The Pilot’s Lounge #136: Ready for OSH?
This month marks the return to AVweb of the Pilotís Lounge and its virtual airport. The regular characters and some new faces join up for a discussion on what really matters when flying into EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh.
We just had our annual summer cookout here at the virtual airport. It was a success—we didn’t run out of brats, burgers or beer and nobody got food poisoning. Ok, we set the success bar low, but there was an excellent turnout and folks seemed to have a good time. Better yet, because the flight school has been busily turning out new pilots, a bunch of them brought their families to the airport for the evening. It was a ball to see new faces and talk flying with new pilots as well as watch kids race around on the big grassy area the hot air balloons use for launching when they’re flying.
I was finishing my dinner and listening to old friends, Doc Stan, who moonlights flying warbirds at airshows, and Sandy, an airline pilot who has owned a Citabria for decades, as they discussed the mental health benefits of regularly flying aerobatics. They were outlining reasons why akro was more effective than therapy when a small crowd of the new pilots walked up to the picnic table where the three of us were sitting.
Chad, who’d gotten his private rating several months ago and is working full blast on his instrument, was the spokesman for the group. “Dave,” he said, pointing at the proprietor of the FBO, “got tired of answering our questions and told us to go talk you three. He said, and I quote, ‘those geezers have been flying into Oshkosh since before the Fisk arrival existed—they can tell you what’s really important about getting in there.’ We’re all planning to fly in to AirVenture at some point during the week; we’ve all read the NOTAM and looked at YouTube videos of the Fisk arrival. We know the official stuff. We want to know the unofficial stuff—we want to know what pilots who’ve flown in there a lot think is really important."
While Stan and I looked at each other in astonishment at the idea that someone would listen to us, Sandy got right to the meat of the matter. She’s never been accused of being shy. “Flying into Oshkosh,” she began, “with a couple hundred of your best friends—and they really are your best friends—breaks down to two essentials: First, stick and rudder skills—you’ve got to be on your A game for precise control of your airplane; and second, pure pilot brainwork—you’ve got to know the arrival and departure procedures cold and have a number of Plan Bs ready to go. After all, a boatload of amateur pilots are flying into the busiest airport in the world, what could possibly go wrong?”
Sandy immediately had the full attention of the group of men and women. They pulled up chairs and sat down; I grabbed a pad out of my flight bag and started making notes.
Sandy said she’d talk about the second subject—judgment—first. With Stan shaking his head in agreement, she said that she emphatically recommended studying the AirVenture Notam minutely, to the point of being able to recite the details of the Fisk Arrival. Stan said that, in his experience, it’s essential to have the Notam available in flight in a form where it can be referred to quickly and easily. I mentioned that I also go over it with everyone who is going to be in the airplane with me—I want to make use of the abilities of the others in the airplane to help make it go smoothly. Brief passengers/copilots on what is expected of them—spotting traffic, spotting landmarks while otherwise keeping a silent cabin during the last 30 miles into OSH.
Sandy looked at Stan and me and said, “Each of us has had experience with watching stupid pilot tricks on the arrival and departure from OSH so we think it’s essential that we know the arrival procedure so well that it’s second nature. We don’t want to be head down in the cockpit—we want to be able to see the moron who is flying the wrong way down the railroad tracks over Fisk before he hits us.
“Step two,” Sandy went on, “is to set up a bunch of Plan Bs for the arrival. Try to anticipate what might go wrong as you approach Ripon, Fisk and the airport and what you’ll do about it. That way, when something does go wrong, you won’t waste time wondering what to do next, you’ll go right to your Plan B for that portion of the arrival.
“One of the most common causes of problems is that the airport suddenly closes to arrivals—usually because someone has crashed. If you’re still well short of Ripon, just slow to low cruise—your most fuel-efficient speed—rather than fly fast to Ripon and have to join the teeming masses in the published holding pattern. Also, always be ready to have to divert to another airport because OSH may quit accepting arrivals—it fills up, the weather goes down or someone crashes.”
Stan put on his doctor hat and said, “It’s no secret that we that pilots are Type A, goal-driven achievers so it’s incredibly tough for us to accept not completing our mission of getting into OSH on the first try. Because of that, we have to make an extra effort to have thought out Plan Bs and be willing to use them so that we don’t look stupid in an NTSB report after pushing on when we shouldn’t.
Stan continued, “What would otherwise just be common courtesy becomes a serious safety issue when we’re in the air. There are entitled jerks who cut inside Ripon to try to barge into the arrival stream over the railroad tracks. Don’t be one. Cutting in line at the movies is one thing, disrupting the flow of airplanes trying to fly at a constant separation at a constant airspeed is something else entirely. People can get killed. Fly over Ripon to join the arrival and slot yourself in line there, not someplace downstream.”
I knew that Sandy had flown a number of types of airplanes into OSH, so I wasn’t surprised when she said, “Unless I’m in a truly fast airplane that isn’t safe to fly at 90 knots indicated, I fly the Fisk arrival at the default 1,800 feet MSL and 90 knots indicated rather than at 130 knots and 2,300 feet. Frankly, flying the arrival at 130 knots in a production piston single is simply being a jerk (she really used a much stronger word) and cutting in line. It’s also potentially unsafe because the two arrivals have to merge at some point—a point that increases the risk of the arrival for all involved."
Stan then steered the conversation into the stick and rudder topic. He said, “At the most basic, a pilot has to make sure to know the power (and flap) settings that set the airplane up at 90 knots for the Fisk Arrival.” He looked at the two of us and went on, “Our expectations for ourselves are that we can hold 90 KIAS, plus or minus five knots and 1800 feet MSL plus or minus 50 feet. I don’t think that is unreasonable for any pilot who is going to fly the arrival.”
I interjected with something that I’d seen almost every year: “While the arrival is flown at 1,000 feet AGL—pattern altitude at most airports—it’s common for the controllers to call for pilots to fly the downwind to Runway 27 at a lower altitude and closer in to the runway than a lot of pilots are used to. In addition to the Runway 27 landing being a right-hand traffic pattern—not something pilots fly regularly—the Notam warns pilots to turn base leg inside of the shoreline to Lake Winnebago, so it may be closer in than some pilots are used to.
“Put in blunt terms, the arrival often means maneuvering at relatively low altitude and low speed because the actions of someone ahead of you have created a situation that you’ve got to deal with correctly. That has led to fatal stall/spin accidents in the pattern at OSH—I lost a friend there that way. I strongly recommend that you be comfortable maneuvering your airplane at only 10 knots or so above stall speed because your life may depend on it.”
Sandy stepped in to talk about the landing. “You’ll be cleared to land on a colored dot on the runway. It’s pretty basic to expect a pilot to be able to do it without hitting nosewheel first or wrecking the airplane—yet every year a number of pilots who didn’t polish their skills do those stupid tricks. For crying out loud, show up at OSH able to handle your airplane and make a normal landing on a designated spot.”
With a glance at Stan and me to confirm our opinions, Sandy said with some vehemence, “Take some dual now—within a few weeks of flying to OSH—concentrating on accurately maintain altitude and airspeed, slow flight maneuvering, tight, right-hand traffic patterns and landing on a designated spot. I’m not kidding about this—it’s recency of recurrent training that makes the difference in how well you fly. I, know that Rick is serious about it, and that he took a flight review three weeks ago.
“Oh, and after you land, you’ll be expected to clear the runway without delay—visualize turning off onto the grass at about a 30-degree angle, between runway lights while holding the yoke full aft to maximize prop clearance when taxiing on the grass.”
Stan said that there were some other tricks to making your OSH trip lower stress. “Lay out everything you want to take with you to OSH. Leave it out for 24 hours then do your best to get rid of half of it. Your airplane will not magically fly over gross because it’s going to AirVenture and you will probably have to maneuver at low speed—a heavy, sluggish airplane will not be your friend.
“There’s no need to tanker fuel to OSH; it’s easy to buy it there and the price is not outrageous.
“Listen to the exact language of the ATIS when arriving. It may say that camping or transient parking is full—that doesn’t necessarily mean the airport is not accepting any more arrivals.
“Take the published afternoon closing time of the airport for the airshow with some cynicism—it’s not unusual for it to close 15 or 30 minutes earlier, leaving you unable to get in or depart. We’ve given Rick a hard time about the year he tried to depart before the airshow and got stopped halfway to the departure runway when the airport shut down a half hour before the published time.
“Wisconsin has truly shattering summer thunderstorms. Assume that you’ll need to deal with them at some point of your stay and plan accordingly.”
Chad and the others had been paying close attention. He then asked about the departure procedure. Sandy spoke first, “Just because departure is easier than arrival, don’t think you can ignore the Notam. I think that you should give the departure portion the same attention you gave the arrival section. The most common stupid pilot trick I see is to blow through the altitude restriction after takeoff. For most all runway departures you are to fly no higher than 1,300 feet MSL until out of Class D airspace. That’s only about 500 feet AGL, which can feel pretty low. It’s to stay below the arrivals at 1,800 feet. Stan, Rick and I have been spooked on the Fisk Arrival as we passed west of the airport en route to Runway 27 and some knuckleheads taking off from 27 came blasting up through the arrival stream.
“It’s not unusual to get shunted to a runway for departure other than the one you've planned on. There are specific routes/headings to fly for the departure from each runway. Make sure you have the Notam handy and can ascertain the heading you need to fly while in Class D airspace before you blast off. Every pilot we know has horror stories of clueless pilots taking off and turning directly toward arriving traffic.”
Stan added some other tips for insiders: “Your airplane will have sunk into the grass while it was parked. Plan on asking some folks nearby to help you pull it forward and turn it 90 degrees before you start up. Trying to power out of your parking spot can require more power than is available, will potentially damage your prop and blow the campsites of folks behind you into the next county. Be considerate.
“Lines for takeoff can be long, especially right after the airshow—hang out 45 minutes and they get better.
“Picking up an IFR departure clearance can take a long time on top of just taxiing to the runway. If you can depart VFR, it’s usually a lot less hassle, although if you need an IFR clearance, it’s big-time difficult to depart VFR and then try to pick up an IFR clearance in the air. The Notam has details.
“You will probably have only half the width of the runway for your takeoff—don’t be surprised by the situation.
“If the winds are light when the controllers are blasting airplanes off one after another, there’s a good chance that you’ll hit wake turbulence from one or more of the airplanes departing before you. If you haven’t hit wake turbulence from a ‘little’ airplane, you’ll be surprised how powerful it is. It can, and will, roll you hard. Be ready to put the ailerons and rudder to the stops to counter any rolling action and fight your way through it. I’ve never seen any reports of takeoff accidents at OSH due to wake turbulence, but I’ve seen airplanes rolled as much as 90 degrees at low altitude on takeoff when I was watching Runway 27 departures.”
Sandy got up and led our new friends to her Citabria as she wrapped up the discussion by reminding them that when we fly into OSH we are in the public eye. With the proliferation of social media, they should figure that anything they do in their airplane will be filmed by someone who is eager to post videos of stupid pilot tricks.
As she got to her airplane, Sandy opened the door, pointed at the placard on the top center of the instrument panel, smiled and said, “You might want to pay attention to this.”
The pilots looked and one of them read it out loud: “Don’t do anything dumb.”
Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is a CFII and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.