It is only May, but here in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, a few of the pilots are already making plans to go to Oshkosh, Wis., to the annual EAA AirVenture blowout the end of July. Some are checking out their camping gear and perusing Sport Aviation magazine to see what is going on and when they can plan their vacation days to be there at the right time. Lounge visitor Jim is planning to drive over in his RV rather than flying his prize-winning Ercoupe so he can make an extended stay in comfort because he is one of the volunteers who make the convention work. He volunteered for the first time last year and found that working for three or four hours in addition to the usual looking at airplanes, wandering through the vendor displays and watching the airshow added greatly to his enjoyment.
Some of the couch potato types here in the Lounge aren't all that sure about the volunteer idea; after all, they only go for two or three days, what can they do? Why waste valuable time at AirVenture that could be spent drooling over the latest avionics or the hottest new homebuilt?
There was quite a bit of discussion back and forth. As usual, I listened but I also thought about the brief time I spent as a volunteer at Flight Line Operations last year and working with AVweb the last two years. I found myself speaking in support of Jim, agreeing with his thesis that Oshkosh was even more enjoyable when you get involved in some way in making it happen.
To the cynic, volunteering is foolish: If the job is important enough to do, it is worth paying someone to do it. The pragmatic response to that is to point out that the resultant employee may not be terribly motivated to do more than the minimum necessary, something which can be, at the very least, unpleasant for aviators, and, at most, potentially dangerous.
As pilots, most of us are aware that we did not get to where we are without the help of others. There was the flight instructor who spent extra time after the clock stopped running at the end of the lesson to just talk airplanes and flying and added so much to your learning. Or the experienced charter pilot who gently gave you some guidance when you were a hot-headed, 300-hour pilot and thought you knew everything. That guidance kept you from killing yourself a few weeks later when you made that decision not to go a couple hundred feet below the minimum descent altitude on an instrument approach and went to your alternate. The next day it was clear. On the way into your original destination you noticed the transmission tower under the approach path that you might very well have hit had you gone ahead and busted the altitude as you would have without the quiet advice. Or the rides you got with friendly, more experienced pilots that allowed you to pick up good practices and avoid the bad ones.
As pilots, we have been given wonderful gifts. We have seen sights few humans ever get to witness and done things the ancients would have given kingdoms of wealth to experience. When we pause in our habitual complaining about the cost of flying, the most recent idiocy of the FAA and that the airplanes should be faster, we realize that we could not have done what we have done, even at the most basic level of soloing an airplane for the first time, without the help of others in aviation. Your trip to AirVenture is a good way to give something back. Not only is it the right thing to do, you may very well find you get even more from your visit than ever before.
On top of it all, you will definitely have the chance to meet a number of people who are interested in the same thing you are, aviating. That's a reward in itself, because a certain number of the folks you meet will prove to be least pretty interesting, as it's been my contention for years that aviation has more characters per capita than any other human endeavor.
In general, no matter when you plan to go to AirVenture there is probably a volunteer job that will be of interest to you. Whistle over to the AirVenture web site and go into general information to find about volunteering. Volunteers allow AirVenture to happen. I've been to lots of conventions. The EAA's shindig at Oshkosh generally is the smoothest-running anywhere. A major portion of the reason is the fact that most of the work is done by volunteers who are motivated to do a job. The idea of having to pay the number of people necessary to do all that work means the cost of admission would be staggeringly expensive.
My volunteer experience was with Flight Line Operations. For years they were the first people I came into contact with during my sojourns to this aviation Mecca. There had been a time in the past when the folks with the orange paddles waving the arrivals into parking spots on the grass seemed overwhelmed and occasionally rude. In the more recent years things seemed to run more and more smoothly. Last year fellow AVweb columnist, John Deakin, arrived early during a period of heavy rain and soggy ground. The parking crew guided him almost two miles over hard-surfaced taxiways and roads to get him to a parking area on relatively high ground. On OSHtalk® (AVweb's Internet-based talk show) I interviewed two of the lead folks with the parking teams from Flight Line Operations and was impressed with their level of knowledge and professionalism. As a result, I went over to Flight Line Ops and signed up to work.
Fred Stadler, co-chair of Flight Line Ops-Traffic, was someone I knew, therefore, the poor guy drew the short straw to get me oriented. We talked a while so that he could get a feel for my level of experience around airplanes so that he could try and stick the new volunteer in a job that fit my experience level, wasn't too boring (meaning I wouldn't volunteer again) nor too challenging (meaning I was in over my head and might cause an accident). That is a bit of a balancing act. Managing volunteers, I've observed, is one part science and nine parts art.
The next step was to watch a video about flight line ops and get questions answered by one of the other volunteers who'd been around the block a few times.
Flight Line Operations is divided into two sections. One handles the massive task of parking the general aviation arrivals and the other controls aircraft movements on the majority of the airport. Over the years practices have evolved that don't seem terribly logical when looked at afresh, but tend to continue because they have become traditions. For example: Flight Line Ops has teams who handle parking for the thousands of arrivals of ordinary mortals and teams to marshal airplanes over the miles of taxiways, yet they do not set foot onto certain areas of Papa taxiway. The volunteers at the showplace/vintage aircraft area do their own marshalling and parking of aircraft, as do the volunteers in the custom/homebuilt aircraft area and the warbird area. (The warbirds even have their own ground control frequency despite having the fewest airplanes of any subgroup at AirVenture, but, as I remind my warbird friends, no one ever accused them of having small egos.) Each of those three groups jealously guard their turf and Flight Line Operations volunteers are careful to respect the boundary lines that have formed over the years. Even with the separate sub organizations, things seem to flow pretty smoothly.
The parking teams for Flight Line Operations start working hard the Sunday prior to starting Wednesday. That is the first day of "Oshkosh rules" regarding arrivals. By the way, the NOTAM on AirVenture flight procedures is already up; you can also get to it through EAA's web site or from the AirVenture site itself. This of course presumes that the FAA's site is up and running when you want to access it not a safe presumption. (In the past there has been a video explaining the procedures, there is not one this year even though you may see a procedure to order one. It does not exist.) If you want to volunteer before the show starts, don't worry about a shortage of jobs to be done; you are needed.
The parking crews spend the first several days funneling the arriving stream of airplanes to parking in rows on the grass, keeping track of soft areas that may bog down an airplane, holes that can catch a landing gear and pilots who haven't yet figured out how to follow rudimentary hand signals. More and more the volunteers who staff Flight Line Operations are pilots themselves, which, in my opinion, has helped things run increasingly smoothly. Pilots have a pretty good idea of what airplanes will and won't do and what to expect from other pilots.
Once the field fills up with airplanes on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday the parking crew has to abruptly shift gears. A significant number of early arrivals leave very early, often before the convention officially starts on Wednesday. The parking crews then go into a hole-filling mode. The Wednesday start seems to have actually benefited those who fly in. Last year aircraft parking was only completely full for fairly short periods of time. It was possible to fly into Oshkosh itself rather than a satellite airport on Saturday last year, something that had not been possible for many prior years. The parking crews keep track of open spots in the lines of parked airplanes and through an ingenious system of marker flags and judicious use of walkie-talkies get newly arrived airplanes into those holes.
Parking crews tend to work as teams, so often a new volunteer will be assigned to a team where it is easy to instruct and supervise the newbie. Traffic/marshalling volunteers work as individuals, out where the action is. Instruction and supervision is more difficult for that segment of Flight Line Operations, so volunteers tend to be selected with care and get some experience before getting put onto what can be a firing line at the intersection of two or three busy taxiways.
I spent some time with Fred Stadler directing traffic just east of the warbird parking area. In a matter of minutes I was in the middle of a bevy of general aviation singles and twins, a Spitfire, Albatross, Sea Fury, a dozen or so homebuilts, an Extra 300 and some things I just didn't recognize. The noise was continuous. For the first time in my life I was in a position where it was not possible to tell where the airplanes were around me by listening. The sound came from all directions, swelled and multiplied and reverberated until it was disorienting in itself. I finally got a feel for what the handlers on aircraft carriers experience every working day of their lives. In all candor, it was exciting. I haven't had a chance to fly some of the exotic airplanes that taxied past me, but being right next to them and communicating with the pilots was a lot better than simply walking by them when they were parked somewhere.
In putting this column together I had some conversations with Fred Stadler about various details. (Any mistakes are mine, not his.) Our talks ranged beyond parking and marshalling. I found that Fred went to Oshkosh just before the first of May to help out with the myriad of tasks that must be completed so that the AirVenture can again spring forth, Brigadoon-like, this summer. He has greatly enjoyed working in the "maintenance" area. That is an inadequate name for the teams that build the odd and wonderful things needed for the convention. Fred told me that over the years he has learned a tremendous amount about how to make things from the team leaders as he's built benches, buildings and other structures. He's used the skills in making improvements on his own home.
As I write this, there are already people who have traveled to Oshkosh to get things ready. A significant number of them will stay from now through the convention. That's dedication.
If you want to help out in the weeks leading up to AirVenture, either go into the web site or give a call to Paula Riley at the EAA, 920/426-4819. If you procrastinate until you get to the convention, just walk up to one of the volunteer centers. You'll be welcomed and put to work.
As an aside, if you volunteer for three or four hours each day you are at AirVenture, it's possible your trip will be tax deductible. Your tax advisor can fill you in on the details. While I know that there is no pilot in the world so mercenary as to volunteer just to write off the trip to Oshkosh, it's a nice little reward.
While it may sound like a cheap preacher on a stump, those who volunteer seem to always be the ones who get the most enjoyment from an aviation event. Contemporary society seems to encourage us to sit around and demand to be entertained. It's funny how the entertainment isn't nearly as enjoyable for those who don't do anything to get it. When we are a part of the show in some fashion, we get much more out of it. I think that you will find that you'll get more out of AirVenture, or even your local weekend flight breakfast, if you get involved, get into the middle of it, rather than just wander through as another gawker.
See you next month.