For one week every year, at the end of July, the relatively small US town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin becomes the centre of the universe for all things aviation. Temporarily home to thousands of aircraft this show is any aviator or enthusiast’s dream.  Many of us have probably written ‘Oshkosh’ on our ‘To Do’ lists at some time and this year I had the opportunity to convert the ‘dream’ into reality. Rich Freail reports from Oshkosh for AeroResource.

The event, more properly known as EAA AirVenture, has taken place at Wittman Regional Airport since 1970. Having started in 1953, this year was the 60th gathering organised by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).  During EAA AirVenture, the airfield becomes the busiest in the world with thousands of movements at both Wittman and at nearby airfields, such as Fond du Lac, which provide support.   Wittman is well equipped to cope with this sudden influx, with a new modern tower and four runways – with the two main ones running north/south and east/west, but not intersecting, allowing for greater traffic movement.  In addition, there are numerous purpose built hangars and exhibition halls which are supported by many temporary structures.

Like most major airshows, each year EAA AirVenture is organised around themes and this year there were several including the 75th anniversary of the Piper J-3 Cub and the 40th anniversary of the Vans RV, the most popular amateur-built aircraft in the world. The event also saluted service veterans – the ‘greatest generation in the air’ – by remembering significant events such as the Doolittle raid and the Tuskegee airmen.  As such, a number of ground and flying events took place throughout the week to highlight the various themes and anniversaries.

First impressions are always important and here it is of a modern well-laid out, clean and efficiently organised venue with very friendly and helpful staff and volunteers.  Reflecting on some of the common gripes about UK airshows, at Oshkosh there were no queues to get in or out (other than 10 minutes on Saturday after the night display), there were plenty of toilets around the site, again with no queues, and the catering was excellent, with plenty of choice while offering good value, with many places to sit, eat and chat with fellow visitors.  However, the sheer scale of the venue is hard to grasp and does take some getting use to!  The statistics are also huge, with over 10,000 aircraft visiting the show, 800 trade exhibitors and more than 500,000 visitors with 6,000 volunteers assisting. The Wednesday this year equalled a previous record for aircraft movements in a single day, with just over 2000 arrivals and departures. This year saw around 2,500 aircraft on display of which 978 were home-builds, 907 were vintage and 336 were warbirds. There was also a military presence throughout the week.

To cater for this vast collection of aircraft the airfield is divided into distinct zones and aircraft categories each have their own designated area such as warbirds, show-planes or ultra-lights.  It’s a long walk between them, but four different ‘trams’ offer transport around the site together with a bus service providing transport to the seaplanes at nearby Lake Winnebago,  about 15 minutes away.  The general rule for EAA AirVenture is that static aircraft are not cordoned off and are easily accessible on the ‘look but don’t touch’ principle. During the whole week I only saw four aircraft which were taped-off and two of those were military, the Wisconsin ANG F-16C and the Blue Angels F-18, which had stopped-by only for the morning.  There are several locations that highlight specific aircraft and Phillips 66 Plaza is both central and the biggest, facilitating a dozen or more key aircraft, some of which were changed every day.  Those aircraft on the Plaza were generally open to the public, particularly the larger ones, such as the C-5 Galaxy, the KC-135 Stratotanker and the B-17G Flying Fortress (Yankee Lady).  The range of types and varieties on static display across the airfield is immense with everything from a flying Bleriot XI replica to the unique and soon to be replaced ORBIS DC-10 ‘Flying Eye Hospital’.     However, not all are present for the whole week and an opportunity to examine or photograph something today, may not present itself the following day.  In fact, with so many aircraft movements it is just not possible to keep track of all of the comings and goings with aircraft frequently appearing or disappearing without warning.

The number and varieties of warbirds was considerable, including the newly restored A-36 Apache ‘Baby Carmen’ and Stinson Reliant Mark 1 AT-19 in Fleet Air Arm colours, recently refurbished B-25J ‘Georgie’s Gal’, together with first-timers C-46 Commando ‘The Tinker Belle’ and PV-2 Harpoon ‘Attu Warrior’. On most days ‘Warbirds Field’ contained around 16 or 17 P-51 Mustangs,  4/5 P-40s, 4 B-25 Mitchells, an A-26 Invader, a  group of DC-3 and C-47s, an Avenger, 2/3 Wildcats and a Dauntless to name only a very few of those present.  In addition, there were numerous aircraft from the Vietnam era, together with a fantastic OV-1 Mohawk and a range of privately owned post-war jets, including a Super Pinto,  a couple of A-4 Skyhawks, an FJ-4 Fury, an F-86 Sabre,  any number of L-39 Albatros and several T-33s.  The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) had a significant presence at the show, including B-29 ‘Fifi’.  A wide-range of warbirds were available for rides during the week, including several Mustangs, the Dauntless, B-17 and B-29.

Although not a military show, the services have a significant presence with many aircraft coming and going throughout the week.  The event seems very well supported by the US Navy and Marines. Other than those previously mentioned,  aircraft on static display included a C-17 Globemaster,  US Army ‘Blackhawk’,  C-12 Huron, F/A-18 Blue Angels, E-2C Hawkeye, P-3C Orion, EA-6B Prowler, T-6 and T-45 Goshawk.  A number of others, including an EA-18G Growler, two T-38 Talons and a T-39 Sabreliner, arrived on the Friday but spent the show on the ‘far side’ hidden from view.

Elsewhere on the ground a number of exhibition halls provide the opportunity to examine speciality exhibits and speak to the manufacturers about their latest innovations. Everything is on show, and available to purchase, from the latest Cirrus aircraft (very nice, but expensive) down to the smallest widget for home-builds, from paintings to books (there are numerous opportunities for author/veteran signings and autographs) and from aircraft instruments to aircraft polish! The magnificent EAA Museum is situated near to the main entrance and can be reached by a walk or bus journey from the main area of activity.  Housing many unique aircraft, including a significant display about the Rutan brothers, together with a few other surprises this facility is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Once done with the exhibitor halls, the various shops and the static aircraft there is still plenty to keep visitors occupied.  Everyday there are a vast array of forums, workshops, seminars and lectures, about 200 per day, held at a number of venues dotted around the airfield. Some are open air, while others are held in theatres. Some are highly specialised, for example, ‘Turbo System Troubleshooting’, while others are more generalised, such as a lecture on the P-38 ‘Glacier Girl’ or a presentation by the display pilot of the A-10 Thunderbolt II. Bearing in mind the thousands of people camping on site, events continued into the evening concluding with pop concerts and film shows, in an open air theatre.  Of great interest were the ‘Warbirds in Review’ presentations held amongst those aircraft.  Often two aircraft were pulled together in front of tiered seating while a presentation, usually an hour long, was made.  Typical examples were the Phantom F-4 and MiG-21, presented by Vietnam vets and former foes, Brig. General Dan Cherry  and Nguyen Hong My and the two ‘Old Crow’ P-51B and P-51D Mustangs,  presented by C.E Bud Anderson and Jack Roush.

The flying display also varies from day-to-day, although a number of key acts appeared regularly throughout the week.  Again, like the static parks, there is no crowd-line fence. Instead it is marked by a line burnt into the grass and the occasional small bollard every 50 yards or so, which are also there to mark the parking lines for aircraft. The crowd were extremely compliant and it was well policed by polite but firm roving marshals on mopeds. Strict adherence will hopefully ensure the lack of barriers continues. Crowd centre, near to the Plaza was well-packed, but moving a short distance away provided acres of space.  .  The flying display lasts for about 3.5 hours. It starts every day at 2.30pm and is divided into two components:  Showcase, lasting an hour, and then the air display itself.   Showcase highlights around six demonstrations per day, examples being the latest prototype kit-plane such as the Sub Sonex Jet, a new GA aircraft or a special visitor such as the JU-52 Rimowa.   The air display itself can also be sub-divided into two parts: the warbirds section and the rest, comprising about a dozen acts each day.

For the first four days the warbirds have the first air display slot lasting 30 minutes  and it is hard to believe how much can be crammed into that time span  or how many aircraft into the space above your head – think of the Duxford ‘Balbo’ on steroids!   Multi-engine aircraft such as the B-25, DC-3, C-46 and B-29 fly a left hand pattern, while other types such as Mustangs, Avengers, Wildcats and P-40s fly a right. These are over flown by separate smoke-trailing formations including AT-6s/Harvards, T-28s, T-34s and Yaks arriving from North, South and West!  As great as it was to watch, for me personally, the most spectacular aspect was watching (and hearing!) the mass take-offs of these vintage warplanes.  Aircraft movements were often rotated between the two runways, giving ample opportunity throughout the week to witness all types, either landing or taking-off. Eventually, the formations would split with the ‘top-cover’ aircraft usually breaking to land on the far runway away from the crowd, while the allotted fighters, bombers or transport aircraft gave their own demonstrations. The types varied each day but the flying was often similar, with an oval race-track pattern being flown by numerous aircraft in trail. This provided little opportunity for individual demonstrations but there were some exceptions. For example, the Dauntless, as it turned towards the airfield frequently climbed to height and then peeled away, giving an excellent demonstration of its dive-bombing technique.

On Friday and Saturday the warbird element had grown to 90 minutes and included the CAF display team ‘Tora, Tora, Tora!’ making their EAA AirVenture debut. It was a highly watchable and entertaining display with some great flying, plenty of explosions and lots of smoke! The Friday warbird section was well utilised to tell the whole story of the air war in the Pacific  from Pearl Harbor with ‘Tora’, via the Doolittle raid and other set-pieces,  through to the dropping of the atomic bomb, in this case by B-29 ‘Fifi’, (with Enola Gay’s navigator, Theodore Van Kirk , on board), complete with a ‘big-bang’.

Throughout the week jet displays were few and far between. Thursday was billed as ‘Jet Day’ but unfortunately a severe storm engulfed Oshkosh for a short period before ‘Showcase’. Some aircraft on the ground were damaged and the weather caused serious problems in preparing some of the older jets for their slot. Nevertheless, we were treated to an F-86 Sabre and T-33 Shooting Star solo, while the Hoppers Jet Team (3 L-39 Albatros) flew with the F-86.  During the week there were role demos from the F/A-18C of VFA-126 and a couple of solos from the A-10 Thunderbolt.  Despite the lack of military jet displays there were still plenty of different military types flying in and out. However, the jet highlights of the week undoubtedly were the USAF Heritage Flight (Fri/Sat) and the USN Tailhook Legacy Flight (Sat/Sun).  The Heritage Flight consisted of the A-10 Thunderbolt, flown by Major John Collier, and P-38 Lightning ‘Glacier Girl’, flown by Steve Hinton. Also, as excellent as it was unexpected, the Navy flight consisted of the East Coast Team’s F/A-18C, an A-4B of VA-76, ‘USS Bon Homme Richard’ and a T-2B Buckeye. Sadly the last flying FJ-4 Fury, which was due to complete the four-ship, went ‘tech’ shortly after take-off.

The quality of the remaining air display acts was also ‘top notch’, with many individual aerobatic champions on show. Amongst others Sean D. Tucker (Oracle Challenger III), Melissa Pemberton (Edge 540), and John Mohr (Stearman) performed startling feats of airmanship and made full use of their ‘zero feet’ waivers.  Further acts by Chuck Aaron in the  Red Bull Bo-105 helicopter, Jim Pietz in the aerobatic Bonanza, parachutists (Liberty Parachute Team and the Canadian Skyhawks)   and comedy acts by the Alamaba Boys and Kyle Franklin (both Piper Cubs) added to the general variety of the show. There was also a heart-stopping old-fashioned wing-walking act by Teresa Stokes ‘on’ a Showcat bi-plane, flown by Gene Soucy and which is quite possibly the nosiest plane on the planet.  Personally though, four highlights stood-out: (i) Team RV, who would have thought that a 12-ship aerobatic formation team of Vans RVs could be so entertaining? (ii) the Bob Hoover Tribute involving a Shrike Commander which displayed with two engines, then one and finally none, completing a power-less loop at crowd centre followed by a barrel roll and then joined the circuit and landed (iii) the Aeroshell Team, flying close formation aerobatics in their distinctive red and white AT-6s (Harvards), an amazing sight and sound and superb display! (iv) Matt Younkin and his Twin Beech 18 aerobatic display – dynamic, graceful and utterly brilliant, for me the outstanding ‘civilian’ act of the week.

On reflection the only quibbles were the previously mentioned military aircraft being parked out of sight and the commentary, which was at times a little bit ‘hyper’, as well as slightly wayward with historical facts!  However, these are minor and insignificant grumbles when taking into account the sheer scale of this event. The weather was brilliant and everyone was genuinely friendly and happy to talk aviation.   It is so much more than just an airshow and there is nothing like it on this side of the Atlantic.  Here’s looking forward to EAA AirVenture 2013!