or the event’s usual sponsor or organizer if you’re unsure. On top of that, EAA says that it will encourage social distancing, have limited seating at usual venues, like Theater in the Woods, and have a reduced number of booths in the exhibition hangars.
For the most part, things should seem pretty darned normal, as the 10,000 or so airplanes and the glorious noise they bring will vanquish the quiet, and sonic beauty will rule the day, every single day, from Sunday (the day before the show starts) through Sunday, the getaway day. But the one special moment I think we all long for will come on Monday morning when, at precisely 7 a.m., that infernal wakeup yodeling begins across the miles-long PA system from the North Forty camping to the seaplane parking far to the south—same zip code but just barely.
Once that racket drills itself into my brainpan, I’ll know that things are better and that things will be okay, that even if we are changed, and are we ever, the things we pilots love about flying and gawking at airplanes and hanging out with each other as we do it, well, the spirit of that part has never disappeared. Oshkosh is merely our chance to put that song out there in the world as played by the pipes of a Merlin screaming past, a sweetly roaring blur at just over treetop level.