22-24 July 2019: Oshkosh AirVenture (really)

After loitering around for a day, waiting for EAA to give us an all-clear to head to the campground, and with nary a peep from Campground Central Command, we decided to head on over and take our chances. Good call. The campground was open, although in the throes of thousands of like-minded campers all converging on the airport at the same time, and after 4+ hours of creeping along at a turtle’s pace in the camper registration line (which is baffling since we were pre-registered), we finally made it to the campground and got set up.

It’s easy to have mixed feelings about the campground: there are (literally) four thousand (!) campers, all jammed together elbow to elbow, with no amenities (or even shade, for that matter), which creates an environment like what you’d expect it would create. But, all of that pales in comparison to the convenience of walking just a fraction of a mile to the flight line, displays, and everything else that AirVenture has to offer. So, even with EAA’s conspicuous campground management deficiencies, we decided that staying in the campground is definitely the way to go.

And AirVenture is everything we were told it would be, and more. It really is hard to convey the atmosphere of a place where over the course of a week, there are 600,000 airplane kooks flying around, walking around, lounging about, visiting exhibits, and watching airshows, interspersed with nearly a thousand vendors, and God-only-knows how many displays, programs, and seminars. We were in and amongst this AirVenture frenzy for two-and-a-half days, and saw only maybe a tenth of what there is to see, and only half of the activities we had flagged as things we definitely wanted to do. I have thousands of pictures trying to capture the feeling (don’t worry, I’m not going to post them all), but understand that all of what follows falls woefully short of adequately communicating the experience.

The first thing one notices is that this is not just an airshow; it’s a pilots’ convention. Many of the attendees flew here in their own planes, and the assortment of aircraft is as varied as you’d expect for a group named the “Experimental Aircraft Association.”

The General Aviation area has all the popular private aircraft, with parking (and camping) areas like this going on for hundreds of yards in multiple areas.
Aficionados of particular makes, such as these 1930s-era Beech Model 17 Staggerwing biplanes, a model that was eventually done in by the Bonanza, all park together.
Acres and acres of home-built “Experimental” aircraft.
As well as a full complement of several hundred float planes.

Of course, Airventure also included four hours of air shows every day, featuring not only aerobatics but demonstrations and flights of a wide variety of aircraft.

Twin Tigers (Yak-55s)
Rocky Mountain Renegades (flying Van’s RV-8, Van’s RV-4, Giles G-202)
Red Bull: Kirby Chambliss in Edge 540
The announcer claimed that there was something about this Red Bull MBB Bo 105 helicopter that gave it special capabilities. No matter. It was still terrifying to watch a helicopter do not only loops and rolls, but front- and back-flips.
The legendary Patty Wagstaff (in her Extra 300S), three-time National Aerobatic Champion (!), slicing the ribbon, inverted, at about 20′ high.

And there were a large number of military demonstrations…

F-35 Lightning II. The U.S. stated plan is to buy 2,663 F-35s, which will provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps in coming decades. Deliveries of the F-35 for the U.S. military are scheduled until 2037 with a projected service life up to 2070.
F-22 Raptor. Originally, 750 F-22s were to be purchased. However, in 2009, the program was cut to 187 aircraft due to high costs, a lack of clear air-to-air missions, a ban on exports, and development of the more versatile F-35. The last F-22 was delivered in 2012.
F-22 Raptor being escorted by three World War II P-51 Mustangs. There were dozens of warbird aircraft present, and what’s amazing is all of them are privately owned, restored and maintained by private individuals purely to assure that this country’s heritage of vintage military aircraft remains available for future generations.

The military aircraft, though, we’re limited to the hair-on-fire fighters. This year’s airshow included a special series of flights by military training aircraft…

A Stearman PT-17, the airplane of choice for naval aviators’ first introduction to flight during World War II. My father received his initial training in one of these.
A pair of AT-6 Texans (although the Navy called them “SNJs”), the advanced trainer during World War II, after one graduated from the PT-17. My dad also trained in one of these.
A doubly special moment: a Beechcraft T-6 Texan II (the current Navy trainer) flying alongside an F8F Bearcat (one of the last fighters made during the World War II era).

… and besides the trainers, AirVenture also featured flights of little-heralded, but extremely important “observation” aircraft, mostly used to spot enemy positions and call in hell’s fury on top of them, something that gives me a nice warm feeling in my heart.

A pair of O-1 “Bird Dog” Army aircraft. During the Vietnam war, these planes were used for reconnaissance, target acquisition, artillery adjustment, radio relay, convoy escort and the forward air control of tactical aircraft, including bombers.

A highlight of the show was the aerial firefighting demonstration:

Besides all this, there were also demonstrations by aircraft that, well, defy understanding by normal people.

This guy, for example, took an old barnstormer biplane and for some reason, mounted a jet engine on the bottom. “Wild Side” indeed.
Not to be outdone, these guys took two Yak-55 stunt planes, welded them together in the middle, and then mounted a jet engine under the center section.

But this is the weirdest:

This is some guy flying around on a jet-powered contraption that looks for all the world like a decapitated seagull. And you might notice he looks somewhat nervous. Here’s why…
… this guy is actually laying down on top of the wing, strapped on, I’m sure, but obviously holding on for dear life nonetheless.

But the real highlight of the show was the night airshow.

The Aeroshell demonstration team performing close formation aerobatics at night.
More of the pyrotechnics that characterized the night air show.

I have probably been to over a hundred airshows in my life. As a kid, I grew up at airshows, and air races, and airports, and air-everything. Nothing in my life prepared me for this.

Just one concluding thought. If one is an airplane nut-case, Oshkosh is a little piece of heaven on earth. But it likewise holds a parallel appeal even to normal people: this is also a gathering of people who just love America, who support the military, and who aren’t hesitant or embarrassed by conspicuously patriotic celebrations. Every afternoon show began with the National Anthem, and everyone (as in “everyone”) stood, removed their hats, faced the flag with their hearts covered. Essentially every event, every performer, every display included some kind of a stated thanks to current and former military members, without whom (it was always said) as a country we would have nothing. At one point, Wendy (who is by no stretch an airplane devotee) looked at me during one of the more patriotic moments and said, “These are our peeps…” True, true.