Do you remember your first time? Most people never forget it. We’re talking about Oshkosh, AirVenture, The Gathering, EAA’s Big Show. Your first visit may have been preceded by dire predictions: Best/worst weather you’ll ever see; hottest/coldest you’ll ever be; biggest/scariest storms you’ll ever experience; weirdest/best food you’ll ever have; strangest/most interesting people you’ll ever meet; most amazing/unbelievable aircraft in the world. It’s all true. For one week each summer, the aviation world descends on one of the unlikeliest of places—Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and everything under, in, and out of this world can be experienced. Inspired by AirVenture volunteer Philip A. Prossnitz, here are some of his—and our—favorite Oshkosh stories.
During AirVenture, while 500,000 people are looking up, a much smaller group tasked with providing security at the airshow is looking down. I’m part of that group. Zipping along astride a motor scooter, I’ve seen the celebrities, ordinary people, and extraordinary people who make up “Oshkosh.” I can honestly say I have yet to meet a difficult celebrity at Oshkosh. There are many who have visited us.
Harrison Ford is a gracious, at-ease, friendly pilot. After a 16-hour day, a colleague and I on scooters escorted him back to his hotel at midnight. Along the route, he stopped his car, jumped out, walked over to us, shook our hands, and thanked us for our assistance.
Burt Rutan is the Thomas Edison of our time, with a healthy obsession for aviation. I watched as he lay down on his back, hands behind his head, on the stage at Theater in the Woods to view the film of SpaceShipOne’s flight. After the film he stood in front of the packed theater in his flannel shirt and blue jeans and challenged the audience—the pilots, the engineers, the dreamers, the students—to go experiment with ideas that other people will say are crazy or impossible. When the moderator told the audience that Rutan would take just two more questions before wrapping up, Rutan interrupted him to say, “No, we’ll stay as long as there are questions,” and fielded the next question from an engineering student.
My shift supervisor, a deputy police chief with 25 years of law enforcement experience, came upon an individual late one night driving a Mustang convertible in an area closed to the public. “You own that car?” he asked. “No. Ford Motor Company does,” he was told. Ah, a smart guy. “Let’s see some ID.”
I would love to have seen the face of my supervisor as he read the driver’s license and then said, “Mr. Poberezny, what a pleasure to finally meet you.” Paul laughed and shook his hand. He is missed.—Phillip A. Prossnitz
Encircled by an amazing assortment of airplanes of his own design, Burt Rutan gives a spellbinding talk about creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and test flying. It’s 95 degrees on a sweltering and shadeless ramp, and Rutan speaks for 90 minutes, yet his words are so compelling and the audience is so appreciative that no one leaves. —Dave Hirschman
From a small window seat in the cramped British Airways Concorde cabin, I peer down on my first-ever glimpse of Oshkosh as pilot John Cook slams the sleek bird into afterburner and we scream down the runway at a couple of hundred feet to the delight of hundreds of thousands of onlookers—and, apparently, a B–17 flying overhead. –Tom Haines
Riding in Aluminum Overcast, the EAA’s B–17 bomber, I peer down from the waist-gunner window just in time to see the British Airways Concorde tear down Runway 36 with four afterburners blazing, taking riders for a supersonic run over Canada. —Dave Hirschman
My dad used to go to Oshkosh every year as an editor for this magazine. When we got old enough my brother, sister, and I would go along, rotating through one at a time. I was eight the first time. This was in the late 1980s—as if my clothes didn’t give that away—and the F117A stealth fighter was still the coolest thing ever to fly. It was just so alien. As a kid all I cared about was the military stuff. Today, knowing now how impressive it is to build an airplane, fly aerobatics, or even just to make the journey to OSH, it’s all humbling. —Ian J. Twombly
There’s a common thread of good-naturedness, kindness, and a concern for one’s fellow pilot or guest that prevails at Oshkosh. That attitude was evident one late evening when a tall, thin man approached me with a problem. He lost his wallet.
He was visiting Oshkosh and the United States for the first time from Nigeria. His credit cards were in the wallet, as well as his cash and the key to his rental car. Without the wallet he had no car, no money, and no place to stay.
He thought he lost the wallet earlier in the day by a McDonald’s on the grounds at AirVenture. At 11:30 p.m. that area is pitch black, and the thousands of people who had passed by during the day are long gone. We combed the vicinity, but found nothing. On a lark I decided to check lost and found. Looking through four or five wallets I came across a photo ID that matched the Nigerian gentleman. I pocketed the wallet and went back to find him.
When I handed him his wallet he was euphoric. He examined the contents, and not only were all of his credit cards and rental car key in the wallet, but every single dollar as well. He offered me money. I had to decline. He suggested I take $20 to “go buy yourself food.” I had to decline. I thanked him for the gesture and simply told him, “Welcome to Oshkosh!” —Phillip A. Prossnitz
The Lt. Dan Band often performs at EAA AirVenture. Actor Gary Sinese played Lt. Dan Taylor in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. He discovered that more people knew him as “Lt. Dan” than by his real name. When he formed his band in 2004—proceeds benefit the nonprofit Gary Sinese Foundation for disabled veterans—Oshkosh became a regular stop on his tour. Lt. Dan is not a pilot.
Very late one night we received a call from a disoriented, somewhat wobbly gentleman needing assistance at one of the gates.
“Where are you headed?”
“Back to bed.”
“Where are you staying?”
“In a tent.”
“Where’s your tent?”
“In a campground.”
Since AirVenture is home to a tent city of approximately 30,000 folks, the guest’s lack of specificity posed a bit of a problem. Luckily, EAA’s camper registration came to the rescue and we saw this gentleman safely to bed. —Phillip A. Prossnitz
A blast from the past
Diehards know you don’t go to EAA AirVenture without visiting Ardy and Ed’s Drive-In restaurant, a malt (using real malted milk) and burger joint with carhops on skates that didn’t need to change to replicate the past. Created in 1948, it is the past, although back then you couldn’t order fat-free French dressing or salads. A salad was that piece of lettuce on your third-of-a-pound Drive-In Double or Pizza Burger.
Keeping the flavor of Wisconsin, the Drive-In Double is made with one bratwurst patty and one hamburger patty topped with two slices of cheese on a Kaiser roll. All that for $4.99. Back then there also was no offer to “go green” with the restaurant’s refillable half-gallon jug for homemade root beer (made fresh daily). You trashed the bottle and bought another half-gallon.
Surviving against the trend, Ardy and Ed’s was a chain A&W Root Beer store that went independent 12 years after Edward Timm (Ed) and his wife Ardythe (Ardy) bought it in 1960. Ed died in 1979 but Ardy continues to run the restaurant with now-husband Steve Davis. Their ultimate dessert is the Turtle Sundae, made with two scoops of Cedar Crest ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, roasted pecans, and a maraschino cherry for $4.59.
Set your GPS to 2413 South Main Street in Oshkosh and travel back to a time when taste trumped calories. —Alton K. Marsh
By Eric Whyte
There are lots of ways to get to AirVenture, but one group of pilots prefers the fastest—and, as it turns out, one of the most fun—routes to Oshkosh.
EAA held the first AirVenture Cup Race, a cross-country challenge, in 1998; it started in Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, and ended at Oshkosh. Founded as part of the build-up to the Centennial of Flight in 2003, the race became so popular it has continued; this year marks the seventeenth running. It has started from a number of cities, including Dayton, Ohio, and Mitchell, South Dakota.
Initially limited to Experimental aircraft, classes were expanded in 2012 to better represent all of general aviation. Airplanes are paired up according to engine displacement, fixed versus retractable gear, normally aspirated or turbocharged, production or Experimental. So although an RV–6 and a Piper Cherokee have the same engine and both are fixed gear, they would be in different classes.
When LSA racer Ken Whyte entered his Light Sport Rans S–12S in the race, at first people thought he was kidding. But he crossed the finish line and won the LSA class, averaging 96.33 mph.
The AirVenture Cup is more than just a race; it is a weekend of fun, flying, and camaraderie. In 2014 the race will start in Mitchell, South Dakota—for the fourth time—and conclude at the Wausau Downtown Airport, 73 nm northwest of Oshkosh. Early races actually finished at Oshkosh, but only 10 aircraft participated in those first couple of years.
The entry fee of $260 includes Saturday lunch and dinner, Sunday breakfast, and beverages at the post-race party. It also includes one weekly pass to AirVenture, a souvenir program, and race shirts for the pilot and co-pilot. For more information see the race website.
Stopping for lunch at an airport buffet with a few aviation-industry colleagues, we set our hats, sunglasses, and tablet computers on a tabletop and walk to the food line. A first-time visitor asks if it’s wise to leave our valuables unattended. “We’re at Oshkosh,” says Jill “Ivy” McIver of Cirrus Aircraft. “People don’t steal here.”—Dave Hirschman
When you walk into the middle of the greatest aviation show on Earth, you’re likely to hear people speaking a brand-new language.
Brat: Short for bratwurst, the ubiquitous sandwich of AirVenture.
Camp Scholler: AirVenture’s on-site campground, named for early EAA supporters Ray and Bernice Scholler.
EZ Street: The favorite parking area of Long-EZs and VariEZes.
Interstate 195: You’ll find a gaggle of Cessna 195s parked here.
North 40: General aviation aircraft camping area.
Land on the dot: When heavy volumes of traffic are arriving at Wittman Regional Airport, the controllers may direct aircraft to land on a specific colored dot to ensure safe spacing on the runway.
Oshkosh: The formal name of the event is EAA AirVenture. But whenever anybody asks, it’s always, “Are you going to Oshkosh?”
Pink shirts: Worn by the air traffic controllers during AirVenture.
Rock your wings: The controllers give these instructions to VFR pilots as they approach the Ripon or Fisk waypoints en route to Wittman Regional Airport.
Warbird Alley: Center of the warbird display. —Jill W. Tallman
July 28-August 3, 2014
508,000 visitors in 2013
10,000 aircraft fly in, making Wittman Field the busiest airport in the world that week
September 1953—first gathering, in Milwaukee
August 1959—moves to Rockford, Illinois
August 1970—event opens at Oshkosh
Aside from watching the Pitcairn autogyro fly and land in the width of the Oshkosh runway, one of my earliest memories includes staying in a private home converted to a flophouse for strangers. Two of the visitors were from Indiana, and they couldn’t get over the idea that they were in the land of cheese. One of the two began a collection of every cheese made in the state to take home—or as the owner of the Oshkosh home put it, “He bought enough cheese to bind up the entire state of Indiana.” —Alton K. Marsh
A fried cheese curd is the solid part of soured milk that is deep fried. Students at the University of Wisconsin discovered it quite by accident. Fresh cheese curds are also called “squeaky cheese” because the curds squeak when you bite them.
World War II Mustang ace Bud Anderson gives a low-key question-and-answer session about his air combat experiences over Europe. But the humble ace is full of praise for his ground crew, and his voice breaks as he tells how they spent an entire winter night scrubbing the camouflage paint off his airplane when he made an offhand comment about the snowy ground in Germany. The effort came out of their concern that the paint would contrast with the white background and make Anderson’s airplane easier for enemies to see. —Dave Hirschman
Leon’s Frozen Custard, at 121 West Murdock Avenue in north Oshkosh, makes a tantalizing claim, in addition to frozen custard “made daily,” that it is only a few years younger than Leon’s Frozen Custard in Milwaukee that “inspired the drive-in concept for Happy Days, the TV series that ran from 1974 to 1984, which was based on 1950s life in Milwaukee.”
It’s got the carhops, the thick shakes, and the 1950s architecture. After exhaustive research, I’ve gotten to the bottom of the cone. (Notice I avoided using the “real scoop” cliché?) Yes, Leon’s of Oshkosh was started by the same family that started the Milwaukee drive-in, but there are problems with the link to “Fonzie,” played by Henry Winkler.
The Oshkosh restaurant was sold years ago. The new owner, as of 25 years ago, was required to run the same operation as the Milwaukee drive-in, and still uses the original sign once on the Milwaukee store. But series creator Gary Marshall modeled the series on two Milwaukee restaurants, the Milky Way and the Pig ’n Whistle. On two occasions, cast members, including Tom Bosley, came to Leon’s in Milwaukee for publicity photos.
But let’s get to the bottom of the gallon jug of homemade root beer (see, I can make up new clichés); the fictional Arnold’s Drive-In in the series had the exterior of The Milky Way drive-in (now Kopp’s Custard) and the interior of Pig ’n Whistle. Worse, Pig ’n Whistle wasn’t even a drive-in—it was a coffee shop. Fonzie would never eat there. Sorry to ruin your day—wishing you happier days. —Alton K. Marsh