AirVenture: A Cynic Confronts Excellence

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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.  

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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.

Comments (20)

I'll be honest Paul, as much as I love flying my medical will expire in September. I don't plan on renewing it. I don't plan on doing Basic Med either. Not, it's not because I need a special issuance or any extra paperwork. I've already canceled the renewal on my alphabet memberships, among other yearly expenses. The reason is simple:

The government, and the vast majority of the people of the United States, don't really want pilot and planes. Oh, don't get me wrong, they want the medical flights, military pilots, and let's not forget their airborne truck and taxi services, but they don't want us. They encourage their representatives to punish and constrain us. They complain about the airports we use, saying we take up valuable land, claiming we are a nuisance. Some even say we private pilots/owners are outright dangers to society.

As far as the alphabet organizations, they nibble at the edges. The bigger four letter group cares more about people that own turboprops (or jets) anyway. The bigger three letter group thrashes about pretty unfocused, ineffectual in almost all ways.

The final nail in the coffin for me is the inevitable ATC privatization. Let the airlines have their little fiefdom I say, and when dispatch reliability goes down the tubes the elected representatives can whine about the ATC corporation just like they whine about USPS and Amtrak. I don't care. I work remote. I don't have to fly. Let the masses get stuck on big aluminum cans in steerage for hours while being delayed complaining about something other than me. Flying used to be all about fun. Now it's a becoming headache, soon to include onerous fees to cover for the failing airline's ineptitude. Good riddance.

In 40 years when EAA Airventure is experiencing its death throes (enough "rich people" will continue to prop it up) people will look back and wonder why anyone would go through the headache of learning to fly if they weren't going to do it for a living.

Posted by: Joe Servov | July 30, 2017 9:05 PM    Report this comment

I'm remain optimistic about GA. I'm 74, and by choice, on my last CFI cycle. I will continue to promote aviation and encourage the young to join the ranks. AirVenture is the greatest air show on earth. Congratulations to all EAA members.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 31, 2017 12:31 AM    Report this comment

"I should probably take up crack instead. It would be less addictive." I'd have to agree 100%. I often tell people that it's tough to describe this massive event with mere words. To me, Airventure epitomizes everything that is good about aviation. I go because it reinvigorates me for the other 51 weeks.

I spend my summers less than an hour west of Oshkosh and when the 'magical' week of "EAA" comes around, my wife has strict orders ... don't plan on seeing me much but I will check in (with my flip phone). THIS year, I agree with your assessment ... the best ever, overall. I spent six days and two nights on the grounds and couldn't figure out how to do all the things I highlighted for myself in their 32 page daily events guide. I'd mark things I wanted to do or see and then I'd have to make decisions on which ones I COULDN'T do because of time or distance conflicts. I, too, wondered how one organization can put on such a massive event and make it run SO well. On the two nights I spent in a friend's RV, I heard the latrine trucks at O dark thirty cleaning up ... followed by the dumpster trucks doing their thing and thought just that. And THAT was before that darn yodeler started waking people up at 0700 on the PA ... only to be followed by the extreme noise of the Shell Aero team T-6's using decibels instead of an alarm clock.

It's been 40 years since I started attending and my 35th show. I can't believe I never used the RV campground (in a superb location very near the fence line) before. And, I tasted another private campground that was -- likewise -- perfectly situated. Why haven't I done that before, I wondered? I had zero'ed in on two competing ADS-B solutions, made my decision and parted with my money ... with enough savings to pay for my participation and then some. Hated to do it but ... I need a transponder anyways so ... why not just play their game.

For me -- personally -- the best part was seeing a B-52, B-1 and B-2 flying in formation on Saturday. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a five ship including a B-58 and FB-111. And TWO B-29's, too. Wow!

And now ... it's over. Waking up early on Sunday at home, the din of airplanes westward bound or coming into our airport looking for fuel was constant throughout the early day. You could see the beginning of that conga line on the EAA Live Webcams. By midweek, the grounds will again be a ghost town with only the teardown crews putting everything away ... until next year. The people of Oshkosh either love it or tolerate it ... but enjoy the economic benefit throughout the year.

I took the Poberezny Property tour ... opened for the first time this year. I'd urge everyone to do that. The docents said that everywhere Paul hung out on the property, you'd see two things ... a big desk and a bar. And they weren't kidding. And here I thought the aviation themed man cave I've built for myself was good. There were five or six on his grounds. Can you imagine what it all must have felt like to him as it all evolved from 1953 through his death in 2013. What a legacy for one man to leave the world! Thanks, Paul.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 31, 2017 4:40 AM    Report this comment

This year there was quantity.. but was there quality? There were afterburners and flybys, which are certainly great, but did you see pure flying skill or any ultra-rare airplanes? Did Bob Hoover come back? How about an SR-71? These are the kind of encounters that make your hair stand on end.

One thing though that is like nothing else - many of the sessions at Warbirds In Review will leave a person simply speechless. Every American should attend a few of those talks..

Posted by: Ken Keen | July 31, 2017 8:26 AM    Report this comment

Listening to local TV this AM, they're reporting that the show attendance was the largest ever, >600K. Economic benefit to Oshkosh was pegged at $60M and double that to the State. I would have guessed higher in both areas.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 31, 2017 9:56 AM    Report this comment

Ken,

I'm sure Bob Hoover would have liked to attend, and I'm sure EAA would have welcomed him, but unfortunately he died last October.

I saw him there last year, moving slowly and carefully, but sitting at a simulator, looking eager and asking questions.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | July 31, 2017 11:37 AM    Report this comment

Ken,

On the ultra-rare airplanes front, there was a Howard 500, large as life, parked right there in the vintage aircraft section. Only two exist in flying condition.

Only two B-29s exist in flying condition. They both flew at Oshkosh this year. Together.

To get much rarer, you have to be able to see and touch planes that don't exist at all. And, there were replicas of a Morane-Saulnier Type L, one of the Spirit of St Louis, and one of a Luscombe 10 (all ultra-rare, since no originals exist - and yet you could actually see and touch them at AirVenture).

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | July 31, 2017 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Paul--I wondered why I only saw you once at Oshkosh. You were BUSY!

I've long been a fan of your style of writing--but this sets a new high. Insights, observations, commentary on aircraft, aviation, and on the general public--all done in acerbic style.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Blazing Saddles quotes--from Hedley Lamar--"My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives"--(AND better yet, the quote that comes directly afterward!) (laugh)

www.youtube.com/watch?v=37v-6Zs5T10

Similarly, Ernie Gann injected his own side observations into his stories. Aviation needs another Ernie Gann--Paul--that would be YOU! Re-read Gann--then write your own book!

Posted by: jim hanson | July 31, 2017 1:42 PM    Report this comment

Paul - AMEN! It was a great week. I'm exhausted and glad to be home. I just sent this to my team to help them understand how amazing it was this year. Thanks for the coverage. You guys did a great job as always. - Tom

Posted by: Thomas Perkowski | July 31, 2017 2:15 PM    Report this comment

Thomas - yes I know Bob is gone, as is the SR-71, but that's what I'm asking - how do today's events compare those examples from the past? People have a tendency to forget..

Posted by: Ken Keen | July 31, 2017 2:46 PM    Report this comment

"how do today's events compare those examples from the past?"

Things change with the times; that much is inevitable regardless of how much nostalgia we may have for the past. By that same token, how can we compare today to the moon landings of the 70s, or the Concorde? The Space Shuttle too was cool in its own right, even if it couldn't do more than low-earth orbit. Hopefully we'll again be a man-rated space-faring nation in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully to do greater things than the Shuttle or Apollo did.

Though the SR-71 is indeed an impressive aircraft, and it's unlikely that a successor to it (declassified or otherwise) would have the same aura, even if it may be technically more capable.

So it's not so much a tendency to forget the past, as it is to recognize what may be great about today. And having so many great aircraft of the past (and present) flying at the show is pretty awesome (even if I wasn't able to attend this year).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 31, 2017 4:07 PM    Report this comment

This was my first Oshkosh ever; the first time that I could fly up and camp for the week. EAA did a miraculous job with all the forums, shows and coordination of events. Hats off to all the volunteers and controllers and flagmen and speakers and the people of Oshkosh. I can say that this event literally rocked my wings. Well done EAA !

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 31, 2017 5:06 PM    Report this comment

Thomas, if I'm not mistaken, both Howards were there in the vintage area. Pretty sure I saw two. I did a video on the LS Type L for publication later.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 31, 2017 7:07 PM    Report this comment

Well then...now I'm really upset....this was going to be my first trip there, for the full week plus two days, and I was camping to boot---but it all fell apart on the way there passing through Ohio. Unfortunately my usually trusty Corolla threw a rod on I30W...:(

Sadly that was all she wrote, I was lucky enough to find a great tow driver that got me to a Greyhound station to get back home(NYC).

I'm still looking at all the video footage I can and reading every story, especially here on Avweb, but I still feel the deep pangs of losing out on going to such a fine show. Ah well, there's always next year to look forward to, gotta be optimistic and all ;) I'm glad all who did make it there had a blast, see you next year folks!

Posted by: Michael Livote | July 31, 2017 10:08 PM    Report this comment

Ken K ... since you didn't see an SR-71 this year ... maybe THIS will do:

facebook.com/JamesHCartwright/videos/10211856230978847/

Posted by: Larry Stencel | July 31, 2017 11:06 PM    Report this comment

"both Howards were there in the vintage area."

I believe I have seen those planes there before, too. Didn't realize that they were they only two flying examples. Guess it just shows, sometimes you don't know what you're missing, even when you think there's nothing special to see.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 1, 2017 7:31 AM    Report this comment

Joe Servov, I felt the same way untill I flew a Quicksilver MX 2 years ago. Flying is fun again! I fly in that unregulated (say it ain't so) airspace nobody cares about. While most aviation was at Airventure, I spent the last week building a Quicksilver MX Sprint II with a great couple of guys at Tri State Kite Sales. It should be flying this week. Yes, the government buggered ultralights by implementing light sport but there are still a bunch of die hard folks keeping the sport and most importantly, the freedom of the sport alive. If you want to fly for the fun of flying, check out a Quicksilver. Over 30K were manufactured and most can be refinished for less than the cost of an annual.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | August 1, 2017 8:15 AM    Report this comment

As one who flew his own plane into AirVenture again this year and stayed in Oshkosh for the entire week, I'm still feeling the positive "afterglow" of the event. With mother nature's cooperation providing such fine weather, this year's event was perhaps the best yet.

I was continually amazed at how organized and executed everything was. EAA and the thousands of volunteers have really got everything figured out. One example: While I was standing in line at the international food court to get some lunch, a truck came by just to suck up a big water puddle that had formed from that morning's rain. But I have to agree with Paul that the airshow displays this year really put everything over the top.

Can't wait until next year!

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | August 1, 2017 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Dana,

I have little to no desire for that kind of flight. I understand people do, but I liked flying to places. I liked the planning, taking friends, and more. The problem is many people view me, because I'm a pilot, as rich like I have a new Gulfstream jet or something, Others view me as a threat, like I'm aiming to crash into their house. Worse yet, politicians always want to make things worse by adding fees.

So fine, I'm out, I know many will continue until they can't possibly afford to fly. I fully understand and support that choice.

When all is said and done, I've enjoyed my time as a pilot. I'll chuckle when when the politicians get angry talking about the ATC corporation they built. I'll chuckle as the public complains, but keeps buying, smaller and smaller seats in steerage on their big aluminum taxi.

Posted by: Joe Servov | August 2, 2017 7:18 PM    Report this comment

Just want to make sure you know that the RC who did 2 x twilight demos in the Ultralight area gave a "glowing" report about OSH '17 at FlyingGiants.com. Lots of stories and photos and video there.

Posted by: Bill Polits | August 3, 2017 12:04 PM    Report this comment

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