The crowds at Oshkosh are the best in the world, because they are fans, not spectators -- that's what airshow pilot Mike Goulian told me last week -- and that makes all the difference. His remarks struck me because I had just been at an airshow a few weeks before, and had been wondering what really drove the crowds to be there. Most of them, I think, are drawn by the heavy metal, the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, the jet trucks and walls of fire. I wondered how much they are really interested in all the other airshow pilots who are flying their hearts out in their little aerobatic airplanes. Can they even tell one from another? Can they appreciate the awesome power of Sean D. Tucker's biplane flying sideways with its nose in the air, or the impossibility of Chuck Aaron's looping Red Bull helicopter, or the perfection of Goulian's quick and clean arcs and tumbles?
Well, at EAA AirVenture, the crowds know the difference, they appreciate the nuances and they recognize the world-class skills. They are fans, not just spectators, and fandom is the first step on the path of engagement. Those fans will become flying students, if they're not already, and they'll become pilots who fly their own Cubs or King Airs or Mustangs. But that path from fan to participant can be a long and bumpy one, and many will get discouraged along the way. That's been a topic of concern in the aviation world for a while now, and it will be interesting to see if the issue gains traction in Oshkosh next week.
It seems to me that engagement is the essential first step, and the keys to engagement are context, detail, stories, human connection. These things are free, but they're not easy to nurture, and too easy to overlook. Stories create a path from the outside world into the aviation world, and to the people who live there. They show what aviators are doing today or have done in the past, and inspire new ideas for the future. Stories make the world of aviation an interesting place, where people want to go.
The difference between an airshow that's full of buzzing little aircraft filling the time, and a show that's engaged with the audience, is the context and detail needed to appreciate each performer's unique and incredible skills. That's the lure, the human connection to a new and exciting world full of possibilities, that brings folks to Oshkosh. And that's what will keep aviation alive.