A Sleeping Village Awakens Once More

Once a year, a mostly sleepy little town in Wisconsin is transformed into the largest civil aviation event in the world. Whether analogous to Brigadoon, to a Phoenix-like rise from ashes, or something lacking an easy explanation, yet another AirVenture is the result. Deal with it. While that portion of the annual quest to explain and understand "why we do it" is relatively easy, other parts are more challenging. AVweb's Dave Higdon takes on that challenge and offers his own perspective. What's your reason?


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EAA 2000 Coverage Home

The 800,000 plus pilgrims who journey to Oshkosh, Wis., each year for aviation’s largest fling should be happy that life isn’t a musical. Otherwise, the sleeping village that is EAA AirVenture might only appear once every century and for only 24 hours, like the mythical Scottish villager of Brigadoon — instead of emerging from the mist every 51 weeks for its seven-day run. But it’s always a little hard to believe the annual metamorphosis is about to occur when coming in range of Wittman Regional Airport in the final few dark hours before that still-invisible village begins to emerge from the mist along the marshy western shore of Lake Winnebago.

There is no sense of its impending awakening while cruising toward the airport beacon, a light like thousands of others that guide wayward aviators homeward through the night sky. It’s quiet: No recognition lights streak the dark, no radio chatter breaks the silence. And on the ground, only the usual signs of humanity confirm your arrival in a familiar world.

A vast piece of real estate, hundreds of vacant acres with empty buildings scattered about, sit dark in their hiding places tucked into the shadows. Within a few dozen hours, the village begins to stir from a lengthy sleep, swelling quickly to life into a teeming city of several hundred thousand citizens. Their unique status in the world stems from their shared migrations from the four corners of the globe in order to reside together for a hand full of days in a place unknown to the vast billions who live back in the hundred-plus countries the residents call home.

Looking down on the black void of Wittman’s empty spaces Saturday night made it seem like nothing extraordinary could explode within the next 72 hours. If aviation has a village of legend like Scotland’s Brigadoon, it is Oshkosh, where the residents of aviation’s disparate neighborhood come together to reflect on the year past and look ahead to the future of their community. It’s hard to escape the comparison even with the advantage of knowing the phenomenon continues year in, year out — but each year with enough subtle changes in the familiar to know that the Oshkosh fly-in is a living, breathing community as much reflective of the people who come as the organization that governs this peculiar village.

Thanks to "Pappa Paul" Poberezny and his co-founders of EAA, every year aviation’s revelers get about 10 days to live in a magical world of their own, gathering to play and pay homage to a common love: Nothing less than all things flying. And then those days draw to an end, the village returns to slumber even more quickly than the awakening. Almost before you cover all the ground, the village vanishes back through the sky and the fields of Wittman go back to sleep.

And so it is in 2000, the last EAA AirVenture of the century during which man invented flight and almost immediately began to search for every conceivable variation on aviation. As the third week of July drew to a close and the village staff finished their wake-up rounds across the show grounds, the relative handful of AirVenture citizens still found quick-and-easy service in local restaurants and the fly-in ignorant vagabond could still pull off the highway and find a room — for the night, maybe two but no more.

By Tuesday, with the village alert, awaken and fully populated, hotel rooms not perpetually wait-listed cease to exist, as do short waits for a seat in a dining room — in Oshkosh and most dining rooms between Fond du Lac and Green Bay. Come Tuesday, a fly-in bound pilot’s best shot at a tiedown space most likely exists at airports in the perimeter towns of Appleton and Fond du Lac and Green Bay.

Does it seem more crowded? Less? The question is wholly relative and "overpopulation" doesn’t exist as a concept with any connection to reality, no matter how large the world grows. AirVenture always has room for every visitor dedicated enough to make the journey. It’s that journey that marks citizenship.

They make that journey from as close as a brief cross-county hop and as distant as the far side of the globe. The most extreme eschew convenience for experience and no better example can be found than inveterate globe-girdler Jon Johanson and his RV-4. Jon arrived Sunday from New Zealand — this time by way of "the normal Pacific route" to western North America: Over the pole to Norway, and back across the Atlantic "by the usual island-hopping route" — Greenland, Iceland, Labrador, and on to Wisconsin.

Thousands of others return by car and tour bus and motorhome, including thousands of repeat volunteers and hundreds of first-timers following some deeply felt, almost clinical urge to get home to a place called OSH.

Passing Along The Experience To The Newly Initiated

Returning is an instinct Toto could explain to Auntie Em better than Dorothy could to the Scarecrow. If making the journey marks the passage of citizenship, extending the community confirms the believer, as in when veteran vols like Orlo Ellis instruct fresh arrivals on the basic code of conduct for their roles in the village community — parking planes in Vintage Aircraft’s teeming campground.

It’s the purest, least judgmental generational "thing" one can find: The older and experienced attendees revel not in that experience but in the newcomer’s awakening of the culture and tradition that is AirVenture. Some examples:

  • Deep within the Vintage subdivision, the inveterate residents of the Cajon Condo work on their menu for a week’s feasts of the bayou’s best recipes simmered and stirred in the best of swampers’ traditions — even though many of the Condo’s regular residents hail from far away from the Bayou State.

  • On a runway not far away, a flock of female fliers gave birth to a bouncy baby tradition when they arrived Sunday afternoon en mass as the Chick Flight. The delivery was tougher than expected — less than half the anticipated number managed to participate.

  • The third-annual Mooney mass migration, which drew its largest crowd ever, and the granddaddy Bonanza en-mass arrival looked as strong in numbers as ever.

More to come in the coming days Among the most-buoyant among the pre-opening crowd was Tom Poberezny, Red Three on the radio but top gun where EAA’s AirVenture homecoming is concerned. "It’s shaping up to be a great year, you can sense it," the EAA president offered Sunday evening, already engaged in a steady streams of meet-and-greet stops around the airfield that only ends when the village vanishes again.

Returning crowd-pleasures like the British Airways Concorde (hopefully…), a series of spotlight flights by unlimited-class air racers, and new appearances by some rare birds — NASA’s behemoth 377-SGT Super Guppy; Margaritaville mayor Jimmie Buffet’s Grumman Albatross — serves merely to complement the experience of living, playing and working among the those visiting the world’s largest popular-flying event and the globe’s largest annual assembly of private planes.

Throw in the opportunity to see new products first, watch world-class aerobats at their best, and to embrace the experience of feeling home and it’s not hard to understand why the invention of a few airplane nuts has evolved so far in 48 years, nearly half of the history of aviation itself.

The residents of Brigadoon could barely squeeze into a day all the living built up during a century of sleep; the residents of AirVenture barely squeeze into a week all their passion for aviation built up over only a year. We who come here may never catch up on all we come to see and hear, and that fact alone would be enough to keep us coming back.

But just needing to be a part of it all is at the root of the AirVenture appeal and will keep out village growing for another half-century.

And that’s why we’re here.