AirVenture: A Cynic Confronts Excellence
Given the rules of idle conversation, I'll be asked this week: How was AirVenture? Or, if by pilots, the universal shorthand that identifies the world’s most important airshow by its venue: Oshkosh. (The locals invariably call it “EAA,” with the vowels drawn out in that nasal Scandinavian-influenced lilt of Wisconsin.)
I have an answer. It was the best AirVenture. Ever.
That’s bold talk for a pixel-addled, bleary-eyed cynic with a penchant for complaint, a refined sense of contrarianism and a bull^%$# meter that’s been stuck on off-scale high for at least a decade. But I have my reasons and they won’t be the same as yours.
I am long past the misty romanticism of flight and, to be blunt, I don’t care to be the leather-jacketed acolyte trying to entice the next generation into the world of airplanes. Here it is kids. Take it or leave it. This year’s AirVenture framed for me why I got into journalism in the first place. And that was mainly because I love a spectacle and for one shining week in July, AirVenture is a spectacle like no other.
My reporter’s notebook—and now a camera and a recorder—have served as a ticket into the world of surprisingly common unapologetic excess and, even better, the existence of less common uncompromised excellence. That’s the part of AirVenture I most admire: a crazy, unlikely thing done almost as well as it’s possible to do.
Any judgment of AirVenture has to be extracted from the background noise—the informational kind and the psychic kind, if not the acoustic variety that more or less defines the thing. The food is expensive, but at least it’s terrible. This year, the crowds were stupefyingly large and for a guy who basically hates being around people, this requires the discipline of a monk. I make do. And EAA managed to cram so much into the programs that it had trouble, at least from our perspective, of promoting everything that was available. We never did get an advance view of what the Apollo astronaut program was about or who would be there. Even our colleague, KITPLANES editor Paul Dye, who is a genuine NASA rocket scientist—engineer, really—was in the dark. Same for the Lindbergh anniversary flight and a few other events that would have made good stories.
But the core around which all this was built was the airshow and static displays in Boeing square. The days tend to run together, but I think it was Wednesday that I’d set up a 360 camera in the square and skulked away to hide under the wing of an A10 so I wouldn’t be in the footage. While I was standing under the wing looking east, pummeled by the screech of a power unit somewhere, there was an unending loop of aircraft streaking by. I swear I saw what looked like three Mig 17s trailing smoke go by in a perfect finger three sweep. Or were they F-86s? If such things exist in the wild and three pilots had the time and resources to actually practice, Oshkosh is the only place you could expect to see it. In the distance, a gaggle of bombers were flying in the opposite direction.
Against perfectly painted clouds, it looked like one of those 1940s war photos printed on Velox. In masterful understatement, I heard a voice in the crowd say, “This is %^&@ing awesome.” And it sure enough was. Far beyond any other AirVenture show I’ve seen. Completely oblivious to my camera in the square, two people walked right up to it and talked for a few minutes. I wonder what they said. I’ll know when I review the clips.
The bombers pushed everything over the top. A formation of B-25s? It was here. A B-29 two-ship? That, too. A B-1 and a B-52 nearly old enough to qualify for Social Security? All there and surrounded by people in funny hats and tasteless slogan t-shirts. Where the hell else are you going to get a selfie in front of a C-123 named Thunderpig?
I think the presence of the Blue Angels also kicked up everything a notch; or maybe 10. You haven’t seen these acts much at AirVenture for the very good reason that these teams require massive logistics paid for by the hosts and at Oshkosh, many houses have to be evacuated during the show. Oshkosh Corp., a 24/7 major defense contractor, had to shut down entirely for 90 minutes. EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the association doesn’t like to wear out its welcome with these cooperative folks.
The restored B-29, Doc, left an indelible impression on me for the care and skill lavished on its restoration. I didn’t even have to imagine what it must have looked like right out of the factory at Wichita in 1945. It almost looks like that now. I got into the cockpit three times and never expected to find any chromoly tubing to mount a camera. But there it was, running vertically inboard of each pilot station. I’ll publish that once I get caught up.
For many who attend and participate in AirVenture, the passion for flight and airplanes is the animator. For me, it’s less that and more the richness of telling their stories and trying to explain why the CAF would raise and devote millions to restoring That’s All Brother, the C-47 that led the Normandy airborne operation in 1944. Keegan Chetwynd, the CAF’s curator, let me into the airplane for 15 minutes of shooting and then showed his profoundly deep knowledge of World War II history during the interview that followed. I’ll post that soon, too.
At AirVenture, these stories flash by like an express train, more so this year than in any other that I can remember. It creates an event intensity that’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. I collapse into bed every night, but I’m up at 4 a.m. to start the cycle anew. I should probably take up crack instead. It would be less addictive.
While AirVenture is considered a commercially important venue for showing new products and technology, we in the press tend to overstate how much this matters. Or how crowds in the booths somehow measure GA's rocky health. Buyers find out about things through the web, social media and smart marketing. Only a small fraction of people see it at Oshkosh and it’s an illusion that those who don’t attend hang on every online news item. We know they don’t. Still, anyone who is anyone waves the flag at AirVenture, just to show they’re players.
I’ve already written about the avionics trends and while these are significant and commercially important, they’re not game changers, to revert to the marketeers' hackneyed all-purpose adjective. They push the ball another few yards forward but don’t spike it through the uprights, if that’s even possible in an industry as mature as ours. Dynon’s Skyview announcement may be the most significant of all the avionics developments. It seems to confirm that the trend for less expensive avionics is gaining ground and has legs. But throttle back your enthusiasm. Things like this won’t change the face of aviation. They enhance its survival and for that, be grateful. I thought the most important avionics innovation was one that got the least attention: uAvionix’s self-contained ADS-B Out product. More on that later. You can see the video here.
Engine and airframe wise? Meh. I wasn’t expecting much so I wasn’t disappointed. For those who relish complaining about the high cost of airplanes, delve into Vulcanair’s four-place trainer/cruiser. It costs $150,000 less than the Skyhawk it would purport to rival. It’s faster than a Skyhawk and it’s refreshing to see a company make selling price a key goal. But Cessna retains the advantage of momentum and nameplate. Flight schools will pay for this because they’re less constrained by price and more worried about support and dispatch reliability. As soon as the airplane is available in the U.S., we’ll take a look. And stand by for absolute eye-glazing detail on all these new autopilots, plus all the stories we simply couldn’t get published during the week.
AirVenture 2017 will, I think, be a hard act to follow. EAA deserves big props for pulling it all together without the scars of its birth showing, thus further assuring that Oshkosh will remain the center of the known aviation universe.