Why You Should Never Fly Into Oshkosh


Like moths attracted to the proverbial flame, some pilots can’t resist the urge to fly into Oshkosh during AirVenture. And why not? There’s nothing quite like it in all of aviation. You get an unrivaled opportunity to see everything under the sun related to aviation and to rub wings with thousands of like-minded people.

Oh, see what I did there? That rub wings analogy is a bad choice given what happened during this year’s arrival. Refreshing your memory, the weather tanked on the Saturday before the show only to become flyable about 1 p.m. on Sunday, at which point everyone decided to arrive all at once. The chaos was predictable, but it all worked out, more or less.

Reporting on this in real time, I commented on how many pilots I spoke to said it was “the worst they’d ever seen.” Of course, I unearthed a comment on one of the forums that said 2016 was the “worst they’d ever seen.” Are we raising the bar on chaos every year and what is it that we’re seeing that’s the worst?

I’m not sure, but some post-AirVenture email sent my way suggests that some pilots don’t have a clear grasp of either the risk of flying into AirVenture or what, exactly, ATC is supposed to do to sort out the confusion. Or what they can do. One pilot complained that on Sunday around 2 p.m., the controllers were losing it and yelling at the pilots. Do tell.

Before even considering flying into AirVenture, you should have an understanding of what ATC—which can be completely overwhelmed at times—can do for you. And it’s not much. Class D towers like OSH are normally on the hook for sequencing and runway separation, and for AirVenture, the latter is relaxed and reduced. Normally, for Category I (less than 12,500 pounds) landing aircraft, it’s 3000 feet between airplanes on the same runway. But at OSH, you’ll see a lot less because it’s common to see two or three airplanes landing on the same runway at once. That’s what the colored dots are for.

Some people who see this just freak out and although it amps up the risk a little, the accident record over many years proves that it’s hardly any real risk at all. Airplanes don’t run into each other on the runway and given the traffic density, the number of midair collisions has been vanishingly small. You do see an elevated number of runway loss-of-control incidents due to botched landings—call it performance anxiety—but that’s probably because of the sheer concentration of landings. No matter where they’re happening, the luck of the draw will cause a certain number of pilots to drop one in or lose control. Do it at OSH, and you’ll be YouTube Gold. Sorry …

And, of course, some pilots are idiots. They’ll miss Fisk entirely, cross at the wrong altitude or speed, turn left instead of right, do a surprise spin into the face of oncoming traffic or do things no one ever thought of. And yet, it works out because pilots flying into Wittman have their eyeballs expanded to the diameter of dinner plates and for all the mistakes they may or may not make, historically, they’ve proven adept at not t-boning each other entirely independent of exhortations from ATC which, as I said, can do only so much.

That applies right down to the runway. One year, I listened on a portable as the controller repeatedly urged a pilot to land on the green dot. Two thousand feet later, he finally got the wheels on the concrete and the controller gave him a habitual “good job” for a job that clearly wasn’t, unless he was relieved that the guy didn’t run off the end of 27 and chop up some unhappy campers.

I’m perplexed at the number of pilots who were surprised at the traffic piling up when the weather cleared. This is hardly an unheard of thing, it’s just a question of whether it happens Saturday, Sunday or Monday. Veterans of flying in—and I didn’t talk to them because they went elsewhere—know that it’s a good idea to have a Plan B, say Fond du Lac or Appleton, to avoid the madness until things settle down. (Unless you like the madness, in which case, carry on.)

Another complaint I heard was that EAA, for some suspicious reasons, kept the fuel trucks out of the North 40 for two days. Yeah, “the worst I’d ever seen” for fueling. And yes, EAA did keep the fuelers away during a wet period when they would otherwise bog down into the muck, creating deep ruts that cause airplanes to struggle while taxiing or worse, cause prop strikes. The solution? Don’t come into Oshkosh needing fuel. You’ll be lighter going out and if you had the time to fly into the circus in the first place, you can afford a fuel stop somewhere else on the way out. Airports throughout the region offer deals on fuel. Plus free hot dogs.

For the past decade, I’ve flown into Wittman not to get there, but to fly demo airplanes and produce press coverage. I find it amusing, but not something high on my list of must-dos. But, it is aviation’s Hajj and everyone should do it at least once. Or regularly, if the spirit moves.

But not at all if you go into the game thinking that (a) controllers are in charge or (b) they’ll sort out any potential conflicts and keep you safe. Assume that, and your experience really could be the worst ever.