AVweb's AirVenture Survival Guide — Part One
[Editor's Note: Rick wrote this Survival Guide several years ago and, by popular demand, we're reprinting it now with updates for 2007.]
The shards of the smashed piggy bank crunch as you reposition yourself while drawing lines on the sectionals spread out on the living-room floor. You are going to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2007. You're working on the route so you can make it there and back as efficiently as possible in that little bit of vacation time you managed to wrangle while not spending more than was in that piggy bank. As you plan, you can't help but have that nagging worry you are going to miss something or mess up somehow because AirVenture just seems so overwhelmingly big. How in the world do you plan for the trip to the Experimental Aviation Association's annual convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin? What day(s) should you attend? How long do you need to see "everything"? What should you try to see? Is it possible to fly in on the first day of the air show? What should you bring?
I will try to answer a lot of those questions in the few minutes it takes to read this survival guide. It was pulled together from the experience of a number of folks who have been attending regularly for over 30 years. It includes a checklist of a few things which are handy to take along, with a discussion of why each one comes in handy. I recognize we all fight the never-ending battle of what to take versus the weight limitations of general aviation airplanes, so the checklist is limited to light things which are helpful.
This article is as blunt and plain-spoken as possible about items regarding safety and courtesy because I feel strongly about them. Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world during AirVenture; that means every pilot who flies in has an absolute obligation to know what he or she is doing, or people will die. People die every year getting to Oshkosh, so the process is a serious matter. I wrote about it last fall in a column. In this article I also express some opinions that are not necessarily those of the AVweb editors, and which are quite arbitrary. Tough. The opinions were developed over a lot of years of going to OSH, so I'm sticking with them, knowing very well they are not any better than yours. By the way, stick around to the end and I will share with you the secret of telling who are the low-time pilots at AirVenture.
To aviators, hearing the Wisconsin city of Oshkosh named simply means the largest air show in the world. This air show/ convention/ aviation happening is not big; it is vast. For those who have not heard, it temporarily makes Oshkosh's Wittman Field the busiest airport in the world. This year's event lasts from July 23 through 29, 2007. Believe it or not, roughly one-tenth of all the airplanes in the world will be at one of the three official airports -- Oshkosh (KOSH), Fond du Lac (KFLD), and Appleton (KATW), Wis. -- at some time during the show.
When To Go & For How Long?
First, take a deep breath and accept the fact that there are some things you are going to miss. That isn't so bad because even if you are the most dedicated aviation junkie on the planet and motivated by stark terror that you are going to miss something important, it is OK because there is such a mix of events you won't be the least bit interested in a lot of them. There. Feel better?
As a general rule you can see almost everything in two very full days. Three days will let you see everything you want to visit, including the very well-done museum, Pioneer Airport, the seaplane base, and other spots slightly off the beaten path.
If you are an EAA member, get out your recent issues of Sport Aviation and look at the sections on the upcoming convention. Those will have the schedule of forums and airshows.
Also, check the EAA's AirVenture Web site for almost everything about the event, including schedules. If you want to work on your welding skills or attend classes on fuel systems, arrange your stay to fit the forums you want to see.
A huge number of people schedule their visit to see certain air show performers. EAA is wise to this, and, to keep interest up throughout the entire convention and avoid bunching the crowds on the weekend, some of the best air shows are spread out throughout the convention.
The weekend is the busiest time, but due to the Monday opening day and a steady decline in attendance over the last few years, it is not the madhouse it used to be. Keep that in mind in your planning. If you are flying in for the weekend there is a chance the Oshkosh airport will be full and you will have to divert to Fond du Lac or Appleton. For planning purposes, the Oshkosh airport will probably fill up by Monday afternoon but then empty out a bit late Tuesday. While you need to be ready to divert because OSH can close for many reasons, the fact that you are arriving on Friday or Saturday no longer means you have to assume you'll be going into Appleton or Fond du Lac.
If you want to just look at multitudes of airplanes parked in the various display and parking areas, arriving early in the week and leaving before the weekend can be a disappointment; however, it is the best time to visit the exhibitors because their booths are not nearly so busy. On the other hand, the stories of fabulous deals made with vendors on the last day of the convention, even allowing for exaggeration, are pretty staggering. If you are going to buy new avionics, components, gadgets or whizbangs, go near the end of the convention. Some vendors will be out, but many will be marking prices way down and will negotiate deals to avoid hauling the stuff home.
If you intend to hit the Fly Market the stacks of "stuff" are tallest the first days.
Things that come in handy at OSH:
- tie down stakes and rope
- comfortable walking shoes
- small backpack
- water bottle
- light snacks
- plastic sheet/tarp
- duct tape
- extra rope
- lightweight cardboard for signs
- marking pens
- the AirVenture NOTAM (2.3 MB Adobe PDF file) -- see below for details
- film (three times what you think you'll need)
- lightweight cooler
- lightweight folding chair(s)
- video camera
- flip flops/thongs
- EAA membership card
- extra tent stakes
- extra toilet paper
- mosquito repellent
- small umbrella
- extra dry socks
When Not To Arrive
If the airport is going to be full, it will be on Monday/Tuesday and maybe Friday and Saturday. However, with the Monday opening day, a surprisingly large percentage of those who came early leave by Thursday or Friday, so you may be able to slip in Friday. Nevertheless, if possible, arrive before Friday or after the Saturday air show (coming about an hour after the show on Saturday often results in you getting a close-in parking spot as the parking wizards "spot fill" for those who left right after the show.
No matter what EAA does, there are always a certain few folks who insist on arriving days before the convention begins. Back in the days when it started on a Friday or Saturday and ran through two weekends, people came on Wednesday. The EAA moved the start to Thursday so the early crowd came on Tuesday or Monday. Now it starts on Monday, so the "gotta get there early" contingent begins to arrive in force on Saturday and Sunday. I'm hoping EAA has accepted it can't out-early that group, or else the show will start in mid-January and there will be a bunch of people camped out on Christmas Day in anticipation of the event. (Plus it will interfere with EAA's great ski-plane fly-in.)
Be aware that early arrivals still have to pay to get on to the flight line on the day prior to the show. However, in the past, that same pass got you in on the first day of the show as well.
Why come early? Easy ...
- To be assured of a parking place, if you fly in.
- Because it is the only time you can schedule.
- Because you want to watch hundreds of airplanes arrive and the place come growling to full life.
- Because you want to have first pick at the "stuff" in the Fly Market.
- Because you don't much care about watching air shows.
- Because you don't want to bargain hunt at the end of the convention.
- Because you want to see everything and get out before the place becomes an ongoing nervous breakdown on Saturday.
- Because you are the type of person who has to get there first.
- Just because.
How early is early? I do not know how early the welcome mat is slapped in front of the door. Sunday is perfectly acceptable. Saturday is probably OK. Earlier than that is pushing it; you will probably be in the way and had best be a volunteer helping set things up. In fact, EAA would probably love it if you could show up that early and help out. They always need volunteers.
A surprising number of people come several days prior to the opening of the convention and then leave on either the first or second day. That starts to open up parking slots. It means that the field is rarely, truly full. Therefore, if you arrive on the second or third days, listen to the exact language of the ATIS regarding parking. It may say transient parking is full. That does not mean the airport is not accepting arrivals. They may be accepting those who fly in to camp, but not those who come in for the day. Only divert if the ATIS makes it very clear the airport is not accepting arrivals, but always be prepared to divert because some yahoo may have forgotten to lower his landing gear and closed the arrival runway for an hour or so.
Fond du Lac and Appleton
Many folks have been diverted to Fond du Lac for parking in past years and discovered they liked it so much they go there on purpose. The bus service from Fond du Lac and Appleton to AirVenture is very good. Keep in mind if you must divert that there is no camping on the Appleton airport.
When Things Get Less Crowded
It used to be that the major exodus was on Sunday after the air show. In fact, that departure was sometimes more exciting to watch than the air shows. Now, things are spooling down by the end of the air show on Saturday. Because attendance has dropped and the physical size of the grounds has increased in the last three years, AirVenture just hasn't been as crowded as it was in the previous century.
Historically, the busiest time is over the weekend. With starting day now advanced to Monday and ending day now on Sunday, Saturday is the busiest day, but not by much and the crowds just aren't as bad as they were back when attendance was higher, the area smaller and things started on Wednesday or Thursday.
Traffic north out of Chicago on Friday evening is deadly and seems to continue much of the way to Oshkosh. This is a good time to avoid the highway. In decent traffic it's about a three-hour drive from ORD to OSH. The route to vehicle parking and parking for camping is very well-marked as you approach OSH.
OSH does not have airline service any more. Many people airline into Milwaukee or Appleton and rent a car. Milwaukee seems to be the ideal choice: It does not run out of rental cars, the drive is easy and there are plenty of airline seats available. (And airline fares to Appleton are quite a bit higher.) Green Bay is also an option.
Bring very comfortable shoes. Plan on walking a lot. As a rule of thumb, make an estimate of how many miles you can comfortably walk in a day. Then, double it. That's about how much you will find you walk at AirVenture. Years ago a friend brought a pedometer because he was curious how far he walked during the event. The result was so high the first day that he quit wearing the pedometer and felt much better about it.
The showers in the airplane camping area are quite good for a mass campground. Going early for warm water is wise, or wait for mid-afternoon for things to recycle and the crowds to diminish.
Be sure you have flip-flops or thongs, as it's not unusual for the places to flood. Whoever came up with the idea of using dish sprayers for showerheads was a genius.
Be prepared for temperatures which can vary from barely above freezing with cold rain to nearly 100 degrees F; I've experienced both extremes. Bring a good poncho because it will rain while you are there. In fact, be prepared for at least one session of moderate to severe thunderstorms; this is, after all, the Midwest. So make sure you have your airplane and your tent well staked down. You will be very glad you brought a light jacket as it often cools off to the point of being chilly at night. When it is hot, even a brief respite can help a great deal. The air-conditioned buildings are the FSS and some stores as well as the "Flying Cinema" at the Activities. The cinema shows aviation movies. Sounds to me like a good way to cool off.
Folks claim that houses in Wisconsin do not need screens on the windows because there are no mosquitoes small enough to enter via that route. That is not true. However, an FBO at OSH did refuel three mosquitoes some years ago before figuring out they were not P-38s. Be ready: Mosquitoes in the camping area at OSH can be vicious, although some years they are non-existent. I will not even try to predict them. Be prepared, bring repellant.
The local FBOs have this wired. The fuelers know their airplanes and their stuff. Either when you arrive or at some point during your stay, give your fuel order at the shack near aircraft camping registration. It will be taken care of and your bill will be waiting at the same place when you come off the flight line. Historically, prices have not been out of line at all so do not feel you have to tanker fuel to OSH. The fuel price at OSH has often been cheaper than at my home field. They know that you are weight-critical when flying in, so please don't depart home base with full tanks and a couple hundred pounds over gross so as to save a few pennies by not buying gas at OSH. I'll say it again: It's OK to buy gas at OSH.
Every year there have been violent thunderstorms causing serious airplane damage at past conventions. A Midwest thunderstorm is an awe-inspiring event. As a result, EAA justifiably requires that you tie down your airplane. Bring your own tiedown stakes, the best you can find. If you do not, EAA will rent or sell a good set of tiedown stakes when you arrive. You are paying for your poor planning. Buy them and use them. Keep them in your plane for the future. By the same token, make sure your tent is well-secured. Every year several tents go for distance records in storms or when cretins start their airplanes in their tiedown spots and power out instead of pulling them forward and turning 90 degrees before start-up.
The airport closes to arrivals and departures during the air show. The published times are not always accurate, so leave some leeway if you plan to depart just before the airport closes. I have been stuck when they stopped traffic from taxiing out 15 minutes prior to the published closing time. The airport also closes from time to time due to being full, congestion or a crash. Be ready to divert or hold outside the area at any time. The ATIS will usually have very up-to-date information. Do not show up tight on fuel and expect to get into any one of the three primary airports without delay. Remember Murphy's Law and respect it.
Bring money. Lots of it. EAA and the vendors are past masters at separating it from you. Flight line passes are not cheap, although they are much less expensive than a day at a theme park (and OSH is far better than a theme park). The food tents are not cheap. Cash is king at the food tents, but credit cards work most everywhere else, including registration. ATMs are brought in and distributed to where the herds are expected to need cash infusions. You can save a lot by bringing as much of your own food as possible, keeping in mind that there is no food or drink allowed on the flight line.
Camera And Film
If you are so inclined, be sure to bring a still and/or video camera. Because film is expensive at the convention, bring it with you. Make an estimate of how much you could possibly use in day. Triple it. Buy that much. I'm dead serious. You will write and thank me.
Ice, food and supplies can be purchased at the EAA Red Barn in the vehicle camping area. Northwest of the spam can airplane-parking area, through the open gate in the fence, are several good bars and various stores. The bars, being in Wisconsin, are careful not to run out of beer, brandy, bratwurst or ice. (B & B has a slightly different meaning in Wisconsin.) The stores are good for finding that last-minute stuff you forgot. I have seen folks purchase bicycles at one of the stores, then sell them for half price to locals for delivery at the end of the convention. Each party felt he got a great deal. The pilot and family got very inexpensive transportation and the locals got good, nearly new bikes, cheaply.
A couple of large plastic sheets/tarps, duct tape, rope and stakes always seem to come in handy in the camping areas. Plan on bringing only the minimum stuff you need, as weight is a major consideration with airplane camping.
Carry water to prevent dehydration. It can happen to you so fast your head'll spin, literally. There are a lot of drinking fountains, so use one any time you pass on warm days. Use them to refill your water bottle. Keep in mind that alcoholic beverages dehydrate you; they are no substitute for water.
Use sunscreen. Lots. Wear a hat with a wide brim. Yah, sure, you betcha, you are up in dem nort' woods, but the summer sun is for real. Make sure you have something to cover the back of your neck if you're planning on watching the air shows. You will be facing east and the afternoon sun will turn the staunchest liberal into a redneck.
Join the EAA before you go. Do so now, in fact, if you are not a member and intend to join at the convention. Historically, there is a bit of a discount to join before the convention. Flight line passes have always been cheaper for members. Plus, as a member, you can get two adult non-member visitors into AirVenture at a rate that is below the non-member rate. Your ticket is a wristband, which is required to get on to the flight line. You do not have to be an EAA member to purchase a ticket, but if you are visiting for more than a few days, the member versus non-member admission price difference will pay for a membership.
AirVenture is very kid-friendly. Child care is available in conjunction with the YMCA as well as special kid programs in the youth pavilion. There are changing station in various locations, with disposable diapers, believe it or not. That is nothing short of wonderful. Strollers are not a problem although you should bring one that rolls through grass well. Keep a close eye on your children and stress to them, "Look but don't touch" around the aircraft (except for those cool little pedal airplanes ... they can get in those).
One of the very coolest things at OSH is KidVenture, housed in a circus tent, at the back of the museum. It has a variety of hands-on activities for children eight and up and has proven immensely popular for all ages. Kids can build a model rocket, fly a control line model airplane, fly a simulator and generally do things that will keep them excited for long periods of time. Smaller children will find their own aviation adventure at the Children's Activity Center, which is in the Activities Center, just east of the Forum area. The area allows children, accompanied by a parent, to ride on airplane scooters, climb on an airplane-shaped bench, make and fly Lego airplanes on a large airport Lego table, color their own airplane picture, or read an airplane story. The location of this new area will allow one parent to attend a forum while another stays nearby with their child.
Bring a small backpack to carry the junk you will acquire on the convention grounds such as literature, a new GPS, a dehydrated Lancair IV-P, etc. A fanny pack will not be big enough, although there are fanny packs that unfold into backpacks, which are the right size. A compartmentalized, small, light backpack also allows you to carry the sunscreen, bottle of water (did I mention that there are numerous drinking fountains where you can reload the water?) and light snacks to keep you from going broke at the food tents.
Lines at Port-A-Johns can be long. Don't wait until the last minute. If camping over the weekend, bring some toilet paper. Sometimes they run out. It is rare, as the company that services the Port-A-Johns is aggressively on the job, but when the place is packed, sheer numbers contrive occasionally to overwhelm things. Better to be prepared. Far better.
Not allowed on the flight line. Otherwise, if you are camping, bring as much of your own as you can to save money. Carry some snacks and bottled water in a small backpack during the day. The food tents are expensive and soda pop is not the best way to avoid dehydration.
The parking volunteers have a history of being assertive and knowing their stuff. At any given time the parking volunteers have just dealt with half a dozen pilots who couldn't tell left from right, or who hadn't operated an airplane in the last six months and were totally at sea. The volunteers are there for very long hours and have had to listen to 30 unreasonable requests by those pilot prima donnas before you arrived with your demand for a hard-surface tie down. Be patient and polite. If a parking volunteer guides you past two open spots to another, the chances are very good those two spots are wet and you'd sink up to your axles (yes, I've seen the situation) -- they tend to know what they are doing. Each year, the airplane parking volunteers did a phenomenal job of keeping airplanes where they should be, away from where they shouldn't, and managed to "spot fill" gaps left by those who left early. They will get every airplane into that airport they can. It is not perfect, but it's astonishingly good.
No open fires in the aircraft camping area. That is about as basic as it comes. Every once in a while some Darwin Award candidates build large fires. Those morons should be photographed so we can all identify the ones who screw up aviation for the rest of us. Camp stoves are a necessity and perfectly acceptable, other than by geniuses who use them under the wing of a high-wing airplane. Yes, you will probably see that, too.
You must pay for the full week of airplane camping when you arrive. There is a three-day minimum, but you get reimbursed for time not used. When you are preparing to leave go to the refund site, turn in the correct portion of the material you were given, get your refund and depart.
The first time, you'll probably stay in the EAA camping area. You pay on arrival for the entire show and get a refund for the days not used when you leave (three-day minimum). When you pay, ask precisely where you go to get your refund if leaving early.
Many, many long-term friendships have been made in the various camping areas. Treat the folks parked near you as friends you haven't yet met and you are almost always guaranteed a pleasant time.
While you are at the convention, walk around and check out some of the private houses that set up RV camping. They tend to have the same folks back year after year, creating an annual party. You may want to see if you can reserve a slot for next year, because even though they are more expensive, they are closer to the flight line.
Call the EAA housing hotline and get suggestions. They are incredibly resourceful. Private homes are thrown open to visitors and a number of pilots swear by that approach. The university dorms are opened for a remarkably low fee. They are clean and much better than I recall my dorm room being. Some hotel rooms open up at the last minute, so it can pay to call, and call, and call some more. There is pretty good bus service to the convention, although it can be extremely crowded. Private homes open up rooms to EAA convention goers. Those who have stayed with families report very positive experiences and the formation of long-term friendships.
Thoughts On Flying In
The airport can fill up at any time, so be prepared to divert to Appleton or Fond du Lac. There is no camping at Appleton. There is good ground transportation to and from each spot. Listen carefully to the OSH ATIS as you approach the area. It may say that the transient parking is full. That does not mean camping parking is full. Head for OSH if you are camping unless the ATIS clearly says the airport is accepting no arrivals or has no space for airplane camping.
Study the NOTAM
I cannot emphasize too much that you must study the AirVenture NOTAM carefully. (It's a 2.3 MB download and worth every minute of internet time to get it.) There are changes from last year. The NOTAM is 32 pages long and guess what? It contains NO fluff -- NO extraneous material at all. Read it. Print it out and put it in a binder and put tabs on the pages you may want to find fast in flight, especially if the arrival route changes as you get in close or the airport closes and you have to divert. Allow yourself an evening to study the NOTAM. You'll be very glad you did.
The vast majority of arrivals are VFR, coming up the railroad tracks from Ripon, and are now color-coded depending on the combination of arrival runways being used. The VFR arrival is an exhilarating experience and sets a great tone for the convention itself when you fit into that flow and land amid all the excitement while listening to some of the best air traffic controllers in the world. From time to time a yahoo pilot messes up the program. Please do not be one of them.
The high performance/warbird arrival is different, too. If that applies to you, it is an additional reason to study the NOTAM.
Because of the ongoing national paranoia over terrorism, foreign pilots flying in to OSH may have to comply with a waiver requirement or jump through some TSA hoops. Take a look at this information page.
With that in mind, I'll be as blunt as possible: It is imperative to study and know the NOTAM for the OSH arrival.
Take a good hard look at yourself. Every year the convention is sullied by some accidents. The media often jumps all over them instead of showing the amazing things of the convention. In all candor, I've flown that RIPON approach several times and I've seen pilots who had absolutely no business in the air anywhere near OSH.
For crying out loud, make absolutely sure you can hold altitude within 50 feet and an indicated airspeed within five knots. This is not all that tough. You are going to be flying an arrival up a railroad track with dozens of other airplanes, so, if you have decided that your one time to fly this year is going to be to AirVenture, please, please, please, choose some other method of transportation. You have no business putting yourself and others at risk because you have let your skills lapse. There, blunt enough? Probably not, so I'll put it this way: If you are not on top of your game or if you don't know the NOTAM cold before you come to OSH, you may kill someone.
Get Rid Of Cobwebs
If you do not fly at least three to five hours a month, I suggest you take some dual and get rid of the cobwebs. There is nothing quite so much fun as flying that Ripon approach, transitioning to the arrival, landing exactly where you want and exiting the runway as the controller says "nice job." At the risk of preaching, and repeating myself, for all that is holy in aviation, read the NOTAM regarding the arrival and do not, not, not, pick up the microphone and start talking unless a controller asks you a question you cannot answer by rocking the wings. Fly to the birthplace of the Republican party, follow the NOTAM procedure, keep off the air and have a ball. The arrival is so incredibly much fun, you'll be glad you were able to fly it with a bit of panache.
Pax A Help
I have found that briefing my passengers on the arrival procedure and having the right-seater hold the NOTAM and read slightly ahead helps. Well-briefed passengers are a gigantic help in spotting traffic and checkpoints as you work to hold heading and altitude and stay in trail of the airplane ahead.
No, your airplane is not legal to carry 5 or 10 percent more weight as in Alaska. No, just because you are going to aviation Mecca, your airplane will not happily carry a few extra hundred pounds of stuff. During the arrival, around all those other airplanes, the chances are good you will have to do some maneuvering at low speed, and it is very possible that it will be abrupt maneuvering. Do you really want to be out of c.g. aft or overweight when you've got to use all of the airplane's ability to avoid hitting something hard and expensive? Yes, you and your passengers can pack light. No, you probably can't fill the seats, the tanks and then carry several hundred pounds of camping gear. Keep in mind you will probably buy stuff and have to carry it home. Running ol' Bessie off the end in front of thousands at OSH because you are overloaded can cause you to wonder whether it's better to be dead than embarrassed. I would rather that is something you don't have to contemplate.
IFR vs. VFR
Should you arrive IFR or VFR? If you are coming from the south, southeast, west or north, VFR is the easiest way to arrive. The weather is usually good enough to do the VFR arrival. If you have any concern about being sure you can get in on the day you want to arrive, consider getting an IFR reservation. Keep in mind that having an IFR reservation does not guarantee you a parking place on the airport. If the field is full, you're out of luck, IFR or not.
The NOTAM tells how to make an IFR reservation from a touch-tone phone. Follow the instructions; they generally work, but be patient. At the end you will get a reservation number. Write it down in several places. Not only will you need it to file a flight plan, but also en route controllers may ask for it. Finally, be prepared for a final approach that extends many, many miles, and which must be flown at a specific indicated airspeed. At the end, you will have to fit in with the VFR arrivals as they turn final, so, be ready for absolutely anything. You will probably have to make a radio call to close your IFR flight plan, something quite unusual, so check the NOTAM and be ready for that procedure. The NOTAM has a statement that one should be prepared to cancel IFR and fly the VFR arrival if the weather is good VFR. Please note that such action is not required, only encouraged. It is up to you to decide whether you want to cancel IFR.
If you are not going to use your IFR reservation, please be considerate and cancel it as soon as you know.
Now read Part Two of AVweb's AirVenture 2007 Survival Guide, which includes how to get around at the big show, what to do, and what not to do.