A Mecca of Aviation – EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh

I’m headed to a small town in Wisconsin. Those who have kids may recognise the towns largest export, those who know their speciality trucks may as well. Those who are into RV’s will recognise the name of the nearby lake. Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Winnebago is just a normal mid-west US town for 51 weeks of the year. Then for one week at the end of July it’s invaded by 500,000 people attending the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture!

It’s not really fair to call this an ‘airshow’, although a daily airshow is provided (and two night shows during the week long event). It’s a tribute to all things aviation, there are not only exhibitors ranging from the smallest home built ultralight to Cirrus, Pilatus and Gulfstream but also many who fly their pride and joy in to show it off and just soak up the atmosphere and enjoy catching up with their ‘OSH friends’. Don’t be put off by the EAA’s name either, this event has long gone beyond being purely about experimental and home-built aircraft. In EAA’s own words AirVenture is ‘A celebration of aviation’ and it certainly doesn’t hold back in this regard. Held every year, it’s not uncommon for over 10,000 aircraft to fly in to the event. Everything from a small ultralight to the A380 has been flown to Oshkosh’s Whitman Field (KOSH) and despite the airport only being open limited hours during the event the tower is temporarily the busiest in the world (by a long shot) well surpassing Atlanta’s 200-odd movements/hr. To facilitate this there are special procedures that have been honed over the many years of the event that are daunting to first timers but work well. It’s similar to the Avalon East procedures, just turned up to 11.

For VFR arrivals the procedure starts at a small town about 15 miles away, Ripon is the focal point for all the aircraft. Arrive there at 500ft AGL at 90kts (there are other procedures for warbirds, jets and IFR arrivals). Approaching you are looking out everywhere as this is a convergence point, but you want to find someone to follow… ½ a mile behind, no closer, not much more. Follow them up the rail line towards the next town Fisk (where the ‘Fisk Arrival’ derives its name) where at a road junction is a caravan with a half dozen controllers, equipped with binoculars a radio and some of the best aircraft recognition skills in the business. By this point you are listening to the correct frequency for these controllers… ohh and your head on a swivel because your transponder is off. “Why on earth would you do that?” you ask, a lesson learnt long ago… the sheer volume of aircraft on this procedure means the radar processors at the nearby centres are overwhelmed with data and would otherwise drop other (required) targets! Plenty keep the ADS-B on however and there is a very impressive picture of the arrival a couple of years ago when it was saturated with aircraft!

Remember I said listening, important part of this procedure. Done correctly the aircraft says NOTHING you simply rock your wings at the appropriate time! So, approaching the caravan the controller will call your aircraft out by type and colour “Red and white Cessna approaching Fisk, rock your wings”. Once you rock your wings in acknowledgement you are usually told “good rock” and followed by joining instructions for the airport (they assign you one of the 3 runways at this point (via two joining procedures!)) assuming you are no closer than the ½ mile behind, otherwise you get a lap of the lake that serves as the holding pattern! You then follow the appropriate join and at the correct spot monitor the tower (this is all in the NOTAM – which we would call a SUP, which is many pages thick and has all the information required!). Again, no words, they will just call you out at a certain point and with a wing rock to acknowledge they will give you a coloured dot to land on.

A coloured dot? Yes, because of the sheer volume of aircraft arriving there is a waiver that allows aircraft to land MUCH closer together than normally permitted. So, to make this safe there is a system of coloured dots on each runway spaced exactly the legally required distance apart. Thus the catch-phrase amongst those who’ve flown to OSH “Rock your wings and land on your dot”. Green dot cleared to land and you will then get the “Welcome to Oshkosh, vacate onto the grass when able, watch the flagmen and monitor ground”. The grass is perfect on the edge of the runway so you hustle off the black-top as soon as you can safely do so. Everyone has to help out to keep the arrival rate up!

That’s only one part of it! There is plenty of campers, under the wing or in the nearby “Camp Scholler” which is populated by many tents and RV’s and is a temporary home to around 100,000 people. Pretty much all accommodation, rental cars etc are spoken for within a 50mile radius of Oshkosh months in advance. Several temporary mobile phone towers are brought in (although the increase in devices every year just about guarantees it’ll get saturated), several thousand pounds of food is consumed at parties for every which group you can think of (as well as several thousand gallons of “adult beverages”). This event is basically Avalon but with the focus on general aviation and about 10 times the size! You won’t see it all in the week long show, it can’t be done. But for anyone with more than a passing interest in aviation, I can certainly recommend doing it at least once!

After the first time, you’ll be back. Remember I said you catch up with OSH friends, there is another saying amongst attendees… “First time you go for the airplanes, you come back for the people”.


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