A First Time Experience at Oshkosh

First of all, I will come right off the bat and say that this is a mix of a story and an informative article as I will try to convey my experience at AirVenture 2018.

As you all have known myself and Zinger Aviation Media over the years, the scope of airshows that are covered by Zinger Aviation Media have included events in the Northeastern United States, with some exceptions.  A trip to AirVenture was always on the proverbial bucket list, but never happened due to a variety of reasons.  It was always a "I'll go there one year" and with the midpoint of 2018 approaching and the awesome lineup of participants started to take shape, it became much more apparent that a serious look at attending AirVenture was needed.

I will tell you right off the bat.  If you are the kind of person who goes to airshows for the military flying displays, you will be very disappointed.  Yes, there is usually some modern military in the air and on the ground, but there's so much more to AirVenture than that.  AirVenture is a convention, a gigantic fly-in, an annual gathering, and everything else thrown into the mix when it comes to aviation that also just happens to have daily airshow displays with some of the best civilian performers, some of the most unique performers, and some of the most dynamic warbird displays in all of North America.  Those daily airshows are but a tiny part of the Oshkosh experience.

Everyone that I spoke to that has been to AirVenture (and realize that many simply call it Oshkosh, and that's correct too) that you should spend as much time as possible at AirVenture.  Many people only attend for a couple days, yet others will attend the entire week.  AirVenture features hundreds of aviation-related forums for just about anyone to attend, dozens of aircraft manufacturers have displays and are actively selling aircraft, there are multiple large hangars with vendors selling just about everything aviation, vendors outdoors selling more aviation-related items, and so much more.  Boeing even has a giant temporary building set up with some displays and the opportunity to purchase items on site from The Boeing Store, and Ford has a large vehicle setup as well as a demonstration area.

Literally thousands of aircraft visit Oshkosh and the sheer variety of aircraft you'll see is just mind-boggling.  There are literally hundreds of warbirds that attend, ranging from dozens upon dozens of T-6 Texans, T-34 Mentors, and even nearly a dozen and a half P-51 Mustangs of all variants.  Sections of Wittman Regional Airport are divided up for all of the different aircraft.  For instance, most of the warbirds reside in their own area towards the northern end of the airport, vintage and ultralight aircraft usually populate the areas south of airshow center, homebuilts take up a massive chunk of real estate north of airshow center but south of warbirds, and most of the larger aircraft and many modern military aircraft will occupy Boeing Plaza near airshow center.  Other modern military aircraft will occupy a ramp near the northern end of the airport (usually not accessible to the public) as well as visiting corporate aircraft.

Those wishing to fly into Wittman Regional Airport and camp would park in either the North 40 or South 40 parking areas.  These areas are located towards the northern and southern areas of the airport and make up the thousands of aircraft that visit AirVenture every year.  Camping by your airplane is a very popular way to stay at AirVenture, as you do not have to fight vehicular traffic getting into the airport daily, parking, and waiting in line to get in.  Getting into and out of Wittman Regional Airport around and during AirVenture itself is a complicated procedure - enough so that a special NOTAM is required for all pilots to abide by.  Pilots and aircraft from all over converge onto Oshkosh via two different routes with the names of FISK and RIPON depending on the runway they will land on.  The two smaller runways at Wittman Regional Airport are closed down for the week as they are used for the daily airshows and the two larger runways, 9/27 and 18/36, are used for all traffic.

Because of the sheer volume of traffic that comes into and out of the airport during that week, Oshkosh has the distinctive title of being the World's Busiest Airport and the control tower even has a banner stating "World's Busiest Control Tower" hung during the week.  Bear in mind the airport is only open fourteen hours a day, and during AirVenture days, it is only open about ten hours because of the daily airshows.  The sheer number of aircraft visiting AirVenture is just mind-boggling and anyone attending for the first time will be in disbelief in the number of operations taking place on a daily basis.  To put it bluntly, from 6:00 am until about 2:00 pm each day, there is CONSTANT activity going on.  It could be just arrivals and departures, photo flights going out and coming back, people getting rides in the Bell 47s, Ford TriMotors, and B-17 Flying Fortress, and short media flights with many of the performers.

It is so busy that two different and unusual procedures need to take place.  Arriving aircraft are spaced much closer than normal to increase the number of arrivals to Wittman Regional Airport and by doing so, the controllers (it is a one-way conversation, they will use binoculars to identify aircraft by their type, paint scheme, or other easily identifiable features and initially tell you to rock your wings to acknowledge and advise of further instruction; the only time a two-way conversation is needed is for special considerations and for declarations of emergency) will advise pilots to land on the same runway at the same time, but on different parts of the runway.  These different parts of the runway are identified by colored dots that can be seen from miles away and the landings MUST be precisely on the spots assigned by the controllers.  In addition, because of the volume of traffic, the parallel taxiway just east of Runway 18/36 becomes a temporary runway - Runway 18L/36R - while 18/36 becomes 18R/36L.

Departing aircraft follow nearly the same procedures as arriving aircraft, and usually lineup on the runways on either side of the centerline to maximize the number of departures in a given span of time.  Ground controllers marshal aircraft in and giant signs are mounted near the runways and along the taxiways advising pilots to monitor certain frequencies.  Just watching these takeoffs and landings every day is an interesting experience in itself.  Yes, some accidents do happen but these are usually very minor in nature and the airport staff and volunteers will use minimal downtime to make sure pilot and aircraft are okay.

The grounds themselves, aside from the sheer numbers and variety of aircraft, is immense.  One of the things I was advised by many Oshkosh veterans was that I was going to do a lot of walking.  They were right.  I can vouch for at least seven miles for each of the seven days I was on the grounds.  There are free trams that run from nearly the control tower that go out to areas like the warbirds and the vintage aircraft and that will save a little bit of time and energy on the walking.  There are lots of EAA tents set up where you can purchase EAA gear as well as AirVenture shirts and the like.  You can easily spend thousands of dollars on shirts and other commemorative gear if you're not careful.  Food is plentiful and food booths are located throughout the grounds at a somewhat reasonable price.

Attendance at Oshkosh is so large that all reservations at hotel rooms in the town of Oshkosh and surrounding communities fill up more than eight months before the current year's AirVenture.  Residents even open up their houses to anyone wishing to rent a room to stay.  In addition, the Wittman Regional Airport is home to a giant campground known as Camp Scholler, located on the southwestern side of the airport.  Visitors with RVs, tow-behind campers, and tent trailers will set up there for the duration of their stay along with people who have simple to elaborate tent and camping setups.  Everything for personal comfort is covered in the campgrounds; there are multiple portable restrooms and there are shower houses scattered in key locations in the campgrounds (Camp Scholler, the North 40, and the South 40) along with convenience stores.  It is recommended to utilize a bicycle, moped, or similar to get from the campground to the AirVenture show grounds as you do not have to fight the traffic and the campground shuttle bus doesn't run 24/7 (it stops at a few stops in the campground).  The walk from the furthest point in Camp Scholler to the main gate can be upwards of three miles, hence the two-wheeled recommendation.  Camping is definitely recommended as it keeps you within the airport grounds and there really is no need to leave the airport unless you choose to visit the seaplane base on Lake Winnebago.

The daily airshow displays are nothing like a normal airshow.  A normal airshow utilizes one person known as the Airboss, who in control of the airspace during the airshow time.  AirVenture 2018 utilized four Airbosses.  A normal airshow features one announcer along with any other specialized announcers for any of the other acts at the show that may have their own announcer or narrator.  AirVenture 2018 utilized four announcers.  More than two dozen different performers were featured in AirVenture, and each airshow display was different each day.  Even the biggest name aerobatic performers like Sean Tucker, Skip Stewart, Patty Wagstaff, Matt Chapman, and Michael Goulian flew up to three different days.  The warbirds display at AirVenture features dozens of aircraft in the air at the same time, and one of the days normally features a warbird display with only jet warbirds (of which there are numerous jets taking part in this).  Each day's airshow had a different theme.  For instance, Tuesday's airshow display featured past Bill Barber Award winners, Wednesday was about women in aviation, and Friday was about the veterans.  Demonstrations by the F-16 Viper Demo Team occurred each day beginning on Wednesday and daily C-17 Globemaster III demonstrations took place beginning on Thursday.  Two nighttime airshows took place on Wednesday night and Saturday night.  AirVenture 2018's Wednesday night show was cancelled and postponed to Thursday due to severe storms rolling through Oshkosh during the night show.  Besides the nighttime airshows, other twilight displays are held in areas along AirVenture like the STOL competition near the ultralight area, a parachuting display, and a display using paragliders.

New acts made their Oshkosh debuts in 2018.  Jeff Boerboon debuted a beast of an aircraft known as the Yak-110, which combined two Yak-55s into one airplane with a jet engine hung underneath.  Redline Airshows debuted their nighttime display with their two new RV-8s.  The Twin Tigers Aerobatic Team debuted their latest creation with a night show that features one of the Yak-55s outlined in some awesome LEDs.  The Great Lakes Drone Company produced a fifteen minute drone light show that had never before been seen over AirVenture.  Sean Tucker had made his final solo aerobatic performance over AirVenture with the Oracle Challenger III, and it was announced that the Oracle Challenger III will be hung in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in 2021.  The airshows are held along Runway 18/36 and provide excellent photo opportunities as the sun steadily makes its way behind the crowd.

So, from a first timer's experience, AirVenture 2018 was certainly much more than I anticipated it would be.  I had been told that you'll be overwhelmed by the number of airplanes you see (I certainly was), that I would not have enough time to see everything or do everything I want to do (which was true), and that I would need the entire week to see just about as much as I want (which I did).  It was a last minute decision to go - I had decided on going just two and a half weeks prior to the start, and I admit that I wish I would have better prepared for the trip and planning a bit more ahead of time.  If you want to go to AirVenture 2019, start planning things months in advance.  Hotel rooms book up quickly, other rooms will eventually fill up, rental cars out of Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison, and Appleton will fill up fast (and you'll have to fly into Chicago or Minneapolis and drive over to Oshkosh), and your options will become limited rather quickly.  Definitely bring a new pair of shoes and expect them to get ruined by the end of AirVenture whether it be from all of the miles of walking or wet or muddy grounds.  In addition to drinking water, I do recommend drinking Gatorade, Powerade, or similar drinks to keep your energy levels up, especially if you plan to do the entire week.  I highly recommend anyone who hasn't gone to make it a point to go at least once in your life.

The below slideshow is just a very small sample of photos I took while on the grounds at Wittman Regional Airport.  I had also decided to film each airshow display and those can be found here.  Apologies for the large watermarks, as they are needed in this day and age.