Fifty-one weeks out of the year, Wittman Field in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is an unremarkable, if scenic, stretch of open fields surrounding two long runways arranged in a kind of disconnected “T” configuration. There’s a museum up the way, through the trees, where another small grass runway sits at an angle in between round-topped hangars that call to mind the days of barnstormers and signal fires; of Earhart, Lindbergh, Byrd and Post. But it’s a quiet place, devoid of hustle, bustle, or grand, noisemaking events… as anyone who’s been there in the long, snowy winter months can well attest.
During one short week of the year, however, all of that changes. For seven days at the end of July, the Midwest airport of Oshkosh blooms into a golden city that acts as an irresistible magnet to pilots near and far, drawing us to return, like the swallows to Capistrano, at the appointed day and time each year. For Oshkosh (or the AirVenture convention at Oshkosh, as EAA likes to describe it) is the pilot’s Mecca; the place to which all true believing fliers must journey at least once in their lifetime. And no matter how many times you return in the years that follow, no pilot forgets their first sight or encounter with the holy land.
I was lucky. Many pilots have their licenses for years before finding a way to get to Oshkosh. But due in large part to the fact that I was living in Louisville, Kentucky (so not that far from Wisconsin), my first pilgrimage to Oshkosh came just one year after getting my license, and only six months after buying my first airplane–a trusty but somewhat tired 1946 Cessna 120. I owned it in partnership with the man I was dating at the time; we struck a bargain that since he was an A&P mechanic, he owned (and was responsible for) the firewall forward, and I owned (and was responsible for) the firewall back.
The plane was a flyable project; mechanically sound, but cosmetically awful. It had a bare-metal fuselage that hadn’t been polished in 20 years, which I thought was great (“Why doesn’t everybody have a polished airplane? They’re so pretty!”) until I tried to polish it. The plane also had a truly horrific interior, with a dark brown, diamond-tuck Naugahyde headliner and side panels, and a crinkle-black spray-painted panel highlighted by a center panel covered in wood-grain contact paper. And that’s not even getting into the bright orange and green fluffy stuffing behind the Naugahyde.
Never having been to Oshkosh before, I fretted more than Jim did about what people would think. I looked with dismay at the stubbornly dull finish on the plane and that hideously awful Naugahyde interior we hadn’t had the time or money to replace yet. I could see beyond all that to what she could be and would be with a little more time, love and attention. I knew how many smiles and moments she’d already given us, so she looked beautiful to me even without any shiny metal or paint. But how would anyone else see all that? To the unbiased, critical eyes of an outside observer she probably wouldn’t look like much, and I cringed when I thought of her being criticized or rejected.
We had no illusions about having a Grand Champion airplane. And we’d taken her to other little fly-ins without worrying about her panel or polish job. But this was different. Flying your plane to Oshkosh is like bringing your spouse home to meet the family, and we wanted her to look her best.
Clearly, we couldn’t get the whole plane spruced up before Oshkosh, but I remember working in the hangar every night until one or two in the morning the week before my first journey to the fly-in, scrambling madly to at least get the interior panel re-painted and the annual completed in time to make the trip. I even stayed up an extra couple of hours that last night in a vain attempt to impose a polished shine on its oxidized metal skin. Eventually I gave up, resigned to whatever criticism or judgment the Oshkosh crowd might impose.
The year was 1987, back when the Oshkosh fly-in still had the big “opening weekend” schedule. We left Louisville after work on Friday and got as far as Joliet, Illinois… a town I knew principally from its role in the Robert Redford/Paul Newman film The Sting. We overnighted there, fueled, and departed early the next morning. The mist was still clinging to the valleys and low spots as we climbed out and over a low-hanging cloud layer that the weather people had told us we would encounter en route. The layer was thin… the ceiling below was about 700 feet, and the tops were only a couple of thousand feet high… and we’d been told it was already clear well before our destination. But the feeling of detachment from the earth, above that puffy, isolated cloud layer, was remarkable.
The early morning sun lit the tops of the clouds with gold and silver highlights in the hazy summer sky…bright enough that I wasn’t even sure, at first, of what the bright spot was that had caught my attention, a little bit ahead and east of us. But as we got a little closer, the bright spot came into focus as a beautifully fragile Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” headed in the same direction and sailing along at the same altitude, just above the clouds.
We were a couple of hundred yards apart, but I still had the feeling that we were sneaking up on a skittish butterfly that might bolt if we moved too quickly. We slowed down to get closer to the Jenny’s speed and shadowed it for quite some time. Normally, our 1946 Cessna was the oldest plane in the surrounding airspace. But in the Illinois sky that morning, it was as if we’d been transported back in a Twilight Zone episode to an even earlier time, where Jennies ruled the sky and we were the strange visitors from some future era––where metal had replaced fabric and someone had figured out how to build strength into thin, aluminum fuselage skins.
It’s one of the best parts about flying an old airplane, far enough above the earth to leave obvious landmarks of the current day and year behind. Immersed in a timeless sky, in a plane from era long since past, time becomes a far more fluid element. Shadowing the Jenny that morning, it could easily have been 1946, or 1922, or any date in between. I had the distinct impression of having journeyed out of time, to a place where perhaps, if the radio waves lined up just right, I might even hear a long-departed pilot’s voice like a stray distant AM radio signal in the night.
Jim and I trailed the Jenny in almost reverent silence, not wanting to break the spell. And then, as if the crack between the eras was closing, the Jenny slowly descended from sight into the cloud deck below. One moment it was there; the next it was fading behind wispy tendrils of white vapor, and the next it was gone, slipping silently through a small hole in the clouds.
We remained quiet for quite a few minutes after that, somehow aware of having been granted a moment of grace akin to glimpsing a silver unicorn on a wooded, moonlit night. There are no more Jennies in the skies. We all know that. And yet, there it had been. Right there, in glorious formation with us, for a few magical moments in, or perhaps out of, time.
A few more miles down the road, the layer dissipated and we began to think about our approach into Oshkosh. The Wittman Regional Airport, during the EAA convention, is the busiest airport in the world; not something a novice pilot should attempt. The number of airplanes in close proximity is breathtaking, and multiple airplanes land at one time, on colored dots at various points down the runways. So if you can’t spot land your airplane, don’t bother applying. Given the number of airplanes converging on the airport at one time, the dedicated FAA volunteer controllers who work the show do a truly outstanding job of maintaining safety and order. Over the many years the show has been held, there have been very few arrival or departure incidents.
Being allowed in to the show, on the other hand, is another matter. Parking space at Wittman Airport during the show itself is first-come, first-served, and by the first big weekend back then, the airport was often already filled. Overflow planes had to park at other airports to the north and south … which meant you couldn’t just pitch a tent next to the plane and walk to the rest of the show … or walk back home at the end of the night. Not nearly as much fun.
So getting a parking space at Wittman was a big deal. But many people arrive early to get spots, and here it was, already Saturday morning of the big opening weekend. From what I’d read about the show, our chances of getting a parking spot onsite were going to be slim. And as we neared the first call-in point on the approach, my worry increased. All the Cessnas, Mooneys and Barons calling in ahead of us were already being turned away from the overcrowded field. I was flying, and Jim was handling the radios. I asked him if we should divert. He smiled, shook his head, told me to keep going, and keyed the mike.
“Oshkosh approach, Cessna 66587 is over Ripon, inbound for landing at Wittman Field.”
A crisp voice answered. “Aircraft calling, say type Cessna?”
Jim smiled, savoring the moment. “66587 is a 1946 Cessna 120.”
There wasn’t even a pause. “Roger 587, proceed direct Fisk…”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Then I got a funny tight spot in my throat as I began to understand. Oshkosh wasn’t the type of home where a disapproving aunt waited impatiently to judge your choice of mate. It was home for odd and old airplanes in the very best sense of the word. A place where no matter who or what you were, or how great your imperfections, you could always find acceptance and welcome.
At other airports, our little Cessna 120 had suffered the indignity of being shoved off a taxiway for an impatient King Air and neglected because we were buying only 12 gallons of avgas instead of 400 pounds of jet fuel. But not here. Here, the King Airs were told to go elsewhere, and the red carpet of welcome was being rolled out for a tired little tailwheel Cessna. With three words … “Proceed direct Fisk …” the controller had said it all. “No matter what the rest of the world thinks, little Cessna, you are special and valued and welcome here. Not in spite of your years and miles and patches and outdated electronics, but precisely because of them.”
In that moment, I understood, without anyone ever telling me, the magic that is Oshkosh. And I was reminded of it over and over again, as I spent the next couple of days wandering among the rows upon rows of vintage and experimental airplanes lined up in the sweltering summer sun. I watched a woman polishing a wheel pant on her Lockheed 12A Electra, shunning shade and rest in a last-minute effort to give the plane its Sunday-best shine. I flipped though detailed restoration logs displayed proudly in front of pristine – and not-so-pristine – little taildraggers; took the time to read the details of engine and origin listed on countless other registration signs hung from windows and propellers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw many of the owners furtively watching me, a tender and amusing study in practiced nonchalance and restraint.
I smiled, because I saw myself reflected so easily in their eyes. And I understood the unspoken plea that lay behind all the signs, photos, and mementos so carefully and meticulously displayed. “Please,” they all begged of me, “appreciate my plane. Understand, somehow, how much love and care and sweat have gone into making it fly. See beyond the flaws in the paint; the patch on the wing, to how beautiful it really is inside. How many adventures it has unlocked with its wings. How many hours I poured into building her. See what it could be; how special it already is.”
And I answered, because I understood so well how much the answer meant. “Nice plane,” I’d remark. The eyes came to life with gratitude and relief. It didn’t take much. A smile, a nod, a brief token of praise. “Yes,” the words and gestures all said. “I see. I understand. It’s beautiful, and special, and worth every dime.”
Looking back on it, I think those moments are part of the tonic and cure that lure pilots to Oshkosh every year; inspire us to sacrifice sleep, run gauntlets of thunderstorms, and fight almost as hard to get here, sometimes, as the salmon running upstream. We make the effort because the Oshkosh gathering offers a sense of validation that we need; reassurance that we’re not crazy and we’re not alone. The rest of the year, we may find ourselves struggling to explain to friends and neighbors why we would buy a plane instead of a house, spend years of weekends covered in fiberglass instead of buying a ready-made aircraft, or why the plane, not the car, gets priority in the garage.
But not at Oshkosh. In this magical Brigadoon that emerges from the mist for only a few days every year, we are understood and welcome without having to explain a thing or say a word. No matter how bizarre our experimental design or how patched our antique, we know we can come home here, each July, and find acceptance among others who feel the same magic we do.
And although we may not be consciously aware of it, I think we also come to find that magic again ourselves.
Our attachment to flying is, after all, both a love affair and a marriage. For most of us, there was some unforgettable moment – a story told by an airline pilot uncle, perhaps, or the sight of a particular plane, or maybe even a magical evening flight – when we became entranced with this thing called flying. We fell in love, or we wouldn’t have pursued it with such passion; devoted such time and effort and money to being around it. Like any new romance, it felt magical, full of energy, and we couldn’t get enough of it.
But keep an affair going long enough, and the practicalities of day-to-day life start to creep in around the edges. We buy a plane, and suddenly there’s the care and feeding of a new family member to worry about. The impractical little plane gives way to a bigger, more powerful traveling machine; improved avionics become tempting additions to the simple house we first owned. And while engine maintenance is about as romantic as taking out the garbage, they’re both an indispensable part of any ongoing relationship.
Even Oshkosh recognizes the importance of these practical details. Armed with a shopping list and credit cards, pilots crowd vendor and manufacturer booths in the show’s exhibit buildings. They also spend some time drooling over the imminently better-equipped and more practical new airplanes on display––their mere development cause for celebration because it means the aviation industry is still alive and kicking.
But relationships don’t survive on practicality alone. And no matter how many times I’ve attended the AirVenture show, there always comes a point when I finally slow down, take a deep breath, and let myself wander away from the central display area. In search of some quieter surroundings, I find myself strolling through the show plane camping area. I stop and chat with a Piper Vagabond owner for a moment. His bare-bones panel lacks any electronics or advanced navigation aids, and a tiny, low-powered Vagabond would never fit anyone’s definition of a practical airplane. But he doesn’t seem to care. Indeed, there’s a spark in this guy’s eyes and grin that’s utterly captivating––and entirely different than the measured look of satisfaction I’ve seen in the eyes of many pilots flying much more practical machines.
Move down to the ultralight area and this response is only magnified. I can’t say I have any great personal desire to leave the ground in a lot of the contraptions I see there. But I find a smile creeping across my face as I watch three little helicopters dancing in amongst each other over the airstrip and hear the occasional “Yippee!” drifting down from pilots hanging out in the breeze overhead. Whatever else can be said about ultralights, one thing is clear. These folks are having entirely too much fun with these little machines.
It makes sense, of course. If a plane isn’t going to be practical, it had better at least be fun. Nor is it surprising that the pilots who fly planes like Vagabonds or ultralights seem to have a more intense passion for flight; a spark and energy for simply being up in the sky. They have to, in order to choose machines with such limited practical appeal.
But it’s contagious, this energy. As I wander among all the colors, shapes and beauty of these new and vintage planes, I start to feel a familiar and decidedly impractical feeling tugging at me inside, as if I’d accidentally caught the eye of a long-time lover and suddenly found my knees inexplicably going weak again. Without knowing exactly why, I find myself remembering all those wonderful summer evenings, before I knew anything about power settings or mag checks, piston pin plugs or speed kits. When all I knew was an intoxicating energy that somehow made me believe that flight could be magical and the sky could be mine.
This is the other reason so many of us are lured to this place every year; the drug that makes us burn the midnight oil, develop sudden, timely illnesses at work, and travel hundreds or thousands of miles just to get to a field in eastern Wisconsin. It’s because among all these pilots who never settled down; these incurable romantics who value passion, fun and magic over anything practical, we find ourselves remembering why we fell in love in the first place.
The Oshkosh fly-in is a lot bigger these days than it used to be. Romantic that I am, I kind of miss the old set-up. But the heart is still there, tucked in among the trees and tents and multicolored wings. Whatever else has changed, Oshkosh is still a place where odd designs, impractical machines and even tired little taildraggers are special, valued and welcome – and where even the most practical and settled of pilots can recapture a little of the romance that made the marriage worth pursuing.
This originally appeared in Lane Wallace’s book, Unforgettable. You can enjoy Lane’s nine other “best flights” from landing on a glacier in Alaska to flying her Cheetah across Texas to flying a blimp over the Alps. Unforgettable: My 10 Best Flights is available from Sporty’s.