Oshkosh overhead

To paraphrase the old quote:

“When once you have tasted AirVenture, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned toward Oshkosh, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

There was no Oshkosh in 2020.

All the past weeks spent at Oshkosh under Wisconsin summer skies are memorable; some more memorable than others. I remember one Oshkosh of constant rain, ever present rumbles of thunder, ubiquitous puddles, muddy grounds, but always pleasant dispositions. That summer became known as “SloshKosh.”

Concorde low pass

Some years, Oshkosh is truly unforgettable.

Other summers held promising prospects of seeing things close up most of us in general aviation never have a chance to experience. The sleek Concorde, performing not one, but two eye-catching passes prior to touchdown; the Airbus A380 hanging, low and slow, on short final; walking through an Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport; Bob Hoover entertaining in his Shrike Aero Commander; Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11, appearing together on the 25th anniversary of the Moon landing; and, of course, who can forget Jet Man, one of the few attractions the summer our elected representatives (in their infinite wisdom and in keeping with their interminable rounds of political warfare) decided to reduce the Defense Dept. budget, grounding all military aircraft from performing demonstrations or participating in static displays.

Because Wittman Field stood empty and silent, the summer of 2020 deserves a name as well. I believe it is entirely appropriate to tag this particular part of the last week of July and first week of August 2020 as “NotKosh.”

We have had little control over the sometimes random, sometimes contrived, events that unfolded in front of us in 2020. A worldwide pandemic and its inevitable economic recession, a hotly contested Presidential election, peaceful protests, and out of control riots and looting. In 2020, possibly more than ever before, we needed Oshkosh.

My son and my daughter have been attending Oshkosh with me since they were little. One of our best memories, among many, was watching the afternoon air shows while reclining in the long shadow of the east side of the old control tower. The shade the tower provided, the perfect angle of the grassy hill for viewing, and the close proximity of the tower to cold drinks or ice cream, made that venue a perfect spot to spread our Tweety Bird bedsheet and relax. I had hopes that my grandson would join us at Oshkosh for the first time this past year.

The old tower is gone now. A new tower has taken its place. Change is inevitable. We have found other locations for enjoying the air shows. But even as we seek out the familiar and comfortable, we are continually amazed by the new attractions AirVenture offers each year. More aviation interests are being served and promoted and, even if you are not a pilot, there is more for you to do and see as well. One spectacular success is the Wednesday and Saturday night airshows. If you have experienced one, you know how fantastic they are.

I have always found it interesting that there are so many shared memories of AirVenture, and so many individual, personal memories as well. Oshkosh, in one sense, has always been comfortable and predictable. We all enjoy coming back to the same campsites; engaging again with groups of wonderful friends; having breakfast in the Warbird Café; visiting the Red Barn for lunch; standing three deep in front of an avionics vendor’s booth in an exhibit hangar; enjoying a bag of freshly popped popcorn in the Vintage aircraft area; drinking cool water from the tree-shaded bubblers next to the Brown Arch; delighting in “Jerry’s One Man Band;” watching the endless line of ultralights departing and arriving on the grass strip on the south end of the grounds; and sitting with a handheld radio under the wing of a DC-3 and tracking the arriving aircraft on Runway 27. “Red and blue RV, make your base turn now. Green dot, land on the green dot.” “Yellow and white Cessna high wing on downwind, rock your wings now.” “Piper Cherokee, nice job, exit onto the grass when able, and follow the flagmen to parking. Welcome to Oshkosh!”

Night airshow fireworks

The night air show has been a big hit in recent years.

I often started my mornings at Oshkosh with warm, freshly made donuts (plain, sugar, or cinnamon) and coffee. This operation, a not-so-well-kept secret, started in a tent next to the IAC display area many years ago, approximately at the corner of Wittman Road and Boeing Plaza. Several years later it was moved slightly farther north where it now shares enclosed space with several hamburger/hotdog/chicken sandwich vendors. Wooden picnic tables with colorful blue and orange umbrellas providing mostly unrestricted views of the flight line and Runway 18-36 are set out in front of the walk up windows.

When not flying, I cannot envision a better place to be than sitting under an umbrella, sun coming up, coffee and donuts within easy reach, and watching AirVenture wake up slowly in the coolness of an early morning. In the distance, the Ford Trimotor’s engines are belching and turning over. The relative calm is broken only by a few GA aircraft landing or departing, or the thunderous roar of a formation of T-6s gracefully climbing and banking their polished wings in the direction of Lake Winnebago. Delivery trucks, transmissions grinding, occasionally pass in front of me. Pilots and families at other tables smile and talk in low voices about their arrival experiences, how they spent the previous night, or formulate plans for the day ahead.

I am at a point in my life where there is no compelling need for me to buy stuff, but I want to walk through the Fly Market anyway. It would be a challenge to attempt to describe the Fly Market. Like Las Vegas, better to counsel others to walk through it and see for themselves. If you are a pilot or builder, often you can find exactly what you are looking for. To everyone else, it is a swap meet/garage sale; an outdoor museum; and sort of an open-air Walmart, offering everything from flight suits, aviation books, sunglasses, one of a kind aircraft parts, Ginsu knives, hand tools, massage chairs, aviation apparel, bed pillows, and cookware. Whatever you are looking for, you will likely find it there.

In 2020, EAA offered many virtual seminars and presentations to fill the void left by the Forums and Workshops remaining dark and empty. Online is fine, but it is not the same. No aviation celebrities on stage or sitting just a few feet away from you when you are participating only with your laptop from home. No arriving flight of F-22 Raptors in full afterburner to drown out any speaker’s voice. You can miss out by not being there.

Several years ago, I attended a talk on the Grumman A6 Intruder, the Navy’s primary attack aircraft until retired in 1997. I watched a gentleman come in and take a seat a few rows away from me. He had shoulder length, tied-back hair, and a long beard. He sported denim bib overalls and sandals. He could easily be mistaken for a member of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame or, if holding a guitar, a member of the band ZZ Top. I surmised he was connected with a commune and probably sold dope out of the trunk of his car. He must have become lost and just wandered in.

The presenter, neat and trim, was a retired naval aviator who flew A6s off a carrier deck in Vietnam. About halfway through the presentation, the guy in the bib overalls raised his hand. He proceeded to stand up and advise that he was a Marine Corps pilot who flew A6s out of Da Nang. He wanted to correct a technical point the presenter made concerning the A6, as the presenter was apparently accurate when referring to the Navy’s aircraft, but inaccurate as it related to the Marine’s land-based ops. Once I recovered from the shock, I remembered something about not judging a book by its cover.

Oshkosh overhead

A summer with Oshkosh was a strange summer.

I missed taking the bus to the EAA Museum and the strangers you meet on the short commute. You can walk there, but it is easier to walk to the Bus Park and take the regularly scheduled transportation. Always lines, but everyone is courteous and happy. On the bus, it was not unusual to discover that the young couple in front of me flew in from North Carolina, the older couple behind me flew in from New Mexico, and the two young men sitting across the aisle, wide-eyed and excited, are from Brazil on their first trip to Oshkosh.

The Seaplane Base (96W), located on a photogenic bay on the west shore of Lake Winnebago south of Oshkosh, stood quiet and green and ready in 2020. The colorful Super Cubs, Cessnas, Lakes, de Havillands, and larger multiengine types, were not circling overhead or carving Winnebago’s placid waters last summer. They were elsewhere. The woods, always inviting for its shade, was silent, with only the faint humming of insects and the chirping birds who make their homes within. Out on the lake, a few motorboats in the distance pulled water skiers or returned from a morning’s fishing. If you went there, you found the moorings empty and the bay’s waters still.

There are ghosts who attend Oshkosh. Not scary phantoms. Not frightful spooks of disasters or mayhem, but good and endearing memories of pilots who once were and are no more. They may be a mom or a dad, a spouse, a brother, a daughter, or a good friend. If you look closely when you are on the AirVenture grounds, you can see their ethereal images sitting on a bench enjoying ice cream on a typical hot, humid Oshkosh afternoon. You can see them on the flight line, excited about being there, and proudly discussing the work and long hours they put in to build or restore their airplanes. You can see them at the Theater in the Woods enjoying the warm breeze in the company of friends while taking in the evening’s program. You can see them in Paul’s Woods, or Camp Scholler, or the North 40, relaxing on lawn chairs outside of their campers and tents, laughing and talking late into the dark and gentle night.

Some say that if you love airplanes, Oshkosh is airplane heaven.

I plan on returning to that heaven this year.

Dean Zakos
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4 replies
  1. Heidi C. Pritchard
    Heidi C. Pritchard says:

    My sentiments exactly! It is always amazing to me to see an incredibly large crowd and not one foul mood.! I love AirVenture!!

    Reply
  2. Bill Foraker
    Bill Foraker says:

    I loved this. I have experienced many of the feelings described. I attended OSH for about 15 years and then started volunteering, first in Warbirds and then in Air Operations. The wonderful pilot, A&P, IA, and friend who got me started working there, Dave Thomas, passed away a few years ago. I can’t go to the Warbirds flightline without thinking of him, and about Tom Wise, Warbirds CO for many years.

    As a long-winded pilot with a background in writing, I loved every word. The only change I might make, as a former T-6 owner/pilot, is the passage, ‘…a formation of T-6s gracefully climbing and banking…”. I might have said – a formation of T-6s noisily clawing its way skyward. ;-)

    Thanks very much for the nostalgia.

    Bill Foraker

    Reply

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