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Pilgrimage to Oshkosh 2005

By Darin Graham and Kevin Psutka

Many of you may have already made the pilgrimage to Oshkosh in previous years and experienced the wonder and excitement of the annual EAA AirVenture. And once again, this year did not disappoint those who attended. 

Of the two authors of this article, Darin had never been before, and Kevin is a seasoned veteran of the trek. Even with these two different perspectives it is difficult to describe the nearly spiritual experience (at least for those who fly airplanes) that one will encounter in a brief report such as this.

In other words, to truly understand the mystique one must see it for oneself. 

In the past, many people have written excellent articles for COPA Flight about what happened at Oshkosh. This time we have decided to take a different approach to help you get your own perspective. 

First, we’ll let some of the pictures we took try to capture some of the awe we saw – after all a picture is worth a thousand words. Second, we have chosen to provide some tips for those who might be venturing to Oshkosh for the first time, or even for those who have been many times and might want to share the adventure with someone who hasn’t been before.

There are over 10,000 planes and hundreds of thousands of people who attend Oshkosh during the 8-day event.  This may seem daunting, and maybe even overwhelming, for first-timers who plan to fly-in. 

If you get the chance go with someone who has been before. It will take a lot of the stress out of the massive fly-in situation and they can help guide you to key activities and events once on the ground. Nothing is better than experience.

As usual with long cross-country trips, expect the weather to cause you delays. Plan a few extra days there and back, think ahead, and turn something negative into something positive. 

We had had a great day of flying from Ottawa, north near Sault Ste. Marie and south towards Oshkosh, and were hoping to get there in one day. Late in the afternoon we were grounded in Menomine (only about 80 miles north of Oshkosh) due to a line thunderstorms.

Instead of trying to rush out of there at the earliest break in the weather and try to squeeze into KOSH before they closed the airport at the scheduled 8:00pm, we decided to stay the night and try fresh in the morning. 

As it turned out there were also 15 T-34’s staying in Menomine and there was a town barbeque held in their honour. We joined in and experienced some small-town USA enthusiasm.

The decision to stay was indeed the right choice sine there was a significant back up of holding patterns around KOSH after the storms passed and we could have easily been forced elsewhere if we couldn’t land before the airport closed.

If you plan to fly there, download the Oshkosh NOTAM from the EAA website. It describes all of the VFR and IFR arrival and departure procedures. Become intimately familiar with it before getting within 50 miles of KOSH.  It looks easy on paper, but quite a different thing in the air for the newbie. 

Keep your eyes out of the cockpit and on the lookout for the beehive of planes in holding patterns. It is certainly amazing to see them align themselves with up to 20 planes nose-to-tail from the holding area to joining downwind for landing. 

Once you are in the vicinity you only listen to ATC and don’t acknowledge them unless requested to do so (as this takes too much time). They are very professional and you need to follow their requests to the letter. 

Concentrate on flying the aircraft right to the tarmac and don’t sacrifice good aviation for trying to land exactly on the requested “green” or “orange” dot for the sake of the viewing audience – this has resulted in disastrous outcomes on more than one occasion.  It was good to experience the process with a person who has flown in before, and because of that it should be less disconcerting when Darin and his wife (who is also a pilot) plan to go next year.

If you take a quick look at the rough numbers – 10,000 planes arriving and departing in 8 hours each day for 8 days – means a movement every 15 seconds! You’ve got to keep your wits about you.

Make sure you have lots of time for the exploring the event once you are there. Take the first day to just get acquainted with where everything is and get an overall feeling for what surrounds you.

The layout of all the sites, airplanes, and pavilions are spread out over several miles.  You’ll be doing lots of walking so wear a good pair of comfortable shoes. Also take a backpack with sunscreen, hat, umbrella or raincoat, and a water bottle. There are many water stations sprinkled throughout the site where you can fill up for free.

Clean port-a-potties and hand-washing stations are also in abundance. Food stands for lunch and snacks (especially ice cream on the hot days) are everywhere; the prices are reasonable and the lines relatively short.

Transportation has also been well thought out by the organizers. There is lots of parking if you have rented a car or drove to Oshkosh. There is also a free bus and tram service on the airport grounds that take you around the airplane parking and camping sites.

A special city bus service is also set up that makes a loop around the city with the airport on the south and the university on the north end. Taxis are relatively easy to get a hold of and are fairly inexpensive to use if you want to go to many of the interesting restaurants in town.

Don’t forget your camera!

Oshkosh is heaven for those pilots who love their toys. Deals can be found for almost every part of an airplane – and even whole airplanes themselves.

There are four huge pavilions, each a half a football field in size, full of vendors selling radios, GPSs, interior/exterior materials, instruments, etc. To help you save time make a list of the things you might want to buy in advance and search out those specific vendors.  EAA publishes the exhibitors and their locations on the web site prior to the event, so it will save time and your feet if you print out the list and map and mark it up ahead of time.

There are several EAA shops scattered everywhere where you can purchase T-shirts and souvenirs. An interesting place is the Fly Market (aviation’s version of the flea market) that has its own subculture.

This year’s event was unusual in many respects. The highlights of the week were the arrival of the White Knight carrying SpaceShipOne that captured the X Prize for space flight as well as the GlobalFlyer that set the round the world solo record. These aircraft are slated for the Smithsonian.

According to EAA President Tom Poberezny, there were 2,892 show planes registered, about 300 more than 2004, including a record 1,267 homebuilts and about 900 media representatives were on site, compared to about 700 last year.

Final attendance figures have not been released as of this writing but Poberezny claims that attendance was up from previous years.

If you love air shows of warplanes and aerobatics you’ll get your fill every afternoon.  From mid-afternoon to early evening, on every day, they close down the airport to arrivals and departures and have an action packed air show. 

All the best performers and interesting aircraft will be there. There are also fly-ins of special aircraft at specific times. This year, besides the one-time only appearances of the White Knight carrying SpaceShipOne, and the GlobalFlyer, new aircraft such as the Cessna Mustang marked their public debut with special arrivals. 

The viewing line for the air show stretches along the west side of the main north-south runway and is within a hundred feet of the tarmac. Bring a portable chair if you plan to stay for the several hour spectacle. 

Sitting on the ground is a viable option too since you’ll probably be getting up often to see what’s going on.  

Some of the special activities which occur during the week are dozens of hands-on workshops put on by the best in the business.

Kevin’s son is taking up welding, so he wanted his dad to try TIG welding. A thorough 1.5 hour seminar covering the ins and outs of welding and the merits of TIG was followed by hands-on welding.

Darin and wife Lisa own a classic 1946 Fleet Canuck. Although the fabric is still in good shape, Darin wanted to learn a few things about fabric repair. His class culminated in covering a control surface, step by step. This is your opportunity to try to do some TIG welding and fabric covering. There are even sessions on maintenance, extending your engine life and advanced weather systems for your cockpit. 

Taking a couple of these classes is worth the price of admission alone, whether it is your first try at a new skill or to find out the latest and greatest techniques.

You’ll soon discover that there is so much to see. The central core is the AeroShell Square where you can get up close to special aircraft such as the P-38 Glacier Girl which was thawed out of 250 feet of ice in Greenland and restored to flying condition. 

Around the this central location, aircraft manufacturers show off their latest wares – ultralights, homebuilt kits, sport aircraft, a wide variety of certified (including Piper, Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, etc.), all the way to high-end jets. 

Don’t forget to visit the Federal Pavilion and see Transport Canada and NavCanada, as well as US Customs, Homeland Security and even get tips on flying to the Bahamas!  The EAA museum and the adjacent pioneer airport buildings are included in the admission to AirVenture and are filled with outstanding examples of historic aircraft, as well as they are good places to get out of the heat and rain (the museum and one of the EAA souvenir shops are the only air conditioned places on site). 

They also have lots of programs for kids scattered throughout the grounds. 

The fly-in aircraft are parked in many areas throughout the airport and are often organized by type – war birds, vintage, ultralight, and homebuilt. Take the 15-minute bus ride offsite to the EAA Seaplane base and see all the floatplanes that fly in for the event. You’ll soon discover that 4 or 5 days is barely enough to see it all.

Planning is the key to successfully jamming in the most sights and activities. Look at the schedule and highlight the workshops you might want to take first. Most of this information is available ahead of time on the EAA web site so planning in advance could save lots of walking.

The air show occurs every afternoon and you don’t have to see it all at once since much of it repeats each day. See half a show, and then tour the pavilions for the other half when they are less busy because people are watching the air show. The next day you can see the half of the air show you missed and more pavilions during the half you’ve already seen. But, make sure you are at the flight line at the published times when the special planes (such as the SpaceShipOne) arrive, because you don’t want to miss those. Work in the rest of the sites and pavilions as you walk between the various activities.

Accommodations are one of the greatest challenges and will take lots of advance planning – several months in fact! As you might imagine EAA organizers book all of the hotels and rental cars in Oshkosh for the 5,000 volunteers. Other vendors, manufacturers and repeat attendees soon book the remaining hotels within a 50-mile radius well in advance. Other local options include university dorms and renting houses, but these too book-up quickly and months in advance.

We stayed at the University of Wisconsin for $44 US per night. The rooms are not air conditioned and there can be no cross-ventilation so a fan is a must. But there is a convenient bus service to and from the airport all day long.

Some say camping under the wing is the only real way to go. It certainly is fun, but expect weather extremes from hot to cold to rain and wind. This year, a 36-hour period had daytime high temperatures range from the high humid 30’s to the mid-teens, and included 8 hours of solid rain and thunderstorms that drenched everything. 

If there is a group of you flying in and camping, you might want to try and arrange a parking space together in advance. There is an on-site grocery store where you can pick up fresh food everyday if you are camping. There are also a few large shopping centres within easy walking distance from the airport.

Even in this day of security, traveling either way across the Canada-U.S. border by air is not difficult as long as you remember a few simple rules: have a US Customs decal for the aircraft, get a weather briefing and including where those pesky TFRs (that is temporary presidential no-fly zones) might pop up, call Customs at least two hours in advance of your ETA, file a flight plan, “squawk and talk” (that is, have a discreet transponder code and be in radio communications with an ATC) as you cross the border, arrive within +/- 15 minutes of your ETA, have the necessary forms and documents (example, passport or other photo ID and aircraft documentation) ready for the Customs agent on the ground, and make sure your flight plan is closed with both Canada and US FSS. 

COPA has a complete guide Guide to Cross Border Operations on the member’s only section under Aviation Guides, complete with all the details of crossing the border by air. You should get the latest copy if you don’t have it.

For Darin it was certainly an enlightening adventure as a first-timer. And similarly for veteran Kevin, since he got to see new things as well as the familiar by helping out the newbie. 

We hope his article and photos gave you a glimpse of what the pilgrimage to Oshkosh 2005 was like, as well as some ideas to make your adventure next year more enjoyable.  As they say, Oshkosh is the “World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration”…and it’s worth the trek.

Kevin Psutka is the CEO/President of COPA and Darin Graham is COPA Director representing Southern Ontario.