AirVenture 2014: A Winner, But Why?


My wife keeps a detailed diary of her daily life, but I lack the discipline so I’m guessing about how many times I’ve been to Oshkosh. I think it’s 27 years or thereabouts. For me, personally, this year’s show was among the most interesting, vibrant and energetic. I finished up on Sunday morning exhausted, but oddly buoyant. For a hard-crusted cynic like me, that’s saccharin-sweet praise indeed.

What the hell is going on? Are we witnessing the leading edge of the great recovery we’ve all been hoping for? Frankly, I doubt it. My theory, which I discussed with Jack Pelton in this podcast, is that two things are at work. First, it has been six dreary years since the economy crumped in 2008 and, as Pelton observed, maybe people have gotten their heads wrapped around the fact that the economy and things in general have settled into the new normal. They’re tired of denying themselves simple pleasures for worrying about what’s going to happen next. The general economy is performing acceptably if not exceptionally well, but consumer confidence and the general mood, according to recent Gallup polls, are unremarkable.

Second, I think AirVenture lives in and creates its own ecosystem within the larger aviation economy. If it has ever been a reflection of everything else in aviation, I think it’s less so now. It’s a thing unto itself and as other shows contract, AirVenture becomes more important as a must-do marketing outlet for many companies.

And frankly, EAA just did an exceptional job with the show this year. The mix of the Thunderbirds, the One Week Wonder, the Valdez STOL pilots and the usual top-flight aerobatic performers may have come together to create the perfect attractive mix at the perfect time. EAA’s pre-show promotion, I think, has been a beat or two better.

I surveyed the vendor hangars on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and every single one reported a better year over last year. The Aircraft Spruce booth was mobbed two deep as late as Saturday afternoon and people were buying everything from headsets to brake parts. The same was true of avionics vendors and companies selling refurb parts.

When I polled the man on the street, no single thing stood out, not the MVP flying bass boat, not AOPA’s rebuilt Cessnas, not the product intros from Garmin and BendixKing and not Cessna’s diesel 172. No one had an extra special thing worthy of comment and neither did I.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure aircraft companies had a better year than average. I ran into Darin Hart on Sunday morning and he said this year’s AirVenture was typical. A few leads to follow and some tire kickers, but no great burst of airplane sales. American Champion said the same. That’s why I think we’re not witnessing anything other than a great show year for sharply contained reasons. I don’t see underlying market forces that suggest a robust turnaround. We’ll see what develops over the next 12 months. Meanwhile, a tip of the hat to Jack Pelton and EAA for effective, professional organization and promotion of a show that hasn’t always had that.

While I’m at it, some recognition and thanks to the exceptional AVweb staff. This year’s AirVenture turned out to be the most intense any of us have seen in years and maybe ever. Thanks to Russ Niles, Rick Durden and Larry Anglisano for hard work on the show grounds and to Mary Grady who did our off-site reporting this year. Ashley Anglisano debuted admirably as an editorial intern. My wife, Val Oakley, stepped in when needed for factotum duties. Although you rarely see his name, Scott Simmons, our webmaster, stitches things together against difficult daily deadlines and is the only person I know who can operate for a week with two hours of sleep. And thanks to publisher Tom Bliss for ad sales efforts, without which you wouldn’t be seeing any of this. Also, a nod to EAA’s press meister Dick Knapinski for his assistance and remaining far more unflappable on a 21-press conference day than I ever could.

Here are some other voices.

Although I don’t have the hard data to back it up, my impression is that AirVenture was bigger, better attended and more productive for the vendors than it has been in a while. Those attending seemed happy to be there and I saw lots of people carrying purchases made at the booths. Although there weren’t many big announcements, there was enough news to show some forward momentum in an industry that’s been basically cannibalizing itself for the past few years.

It’s good to see Mooney back and while the news on the engine and fuels front was positive, the move to diesel has become another cost for an already-prohibitive market for those who work for a living. A $435,000 Cessna 172? Seems otherworldly to me but it’s not out of line with its competitors and that’s the rub. Still, dreamers dream and they all seem to end up at AirVenture. It’s when they stop coming that we’ll have to really start worrying. –Russ Niles, Editor in Chief

This year’s AirVenture just felt better to me than recent years. Perhaps it was the comfortable weather, but both exhibitors and visitors had a noticeable spring in the step and folks seemed to smile more. For some, there was plenty to smile about. For instance, all eyes were on Avidyne, which showed up with a fully certified IFD540 GPS, a product that was stalled in the development process for a few years and nearly cost early adopters some money and the company its credibility. It was the same for Bendix King and the now certified KSN770 GPS, a product that perhaps set the record for the longest time in development.

While I didn’t see any products that I consider game-changing, there were plenty of hits on my radar to watch over the next year. This includes the 10-buck-per-hour Sun Flyer solar electric trainer, AOPA’s Reimagined Cessna 152 refurb program that attempts to offer a familiar alternative to high-priced LSAs, and a noticeable presence of Mooney Aircraft that hinted of better times and a market in an upswing. I’m not letting my guard down, but I walk away from AirVenture 2014 with enough evidence that the shrunken market is at least stabilizing. –Larry Anglisano

I was struck by two things this year. First the airplane camping area filled up–that hasn’t happened in at least five years. That’s a positive data point, I think. A friend who drove his RV in was directed to a camp site a half mile further away than when he arrived on the same day last year. He told me he was amazed at the number of drive-in campers this year. Second, even though there was a striking number of empty vendor spaces, both indoors and out, there was a sense of optimism among people I spoke with that I had not felt in recent memory. They liked what they saw and they were optimistic about new technology, although they didn’t believe any of it would cut the cost of flying.

One vendor did tell me that sales have continued to drop in his niche of aviation, so he probably won’t be back next year. Nevertheless, at times the excitement around me was palpable, particularly when I was in the North 40 and an airplane would taxi in, shut down and the occupants emerge fired up to be at AirVenture as well as on Saturday afternoon as I marveled at the throngs coming in the main gate headed for the flight line to watch the airshow. And, the curmudgeon in me was pleased to observe that some pilots still just don’t get the briefing. One guy had his charcoal grill happily smoking away directly under the wing of his airplane and the 172 that departed ahead of me on runway 27 promptly turned left (the NOTAM calls for continuing directly west for five miles) and flew down the railroad tracks that define the Ripon/Fisk arrival against arriving traffic. Where is a dope slap when you need one?–Rick Durden

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