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Lessons Learned: That Year Our Plane Was The Only One That Made It To OSH

Well, to be honest, there was one other plane in the pattern on the day before the world’s biggest fly-in started. Here’s how that happened.

That Year Our Plane Was The Only One That Made It To OSH
An artist rendition of the incident.
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And then, suddenly, there we were, in blinding sunlight, 2,500 feet MSL, a speck of a plane against columns of dark storm next to us and to the west of us and behind us and to the east, as we emerged into…well, paradise, or at least it seemed.

I remember that moment exactly, as we cruised out from between storm clouds, turned the corner and found ourselves looking up into a giant shell of perfect blue sky. I was speechless. And at our 11 o’clock, we spied Wittman Regional, the glinting pearl inside the shell, bright and obvious in a way that airports hardly ever are when you’re looking for them with the naked eye, like it was being lit up just for us.

And when I say “just for us,” I mean that almost literally. There was, in fact, only one other plane in the pattern on the day before the biggest fly-in/airshow in the world was due to begin. Again, “surreal” is the only way I can describe it.

How we got to be 15 miles out from KOSH and cleared to land on 36 isn’t a long story, just an extremely unlikely one.

I’m guessing that some pilots who have flown into a couple dozen Oshkosh airshows, as I have, might be blasé about the arrival, which is technically the “Fisk” arrival, though most people I know call it the Ripon arrival, which channels VFR aircraft into Wittman Regional Airport’s traffic pattern. In theory, it’s not a particularly complex arrival. When you think about it, it can’t be. Many of the pilots flying in are surely occasional aviators at best. Some of them, I’m guessing, are flying in for the very first time. Judging by how some of them fly the arrival, it’s a safe guess that both are true for at least a few of these flyers.

And that thing about being blasé…yeah, that’s not a problem for me. As many times as I’ve flown VFR into OSH, and it’s been around 15 times, though that’s an undereducated but confident guess, I’m still nervous about it. It’s not that I don’t trust what I’m doing. I do. It’s just that there’s no telling what the other pilots are going to be up to. And, no, they’re not going to be up to “no good.” They’re doing their best, but in my experience, the arrival can be a bit chaotic and, therefore, unpredictable. And remember that it’s not like DFW International Airport out there. It’s a low-tech affair. In place of radar, the controllers use a sharp eye and a decent pair of FAA-issue binoculars to spot traffic. And when things get busy, they’ll start holding planes at Rush Lake or Green Lake. And when I say “holding,” I mean they direct planes to fly around the lakes. The procedures are imprecise at best, and the way they’re flown is even less so.

I don’t recall the exact details of the holding pattern addendum to the Ripon/Fisk arrival, and this story isn’t intended to take the place of the NOTAM, but from what I remember, the planes are supposed to circle the lake in the same direction and the same altitude, but that doesn’t always happen. Let me tell you, while choice of altitude isn’t particularly critical, direction matters a lot. It only takes one Aeronca Chief flying a backward hold at about the same altitude as everybody else to get everybody’s immediate attention. I’ve only seen it happen twice, but both times it made an impression. And no, it wasn’t a Chief both times. The second time I think it was a Champ.

In any case, that year I had printed out the NOTAM back home in Abilene and stapled its many pages into some form of submission and studied it before I left, highlighting frequencies I knew or guessed we would need. I didn’t so much “study” it as looked it over to see if anything major had changed. That was my sixth or seventh year flying into OSH for the event, and I knew the arrival pretty well. Big changes were rare, and there were none. I hoped things would go smoothly, but not all that deep down, I was psyching myself up for the usual fire drill.

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I start looking extra super hard for traffic by the time I’m past Madison and descending to bug smasher altitudes. It’s at this point that things start to get interesting because that’s where traffic from the south, southeast and southwest all begin to merge as though through a giant invisible funnel on their way to Ripon and the start of the arrival to OSH.

This time, such was not going to be happening, though we held out hope for a while, me and my flying buddy and fellow pilot J.B., as we tooled along in the nearly new Bonanza I’d finagled for the trip—I’m lucky enough to have some good friends with nice airplanes. The problem wasn’t time or fuel. We were making good progress on the first count, and we had plenty of the latter. The issue was the weather, namely storms, big ones, the kind that make lots of pretty lights and loud noises and eat up airplanes. So we were, sensibly enough, doing our best to avoid them because, after all, it wasn’t even our airplane.

And as we got around a small buildup just past Madison, we were able to get eyeballs on the weather situation in the general direction of OSH. We had expected to be able to see, or almost see, at any rate, the town of Ripon, after which the arrival is named, with its figurative civic arms open to greet us, but not even. Our mouths gaped open, and J.B. and I spontaneously turned to each other without a word and just started laughing. A huge black wall of a storm, rising to what must have been 40,000 feet and stretching half a hundred miles from Minneapolis to Milwaukee, or so it seemed, lay between us and Ripon—well, us and everybody else, too.

And, to be honest, we weren’t completely surprised by it. We’d been keeping our eye on the storms using whatever weather doohickey it was we were using at the time, so we knew there were storms up ahead. We just didn’t know that they had become a storm, a monolith of fury that, unlike the open-arms Oshkosh welcome I was used to getting, was putting out a big angry stop hand.

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So we did what any reasonable pilots would do. We kept on flying.

Yeah, we knew weren’t getting through that thing, and because we weren’t flying a Saturn rocket, we weren’t going over the top of it, either. But we could get further up. After all, we had enough gas to fly for a few more hours, so why not go take a look? We could always turn around.

So we flew. And while we were flying, because we’re pilots, we started thinking things through. How to get around this thing was the general theme of our thinking, and the most promising tactic was to go around the back side of it, something pilots almost always think about but, with a storm of this size, hardly ever get to do.

And as we got closer, the thing got wider as new cells along each side of the front popped up and joined in on the fun.

So halfway to Ripon and a good ways east, we decided to turn around. I mean, what was the point, right?

Then the second funny thing happened.

As we made a wide right turn, giving the storm plenty of leeway, we saw a long, narrow corridor between big, but far less menacing, buildups. The gap was wide enough, but it was totally unlikely that it even existed. I think if we hadn’t made the turn exactly where we did and when we did, we never would have seen it.

And it checked out. We could stop our 180-degree turn three-quarters of the way through it and head east. If all else failed, we could go to Milwaukee.

Which is precisely what we were in the process of doing when the same thing happened again, and we spotted a corridor through some other buildups that both our eyeballs and the FIS-B weather said was clear sailing. And away we went.

And shortly thereafter, we emerged into the Wittman Regional area, bathed, as previously described, in the light of heaven. And as we motored toward OSH, now at our twelve o’clock and 15-20 miles, we looked west at the storm that, not too long ago, we’d been on the other side of. It was biblical, a hard line of atmospheric power amassed exactly parallel and 10 miles west of the north-south shoreline of Lake Winnebago, effectively turning back all traffic headed from the dark side of the storm to the airshow.

But it wasn’t only from that direction that the weather was a showstopper. Behind us, surrounding our formerly happy corridors of clear air, was another line of big cells, effectively keeping all the traffic from the east and northeast from getting any closer than the folks who were forced to turn around before Ripon. Oshkosh was surrounded by impassible storms. We had gotten through, safely and improbably. Go figure.

As we dialed up approach, they said hey but sent us straight to the tower, which never happens, and in a way that, again, has never happened to me on a trip to this fly-in airshow (and that will surely never happen again). The tower controller gave us a straight in for 36, land on any dot we wanted to and, by the way, traffic is an Ercoupe on a right downwind for Runway 27. And he cleared us to land. Fifteen miles out!

It was so weird. I won’t say there were no planes and no movement on the field, but, honestly, it felt that way. It was dead clear, blue skies and sunshine in the afternoon the day before the airshow started, and we had the place to ourselves.

After we landed, we were greeted by the ground marshals, all of whom looked as though they hadn’t done anything for a while, because they hadn’t, and we taxied over to park at the FBO to the north of the airshow, where we had a reservation to park on the hardtop, which was a lucky thing because the grounds at OSH were already soaked from that previous storm going through. After we parked and tied it down and were hauling our big bags toward the low brick building that housed the FBO, we actually wound up running into the guy just finishing tying down his little yellow Ercoupe.

He seemed a nice fellow, and we made greetings, quickly establishing a three-person brotherhood of lucky Wittman Field arrivals, only to learn that he’d flown in from Appleton, a few miles to the north. Which seemed like cheating to us. But we shared a shuttle anyways.

And we were there, alone, the three of us, on a big yellow requisitioned school bus feeling something different than lucky. In a world in which all the planes flying into Oshkosh got turned around except for us, well, it was, and we knew it then and there, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I’d like to report that it was my best Oshkosh ever, and it was good, but it was also wet. The planes, the people, the stuff…all of that was great, as always. But every unpaved inch of the place was a mucky mess for the duration of the show. Luckily, the folks at EAA worked miracles and were able to get the show to come off as well as it did.

After getting back home to West Texas the next week, I couldn’t wait to show off pictures of my Oshkosh adventure to friends and family. Sometimes I forget that pilots live in a slightly different world than everyone else, but I was reminded of that fact when I shared said pictures and found myself the only one entertained by my story of how few airplanes there were when we got to KOSH at the end of a long cross-country trip. “Almost none!” I said. Well, at least I was amused. 

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