Editor’s Note: Looking for holiday gift ideas for a pilot? Consider offering to spring for EAA AirVenture early access tickets when they become available.
The traffic targets were thick on ForeFlight, a swarm of blue triangles trying to wedge into the same path. I fell in behind a Cessna 180 to begin the arrival, and as we flew down the railroad tracks, a few pilots got peeled off to restart their arrival—15 over the speed limit works on Interstate 75, but on the arrival to EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, not so much. There are no passing lanes unless you’re a true “fast mover.” None of us were transmitting—because there’s no room to get a word in edgewise.
“Friends, this is your afternoon ATC team taking over for the morning crew, who have been doing a fantastic job—and you pilots have been as well! As a heads-up, we’re landing on runways 27 and 36, and keep your eyes open because there’s an ag applicator spraying directly beneath Fisk. Now everybody, pick a partner, fall in behind them, and maintain space of a half mile up to a mile. Welcome to Oshkosh, everyone. We’re glad you came.”
Before long, some controller had me in his binoculars. “Gray Mooney over Fisk, rock your wings!” A Mooney is built to fly in long, straight lines, and it really doesn’t appreciate the ailerons hitting the stops. Add in my airliner-deadened feet on the rudder, and the turn coordinator was only too happy to announce its unhappiness as we wallowed through a quick Dutch roll. “Great rock! Follow the railroad northbound; you’ll be landing on 27.” I flew the rest of the arrival as charted, guided by the controllers along the way when to make the turns.
Turning off the runway, I took a deep breath, realizing my palms were a little moist, and a little shake was subsiding in my hands. My day job is based at the world’s busiest airport, but the busy precision of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport pales in comparison to the controlled chaos of the arrival into Oshkosh.
A Lifetime of AirVenture
My first time flying my own plane into AirVenture was in 2021. Before that, I’d flown in as an airport kid on a glorified Young Eagles flight in 1995, and my next AirVenture wasn’t until 2007, when I arrived on an airliner and drove from Milwaukee. Fourteen years later, I showed up working with Plane & Pilot, flying my own Mooney into the event. Each year I’ve attended, the event has been different, but the magic of my first visit still hasn’t worn off.
In 1995, I got to meet Richard VanGrunsven as he unveiled the RV-8 during its first public appearance. Once the folks at Van’s Aircraft found out I had an RV-4 tail kit with my grandfather, they signed me up for a demo ride. Crammed next to us was Mort Crim, a famous broadcaster who inspired Will Farrell’s Ron Burgundy character. At an event in the warbirds section, I got to shake hands with Tex Hill, a Flying Tiger, and Chuck Yeager. Both of them signed my EAA ball cap, a memento I miss, having lost it in one of many moves in my itinerant phase.
In a forum tent, I got to see Gordon Baxter, a former columnist from FLYING, speak for about an hour of quality entertainment. I had an English teacher back home trying to get me enthusiastic about writing, and as Bax held court, I realized that writing about flying at an airshow was basically a license to steal. After all, who could resist the invitation for their bird to grace the pages of an aviation magazine?
The experience was heady stuff for a 15-year-old with nothing but big hopes and a few lines in his logbook. I crewed on an airshow team through my last years of high school and college. I’ve watched so many airshows from the other side of the crowd line that they don’t hold my attention like they used to—the entertaining acts for me are the low-performance airplanes putting on a good show. Stock Stearmans move to the front of the line in my book. No disrespect for the guys flying the high-powered monoplanes, but the slow movers are my jam.
That said, there’s always a fantastic lineup of performers at AirVenture, with a good variety to captivate nearly anyone. That’s the magic of AirVenture. If you love airplanes, there’s enough here to interest you for the duration, regardless of your market segment. You could dive into the forums and educational opportunities for the length of your stay, roam the antiques in appreciation of yesteryear, or imagine yourself as a military hero in the warbird area.
Shopping for an airplane? Whether it’s a some-assembly-required kit or a factory-built million-dollar bird, you can meet up with owners and sales folks who can answer your questions and allow you to put your hands on equipment that beats the heck out of any online video or website.
Read the Notice
If you’re coming to Oshkosh for the first time, let me say this loudly: Read the Notice. I mean, you already read all the pertinent NOTAMs before you fly, right? The AirVenture procedures Notice is longer than the entire NOTAM package I’m given for a typical airline flight—and that’s a lot of paper.
But, unlike standard NOTAMs, the AirVenture arrivals are printed in plain English, with many pictures. It’s almost like they really want pilots to read it. If you can find a friend to come along, even better. Sharing expenses is helpful, and a second set of eyes is invaluable. The controllers will ask you to maintain half-mile spacing in trail, and most of us aren’t used to doing that. Having someone looking at an EFB showing the traffic ahead can be a big help to keep your eyes outside while they’re studying the traffic, charts, frequencies, and fuel gauges.
Be comfortable with your aircraft before you leave home. I’ve talked to pilots who had just finished decades-long restorations before heading to the convention, and we’ve all seen beautifully restored classics ground looped—the two factors have almost certainly overlapped more than once.
Be ready for the controller to call your base turn directly toward the runway numbers—the colored spots used as touchdown targets are displaced well down the runway, and even knowing that, you’ll feel like you’re too high to make it. I felt the same last time, and still had to add power and fly in ground effect to the green dot.
Bring tiedowns. The volunteers will want you to drive stakes into the ground as soon as the prop stops turning, and while you can buy stakes on-site, the best options are the ones you bring. If I’m camping with my airplane, I usually wind up wishing I’d brought sandals for the shower house. Make sure your sunscreen isn’t expired (as I write, the last of my Sun ‘N Fun Aerospace Expo sunburn has just finished peeling), and a big floppy hat is a great idea. A cheap set of cutting boards to roll the tires onto when you park also helps keep your airplane from sinking into the mud.
The item that almost never shows up on a packing list is something to clamp your shower towel to the propeller—it makes a great clothesline, but a breeze can carry your towel away from your campsite. I’ve seen clothes pins fail miserably, but big black binder clips work well. Last time I forgot my binder clips, but a pair of vise-grip pliers from my emergency toolkit served as a fine substitute.
It may be your first time at AirVenture, or you may have lost count of your pilgrimages. We may have known each other for decades or friends who just haven’t met, but if you stroll by my Mooney in the vintage campground, stop by and say hi. We’re all family at Oshkosh.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot.