Waypoints: An AirVenture unlike any other

October 1, 2013

Thomas B. HainesThis summer I attended what is now called EAA AirVenture for the twenty-fourth time—20 in a row. Despite all the history, this year for me was a new experience in many ways, as I strived to experience at least part of the show as an attendee, not a journalist covering it. While I always enjoy AirVenture, this year I especially looked forward to it as I anticipated the arrival of my father, brother-in-law, and nephew—all first-timers.

They’ve heard my descriptions of the show for years and we’ve frequently discussed them attending. Although none are pilots, they’re all interested in aviation, technology, and hobby activities in general—and they’ve all lived my many aviation experiences vicariously. Year after year one thing or another arose that prevented them from attending.

Those many excuses played through my mind last autumn in Florida as I attended the NBAA charity auction, which included a VIP package to AirVenture donated by EAA. Thinking that perhaps if I put money on the table, I’d actually make it happen, I bid on the package and to my surprise won it. The package included VIP experiences including special seating for the airshows, a golf-cart tour of the grounds, and free parking in a lot close to the main gate.

I presented the package to my father as a Christmas gift and we set about making airline and other arrangements. The ideal way to experience AirVenture is an arrival in a GA airplane. That wasn’t in the cards for them, but the trip turned out ideal in every other way. This year’s show was blessed with the best weather imaginable for an airshow—clear skies, light winds, and crisp, dry air day after day. Although the three of them live in three disparate places in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, they all managed to converge on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Baltimore to Milwaukee at the same time on Wednesday of the show. My father, Blaine, brother-in-law Nate Graham, and his son Brandon, arrived right on schedule.

I lightened my work load for the second half of the week so upon their arrival we spent most of the next three and half days exploring the show together. First up was the Wednesday night airshow. If you’ve never been to a night airshow, go! They’re great fun with a host of different acts you’ll never see during a daylight show.

Thursday morning the golf cart tour showed me dozens of locations I had never been to before, including parts of Pioneer Airport opposite the EAA museum. There we nabbed rides over the show in Bell 47s. I’d seen the choppers overhead over the years, but never knew how or where to get a ride. Now I do. It is from that perspective that you appreciate the breadth and scope of the show. The campground alone is stunningly large—a fact lost on most who never see it from the air. Looking down on row after row of warbirds—all of which flew in—is a sight not to be seen anywhere else.

We mastered (sort of) the impressive tram system and attended a few forums—all firsts for me. Warbirds and Experimentals interested them the most and we walked those areas from one end to the other. As I frequently am, I was impressed by my dad’s in-depth knowledge of World War II airplanes. The package included VIP seating for the airshows—a simple white tent with snacks inside. Simple yes, but strategically placed near the middle of the flight line, it proved to be a good place to stop and rest tired feet from time to time.

While the airshows didn’t feature any military airplanes this year, thanks to the federal sequester cutbacks, we found the variety of acts impressive and well, curious; including the Terrafugia Transition “roadable airplane” making its first public flights and Jetman. While appearing small and distant, the concept of a guy strapping on a wing suit and four small jet engines and flying before a crowd is impressive in and of itself.

We drove over to the seaplane base, my first visit in more than 20 years. I was impressed by the calm and quiet of the tree-shaded inlet on Lake Winnebago.

Thanks to the EAA staff and volunteers for making this the most memorable AirVenture for me, one we’ll relive at family get-togethers for years to come.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.