AVweb’s AirVenture Survival Guide – Part One

AVweb presents Part One of its AirVenture Survival Guide for those who would like an insider's guide to the hows, whys and wheres of EAA's AirVenture Oshkosh 2002. AVweb columnist Rick Durden provides you the benefit of his years of OSH experience with tips you won't find anywhere else. This first part of a two-part series covers how to prepare for your pilgrimage to Aviation Mecca, what to bring, where to stay, when to go and what you need to know before you get there.


AirVentureThe 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 2002. 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 airshow? 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 25 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 quite blunt about items regarding safety and courtesy because I feel strongly about them. I also express some opinions which 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.

The Formalities

Hey!  It fliesTo aviators, hearing the Wisconsin city of Oshkosh named simply means the largest airshow in the world. This airshow/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 24 through July 30, 2002. Nearly one-tenth of all the airplanes in the world will be at one of the three official airports (Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Appleton, Wis.) at some time during the show.

When To Go & For How Long?

GeeBeeFirst, 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 okay 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 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 2002 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.

GizmoA huge number of people schedule their visit to see certain airshow performers. The 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 airshows are near the end of the convention.

The weekend is the busiest time. Keep that in mind in your planning. If you are flying in for the weekend there is a very good chance the Oshkosh airport will be full and you will have to divert to Fond du Lac or Appleton.

P40Going the last few days is a lot less hectic, but a lot of aircraft have left. If you want to just look at multitudes of airplanes parked in the various display and parking areas, arriving near the end can be a disappointment; however, it is the best time to visit the exhibitors because their booths are not nearly so busy and, under their exhibition contract, they aren’t supposed to leave until the end. 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

  • sunscreen

  • water bottle

  • light snacks

  • money

  • plastic sheet/tarp

  • duct tape

  • extra rope

  • lightweight cardboard for signs

  • marking pens

  • money

  • the NOTAM for OSH (The FAA’s version might be hard to print or read; you can try the PDF version instead.)

  • camera

  • film (three times what you think you’ll need)

  • batteries

  • poncho

  • money

  • lightweight cooler

  • lightweight folding chair(s)

  • video camera

  • flip flops/thongs

  • EAA membership card

  • extra tent stakes

  • aspirin/ibuprofen/acetaminophen

  • extra toilet paper

  • jacket

  • mosquito repellent

  • hat

  • bandanna

  • money

  • small umbrella

  • extra dry socks

  • money

Survival Tips

When Not To Arrive:
Do not try to fly in on Friday. It is a near certainty the airport will be full. In fact, flying in on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday and expecting to land at OSH can be iffy. Either come in early or sometime after the Saturday airshow.

No matter what the EAA does, there are always a certain few folks who insist on arriving days before the convention begins. Back in the days 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 Tuesday so the “gotta get there early” contingent begins to arrive in force on Sunday. I’m hoping the EAA has accepted it can’t out-early that group, because 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 the 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 airshows.

  • 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.

China DollHow early is early? I do not know how early the welcome mat is slapped in front of the door. Monday is perfectly acceptable. Sunday is probably okay. Saturday is pushing it. Before that you will probably be in the way and had best be a volunteer helping set things up. In fact, the 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, but the openings are so scattered that the exhausted parking volunteers can’t keep track of them. 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 be prepared to divert in any case.

Fond du Lac And Appleton:
Many folks have been diverted to Fond du Lac for camping 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 airshow. In fact, that departure was sometimes more exciting to watch than the airshows. Now, our best guess is that Thursday or Friday will be the quieter days. A number of the EAA’s newer policies have driven people away and attendance has dropped the last two years. As a result, the show never realy got that crowded.

Vision of the future?Worst Crowds:
Historically, the busiest time is over the weekend. With starting day now advanced to Tuesday and ending day now on Monday, we can’t say that the weekend will be bad. It wasn’t last year.

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.

Airline Service:
Amazingly, airline seats to OSH do not always fill up, but the demand for rental cars outstrips even the extra large supply the agencies lay in. 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. There is also scheduled airline service into OSH. Of course, it’s used only as a last resort.

You'll walk - a LOT!Walking:
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. Patience is a virtue, particularly this year because the decision was made to close the showers at the east end of the airplane camping area. Be prepared for the worst.

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 shower heads 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. 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, the FBO at OSH did refuel three mosquitoes two 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 FBO has 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.

There have been some violent thunderstorms causing serious airplane damage at past conventions. A midwest thunderstorm is an awe-inspiring event. As a result, the EAA justifiably requires that you tie down your airplane. Bring your own tiedown stakes, the best you can find. If you do not, the 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.

Airport Closings:
The airport closes to arrivals and departures during the airshow. 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.

Bring money. Lots of it. The EAA and the vendors are past masters at separating it from you. Flight line passes are not cheap. 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.

Rotorway ExecHelpful Gear:
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.

The Sun:
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 airshows. You will be facing east and the afternoon sun will turn the most staunch liberal into a redneck.

EAA Membership:
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. Your ticket/wristband is required to get on to the flight line. You must be an EAA member to purchase a ticket (although one member per family is okay and a member may bring in some guests). While this new policy drew some criticism, keep in mind that the vast majority of visitors to the AirVenture are not pilots. What better way to get them at least three months of material on aviation and learning to fly sent to their homes? This could be one of the best ways ever to convince more folks to learn to fly.

Kids and AirVentureKids:
AirVenture is very kid-friendly. There is at least one changing station, with disposable diapers, believe it or not, on the flight line, southeast of the control tower. That is nothing short of wonderful. Strollers are not a problem although you should bring one which rolls through grass well. Keep a close eye on your children and stress to them “Look but don’t touch” around the aircraft.

New last year was a very large “KidVenture” tent, near the Eagle Hangar. It will have a variety of hands-on activities for children eight and up (details on the AirVenture web site). Smaller children will find their own aviation adventure at the new Children’s Activity Center which is in the Activities Center, just east of the Forum area. This new area will let children, accompanied by a parent, 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.

Carrying Stuff:
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.

Basic Necessity:
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 which 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.

CAP Cadet directing aircraftPlane Parking:
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.

CAP Cadets:
Do not shoot them, even if they are wearing funny-looking uniforms. They work hard in the heat, but they do make mistakes. Wave and smile at them in appreciation for their hard work, but be extra, extra careful when they are giving you taxi directions.

If you don’t like where a CAP cadet is directing you, do not go there. If you think it’s not safe and the kid insists, shut down and walk the area first. EAA needs volunteers for the convention so the CAP help is gratefully accepted, but keep in mind that these generally intelligent kids have received far more education in “Aerospace Leadership” than in “This here is an airplane, it is not an all-terrain vehicle, and most of them do not back up.”

In recent years, there have been a number of situations where cadets and adult members were shockingly rude to visitors. Even after bringing the situation to the attention of the CAP, it continues despite the organization’s efforts to catch the few bad apples. If it happens to you, let an EAA official know. The CAP has been made aware of the problem as well and wants to fight it, but can’t unless the top brass gets word of incidents.

Camp Fires:
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.


Aircraft Camping OnlyPlane Camping:
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.

RV Camping:
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 which 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 even though, because even though they are more expensive, they are closer to the flight line.

Not Camping:
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.

Thoughts On Flying In

OSH NOTAMThe airport can fill up at any time, so be prepared to divert to Appleton or Fond du Lac. There are fewer airplane parking spots available this year, so because a new hotel was built on the airport. 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:
The vast majority of arrivals are VFR, coming up the railroad tracks from Ripon. It 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.

With that in mind, I’ll be as blunt as possible: It is imperative to study and know the NOTAM for the OSH arrival.

Be prepared:
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?

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.

Weight Considerations:
No, your airplane is not legal to carry five 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, 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 IFR NOTAM tells how to make a 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 en route controllers may ask for it. Finally, be prepared for a final approach which 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 IFR NOTAM and be ready for that procedure. New this year is a statement that one should be prepared to cancel IFR and fly the VFR arrival. Please note that such actions are not required, only encouraged.

If you are not going to use your reservation, please be considerate an cancel it as soon as you know.

Don’t Miss Part Two Of AVweb’s Two-Part AirVenture 2002 Survival Guide!