Given the natural order of things, you don’t expect to see big movements in anything related to aviation. Or maybe anything else other than real estate and plywood prices. So when Jack Pelton was talking about aircraft arrivals during his AirVenture opening day remarks, I didn’t trust my ears to hear what he said, so I asked him to repeat it. Yes, the number of aircraft on the field was more than double what it had been in 2019 at the same point: Might as well round it off to 8000.
You might recall that 2019 turned into a goat rope when the weather tanked and then cleared and everyone decided to fly in at once. Many pilots told us it was harrowing just to get past Fisk and into the lineup for Runway 27. The weather that year was iffy all week and the fly-in volume was somewhat depressed as a result.
Not this year. Early in the week—through Wednesday, anyway—the weather was good, or at least flyable, and by Sunday afternoon, the field wasn’t closed, but parking and camping slots were getting tight. I canvassed the campers in the North 40 to confirm a sentiment I already knew was true: People have had enough of the pandemic pent-up, and they’re getting out no matter what.
I could, at this juncture, wax lyrical about the great renewal and resurgence and blather on about the magic of Oshkosh but that sort of stuff gets up my nose. Suffice to say OSH is a giant party and it was on last week, maybe like never before. I’m writing this Sunday evening so we don’t yet have attendance figures, but if it’s available on a daily basis, Monday through Wednesday have to be record setters. When I was making my appointed rounds on Monday, I’m was sure I’d never seen so many people on the grounds. The fairway leading onto Boeing Square was practically shoulder to shoulder with humanity, so much so that I skipped around to avoid it.
This is itself remarkable. Pelton said as late as last December there was real doubt that the event would happen at all. Alternate plans included an outdoor fly-in only or even one limited to EAA members. None of that proved necessary. It was possible to proceed normally by the inflection date in May. It was the right decision, even if there are COVID-19 consequences as a result of the big crowds. AirVenture may prove the case example for learning to live with this virus without paralyzing fear.
Most of the people I talked to, including aviation companies, report that flying activity and demand for products and services remained strong through 2020. Yeah, no AirVenture last year, but that didn’t mean no flying. Both Continental and Lycoming told me demand for engines and parts never wavered much. The problem was that supply chain disruption caused delivery delays that still hasn’t been sorted out. Airframers are suffering the same problem for all kinds of supplies from metal to fasteners.
I would give AirVenture 2021 an A-plus for attendance and excitement and a B for surprising developments. We knew Diamond would eventually get here with the DA50, for example, and that electric airplanes would eventually have to start flying here to establish themselves as serious contenders and so they did. Mike Patey showed up with his over-the-top STOL experimental, Scrappy, to anchor the outer fringes, as someone always seems to do. The major development is probably the STC approval for GAMI’s G100 fuel. Again, expected at some point, but a bit of a mystery why the FAA suddenly built a fire under it to make it happen here and make it happen this year.
In my estimation, things felt both different and the same. EAA tinkered with the parking lots and traffic flow but I’m not sure it improved anything. At his briefing, Pelton said there were kinks to be worked out, but it’s possible the changes were simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Watching the airshow spin away from the usual bustle and chaos in Boeing Square remains, for me, a must-do annual event, even if I only have time for a few minutes of it. Next year, I’m staying a day longer. At least.
Welcome back, AirVenture. We missed ya.
Avionics: Hats off to Avidyne
Maybe I’m jaded by now, but watching the avionics announcements from AirVenture closely, I can’t say that any one product blew me away. Sure, Garmin’s Smart Glide engine-out utility, which helps pick an airport within gliding distance (and advises you when there aren’t any), seems well-engineered. And hey, if it keeps just a handful of white-knuckled pilots from trying to stretch the glide during an engine failure as I almost once did, that’s all good.
But haven’t we all sort of grown to expect this kind of tech from a dominant Garmin? Still, kudos for offering Smart Glide, which is a derivative from the company’s emergency Autoland, as an aftermarket upgrade that’s available with a free field software update. Free is always good, and for customers who recently spent big on a new Xi-series GTN navigator and a GI 275 or G500 TXi display, that’s got to be satisfying.
But for me, this year’s tip of the editorial hat goes to Avidyne. Talking with Avidyne’s Dan Schwinn ahead of the show, it was clear that he has his finger on the pulse of the typical buyer. They want a modern upgrade path out of their aging equipment without having to rip all of the existing, perfectly functional wiring bundles from the airplane, and without spending a small fortune and months on the shop floor.
That’s the idea behind Avidyne’s Vantage retrofit flight displays—aimed directly at aging Cirrus models equipped with OEM Avidyne Entegra displays. While Vantage will eventually be available to more airframes as a new retrofit, for now Avidyne is doing the smart thing by tackling an STC for the fleet of Avidyne-equipped Cirrus models (there are thousands). Two new big-screen displays with a bunch more tech than the old ones, installed in roughly one shop weeks’ of labor? I’d seriously consider it, especially if I already invested in a couple of IFD navigators and the DFC90 autopilot as many have.
Speaking of Avidyne, the company is working with a company called Daedalean with the Avidyne PilotEye artificial intelligence technology. The software is designed as a “never-tired, never-distracted second set of eyes,” that will scan for traffic, the runway and other airborne hazards using external cameras and some smart gee-whiz tech that can be a good utility for both manned and autonomous flying. As for hardware compatibility, look no further than the Vantage retrofit display suite. Yeah, for me, this year’s AirVenture best-of-show avionics award goes to Avidyne.
One of the most striking things about AirVenture this year was that it felt a lot like business as usual. After a year of anything but, I’m going to join the masses in saying that it was great to get to see old friends—and new ones—face-to-face once again. The airplanes weren’t half bad either. Even sitting through a deluge of press conferences felt like a breath of fresh air … the first day or two, anyway.
Outside of a few big announcements, most of them mentioned above by my colleagues, my overall impression was that there are a lot of things currently in the works. Projects that, like the Daedalean/Avidyne collaboration, are reasonably far along but not actually available yet. It left me hopeful that we’re going to see some interesting tech emerge over the next few years.
Perhaps the highlight of the show for me was having the opportunity to spend some time with Chauncey Spencer II, son of groundbreaking aviator Chauncey Spencer. Mr. Spencer, who built the African Americans in Aviation Traveling Museum, had so many wonderful stories to tell—family stories, things he’s learned during his extensive historical research and other fascinating details about how aviation has grown. I could’ve happily listened all day. The dedication and effort he’s put into gathering, preserving and sharing the history of African Americans in aviation was truly inspiring.
Finally, I was lucky enough to get to wrap up AirVenture 2021 with a sunset spin about the premises in the Goodyear blimp. While it was no golf cart tour, it offered a great view of the grounds and we overflew most of the main attractions. It’s always nice to go to an airshow and actually get some air between me and the real estate. If nothing else, it was a good reminder of why we spend so much time in front of our computers writing about all of this.