Every year around the last week of July, hundreds of thousands of pilots and aviation enthusiasts descend on otherwise sleepy Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the world’s largest annual gathering of pilots. Officially known as EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, the show most longtime pilots still call “Oshkosh” isn’t easy to put into one box. To some it’s an airshow, to others a fly-in. Over time it becomes less about the cool hardware, and more about reconnecting with friends and your aviation family.
Started as a small gathering of aircraft in Milwaukee in 1953, the show moved to Rockford, Illinois, during the 1960s, and eventually to Oshkosh in the 1970s. The small midwestern city now houses the Experimental Aircraft Association’s headquarters and hosts the annual fly-in.
Because of EAA’s Experimental aircraft focus, the show has always had held a special place for homebuilders and kit manufacturers. Certificated aircraft manufacturers, warbirds, and current military and even commercial aircraft have become an integral part of the show in more recent years. And now that aerospace turns to the twenty-first century, drones, commercial space travel, and electric aircraft have a presence as well.
How to Oshkosh
With such a big show it can be daunting to know how to navigate the challenges of flying in, finding a place to stay, and getting around once there.
Of course, no aviation life would be complete without flying into OSH during the week of the show. Typically held the last week of July between Monday and Sunday, the 2018 show is July 23 to 29. Arrivals begin the weekend before, and if the weather is nice, on-airport parking can close because there is literally nowhere left to park airplanes. If that happens, or if you’re not ready for the challenge of Wittman Regional Airport (OSH), Appleton (ATW) and Fond du Lac (FLD) are both good alternatives.
Deciding where to stay is a crucial choice. The options range from relatively inexpensive to absurdly overpriced. For the former, break out the tent and camp either with your airplane or in one of the designated campgrounds. Both options have well-kept bathhouses. Moving up the scale, the next option is the dorms at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Or, if you have a load of friends or a large family, thousands of Oshkosh residents take the opportunity to get out of Dodge, and rent their houses. Finally, hotel rooms are available if booked well in advance, but be prepared to be gouged.
Trams and shuttle buses make getting around the grounds free and easy. Some even run to town or to stores and restaurants. The main show area is entirely walkable, although you’ll be sore by the end of the day. Getting from the warbirds to vintage aircraft is made much easier with a quick tram ride. To get from camping to the show, a bicycle is a great way to go.
If you must fly the airlines, Appleton and Milwaukee both have rental cars available, and if the flights are purchased and rental cars reserved well in advance, rates are very reasonable.
If we’re being honest, the first time you go to Oshkosh, assuming you aren’t experienced at mass aircraft arrivals, you probably shouldn’t fly in. The reason will be obvious when you safely walk into the show for the first time and see a giant banner hanging from the imposing air traffic control tower that reads, “World’s busiest control tower.” During the show, controllers typically direct more than 3,000 aircraft operations in a 10-hour span, more than major international airports handle in 24 hours. Because the airport is closed at night and during the airshow, everyone is trying to fly in within a short period.
What makes the chaos possible is not unlike what happens at those major international hubs. A closely followed, repeatable procedure enables an orderly flow of traffic, setting up every airplane to arrive and land safely. The official notice to airmen (notam) procedure begins in Ripon, Wisconsin, 15 miles from Oshkosh. From there airplanes form a conga line 10 miles north to Fisk. Here, controllers spot airplanes visually and give individual runway assignments. Verification isn’t the back and forth on the radio you’re used to. Instead, the controller will tell you to “rock your wings” as an acknowledgement. From there you’ll monitor tower and be cleared to land on the designated runway. Don’t be surprised to be asked to land halfway down the runway on a certain bright dot, only to hear another airplane directly behind you be cleared to land on another dot. Separation standards are reduced for the show to accommodate all the traffic.
It sounds straightforward, and it generally is. But with dozens of airplanes flying in at the same time, runway changes, IFR arrival delays, and all kinds of other kinks that can be thrown into the operation, flying into OSH during the show can be challenging. (Unless you’re in a helicopter. Then you can fly right to your landing spot without talking to anyone. I highly recommend it.)
After you attend EAA AirVenture once and feel like you’re ready to try flying in, print and read the notam, grab a friend as another pair of eyes and emotional support, and go for it. You’ll read that sign on the control tower with a new appreciation.
The fact that an Oshkosh show guide runs hundreds of pages should tell you how much there is to see and do at the show. Some people only come to watch the airshow, others come to buy something from the more than 500 exhibitors. Others come to learn during one of the show’s seminars. Or they come simply to walk around, be around, and talk about airplanes. Much like a car show, part of the fun is hanging out and looking at what others have flown in. At the show you’ll find warbirds, vintage aircraft, Experimentals, Spam cans, seaplanes, jets, ultralights, helicopters, military hardware, and an occasional commercial jet. Seeing all this will take a few days. Plan to stay a bit, have a brat, and enjoy the days with hundreds of thousands of your closest friends.
EAA AirVenture 2018
July 23 to 29
Wittman Regional Airport (OSH)