Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Oshkosh!

Last week my dad and I flew to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for Airventure, a week-long fly-in and airshow sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association. It is the largest aviation event in the world and, for one week, the airport where it is located is the busiest airport in the world. Here are some statistics from this year's event:
  • Overall Attendance: ~540,000 people
  • Aircraft Arrivals: More than 10,000
  • Total Showplanes: 2,516, including 972 homebuilts, 822 vintage airplanes, 404 warbirds, 114 ultralights, 131 seaplanes, 40 aerobatic aircraft, and 33 rotorcraft
  • Commercial Exhibitors: 797
  • Registered International Visitors: 2,128 from 71 nations, an increase of 25 percent. Canada (492 visitors), Australia (299) and Brazil (186) were the top three nations represented.
  • Total Estimated Campers (fly-in and drive-in camping areas): More than 37,000.
  • Media: 865 registered media representatives on-site from five continents.
Focusing on the number of airplanes that arrived, you can begin to see how it is that this is the busiest airport in the world. The show is only seven days long. While airplanes arrive before the first day of the show, it's also true that fewer airplanes arrive after mid-week. In addition, the airport is closed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. for the air show, so there are only about nine hours each day during which airplanes are arriving. Nine hours per day for ten days equals ninety hours. Ten thousand aircraft in ninety hours equals 111 per hour, or an average of about one every thirty-two seconds.
To deal with the volume, Oshkosh has multiple runways and has multiple aircraft landing on each runway at any given time. They also have the most competent and capable air traffic controllers. It's awesome to see.
My dad and I went to Oshkosh two years ago, flying by airline into Milwaukee, then driving to Oshkosh. We camped next to the car and never saw anyone we knew. All the pilots I knew at the time had flown themselves in and were camping with their planes. Now that Jodie and I have the Tiger, my dad and I were committed to flying out and camping.
My dad lives in Maine, so he drove down and arrived on Monday, the day that Airventure started. We planned to leave for the flight to Oshkosh early Wednesday morning, so we packed the plane Tuesday evening.

Wednesday morning dawned gray and foggy. The haze was thick and the air was hot and humid. I wavered on whether we should go. The visibility to the west was below VFR minimums, and the visibility at Gaithersburg hovered between 3 and 4 miles. Finally, around 10 a.m., conditions seemed to be improving a bit, so we took off, knowing we might have to stop and could get stranded while we waited out the weather.

We didn't get very far. The visibility aloft was terrible. I knew there were thunderstorms to our north, but after about 150 miles it started to rain, so I called for a weather update. It turned out that a line of thunderstorms had formed in our path, so we diverted and landed in the rain in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Wheeling has a cool terminal full of vintage air travel memorabilia, but there was no restaurant. I asked if there was a ramp car we could borrow, and the nice man handed me the key to a bright red county truck used to plow the runways. We drove around Wheeling for a while -- it is a run down, dirty, coal town along the Ohio River. We finally found a place for a greasy sandwich, then returned to the airport after stopping to put some gas in the truck. From what I saw, the airport is the nicest thing about the town.
It was no longer raining. I talked for a long time with a weather briefer and finally decided to take off and continue, but keep our course much further south than I had originally intended. Heading toward Marion, Ohio, rather than north of Akron, would allow us to go around the line of thunderstorms. Once we were west of them, the weather looked good.


An hour or so after leaving Wheeling, we passed the last of the clouds and turned north as the sky opened up, bright and blue. We landed at our intended fuel stop in Jackson, Michigan, topped off the tanks, changed the bulb in the landing light, and had a bite to eat. The next leg of our trip would take us across Lake Michigan and on into Oshkosh.

Getting ready for the lake crossing in Jackson, Michigan



I briefed my dad on water evacuation procedures, we donned our PFDs (personal flotation devices), then we took off from Jackson and headed northwest toward the shore of Lake Michigan. I made a point of telling my dad NOT to inflate the life jacket while we were in the plane!

We climbed to 8,500 feet and before long the shore of Lake Michigan appeared in the clear air. It was beautiful.

We checked in by radio with Flight Service as we crossed the shoreline and every ten minutes thereafter as we flew across the lake. This might have been my favorite flying ever. The air was clear and smooth. The texture of the waves on the water was clearly visible a mile and a half below us. There was only water as far as we could see in any direction, and only scattered shreds of clouds aloft. It was surreal and beautiful and peaceful.


After about 45 minutes, we crossed the lake shore north of Milwaukee and headed inland before turning north for the arrival procedure into Oshkosh. The arrival procedure requires that you fly slow (90 knots) and low (800 feet above the ground) from one point to another along railroad tracks, then toward the airport at the direction of air traffic controllers. Multiple aircraft are converging at any one time, so we're required to fall in single-file line with only a half-mile between us. As dad and I approached the first waypoint, though, the controller announced that the airport was closed and we should turn away. We turned back south and flew broad circles over fields and wind farms while we waited.

Before long we were told we could continue toward Oshkosh, so we headed to the first waypoint. We fell in behind a Cessna, with a Cirrus falling in behind us. The Cessna was flying slower than it was supposed to, so I slowed the Tiger and hoped the Cirrus could fly that slow as well. The tower cleared the Cessna to land on Runway 36L, then us as well, so we touched down on the runway behind it, then taxied onto the grass as we slid the canopy open.


We followed the haphazard directions of the ground marshals as they directed us for miles back and forth around the airport before we finally got to the right spot and were met by the smiling face of my friend and fellow pilot, Joe. I was so excited from arriving, so happy to see Joe, and so frustrated from our travels around the airport and dealing with the rude marshals that, without thinking, I started to turn the plane to park it. This angered our neighbor, whose tent was buffeted by our prop wash until I realized my mistake and shut the engine off. Oh, well, at least the flying part had been wonderful, and we did make friends with our neighbor before the end of the week. I hope to see him next year.
As we settled in and unpacked the plane, I took stock of what airplanes were nearby. A hundred feet away was the Cardinal, flown in by friends Adam, Doug, and Adam's son. Next to the Cardinal was a 182 from another flying club at Gaithersburg, flown in by friend Darren. Two wing-lengths away was a Cirrus, with friends Meredith and Peter from Gaithersburg. Two rows over was 739BA, a club 172 flown in by friends Joe and Gashaw. There were also two homebuilt aircraft, an RV-7A flown in by friend Mike and his girlfriend Karen, the other an RV-8 flown by friends Arjan and Bruce. It was almost like camping at the airport in Gaithersburg!


By the time we had the plane tied down and unpacked, it was dark, so we settled in for our first night. I slept well in the tent and it was still very early by my biological clock when a terrific roar woke me abruptly from sleep. I scrambled from the tent to see a gaggle of WWII bombers taking off on the runway near our tent. It was 6 a.m. Welcome to Oshkosh!

I had the fixings for camp coffee, so I made some and tried to wake up while watching the planes take off. Then we walked over for some breakfast prepared by our fellow Gaithersburg pilots.

That initial breakfast set the tone for the rest of the week -- good people, good food, good weather, airplanes all around. It was like a bathroom pass with permission to do nothing but talk about airplanes from dawn to midnight, in a place where the sun always shines, the food is always good, and the kids are all above average.

The Best Part


Adam Jr. talking with a new friend in the shade of a wing


We spent the next several days walking around, looking at hundreds of airplanes of every kind, airplane gadgets, aerobatics, airplane tools. And spending money. Based on recent experience, including the trip to Oshkosh, I bought a portable GPS that gets weather information via satellite, so I can see what's happening ahead. I also bought an engine monitor for the Tiger, which will allow me to take better care of the engine during flight and pay closer attention to its condition.


"Somewhere," as in Beverly, Massachusetts?

Debut performance of the Rocket Racing League's X-Racer -- pretty cool!


I'd love to own a Stearman (or some other open cockpit biplane) some day



Nelicopter Rides!


We also spent plenty of time just camping and hanging out with the Tiger and our nearby friends, enjoying the good company and the everpresent sound of planes landing and taking off .



On Saturday, our last full day there, we returned to the Tiger in the afternoon and watched the air show while stretched out on the grass in the shade of the wings. It was wonderful and peaceful, yet still infused with the excitement of aviation.

Many people had already left by this point, and the Tiger was beginning to look a litttle stranded in the large field with so much empty space around it. It was time to go home.


With a good forecast and other planes headed the same way, the trip home promised to be both fun and beautiful, and that's how it turned out. Three other planes were leaving Sunday morning for Gaithersburg, so we all planned a route that might let us stop for lunch together.

There are as many ways to get home as there are pilots!

Oshkosh: The Final Sunset


We had clear skies and a good tailwind for the first part of the trip, seeing ground speeds of 150+ knots as we crossed Lake Michigan and said hello to Emerson. Gashaw, Karen, and Ken took a different route home in N739BA to avoid the lake crossing, but there were two planes ahead of us that were taking the same route and we checked in occasionally by radio.



We caught up with the Cardinal, piloted by Adam, and Mike's faster RV-7A in Mansfield, Ohio, for lunch and fuel. Adam took off soon after we arrived, promising to provide advance information by radio about conditions ahead. After lunch, we paid our gas bill, then took off to the east, with Mike and Joe taking off a couple minutes behind us and quickly passing us in their faster plane.
We climbed to 11,500 feet to stay above the clouds, and our GPS shows an average ground speed of 135 knots for the rest of the trip. We chatted with Mike and Adam on the radio every so often and chuckled as we heard Adam's exclamations as Mike passed him a few miles before reaching Gaithersburg. Not long after, two hours after leaving Mansfield, we entered the downwind leg for Runway 32 and touched down to complete our trip.
Adam Jr. was sitting by the Cardinal as I shut down the plane and I walked over to say hello. Adam Jr. is nine years old and this was his third trip to Oshkosh with his dad.

"It's not that I don't want to be home, it's just that I don't want it to be over," he said as I approached.

"Are you looking forward to next year?" I asked.

"Yeah, but it just seems so far away."

I agree. And I can't wait.

No diversions on the way home





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