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‘It’s an Oshkosh miracle’

Veteran AirVenture attendee flies in and camps for first time

I’ve been coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin since I was a kid—family vacations every few years centered around the “world’s greatest aviation celebration.” I’ve reported on the event for AOPA for nearly two decades. Yet, this year, I experienced another first—flying in and camping with my Cessna 170B.

  • AOPA’s Alyssa Cobb surveys her upturned and drying tent after an afternoon thunderstorm during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin, July 22. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA’s Kollin Stagnito helps Alyssa Cobb with her drenched tent during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • AOPA colleagues David Tulis, Alyssa Cobb, and Kollin Stagnito flew their classic airplanes in a three-ship formation flight from Ohio to Wisconsin before arriving together at Wittman Regional Airport for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aircraft campers set up their sites as pilots, airshow performers, and aviation enthusiasts gather for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • An art deco Cessna 170 wheel pant matches the grass. Photo by David Tulis.
  • More than 100 of the Cessna 170 classic taildraggers are celebrated during a seventy-fifth anniversary reunion at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Cessna 170 pilot Megan Lindholm talks with her father, Stan Lindholm, and Cessna 170 owner Nate Perlman, as more than 100 of the classic taildraggers are celebrated during a seventy-fifth anniversary reunion at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.

Tales of traffic arriving and landing at Wittman Regional Airport intimidated me, so I had never flown in. I mustered the courage after Vintage Aircraft Association Vice President Dan Knutson invited me to be a part of the Cessna 170 reunion marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the airplane; AOPA Senior Vice President of Media and Marketing Kollin Stagnito—who has camped for 30 years at AirVenture, 10 of those with his airplane—and AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis encouraged me to fly in with them.

I met up with Stagnito and Tulis near Columbus, Ohio, on July 21, flying in loose formation with them to Chicago for an overnight. Stagnito led us in his 85-horsepower Cessna 140, followed by Tulis in his 135-horsepower Piper Tri-Pacer, and me bringing up the rear throttled back to 2,000 rpm in my 145-hp Cessna 170. Stagnito’s 20-year-old son Tony, who has flown the Fisk Arrival into AirVenture with his dad several times, hopped in with me in Chicago to help me look for traffic and back me up throughout the arrival on Saturday.

Clear skies, calm winds, and not another aircraft in sight blessed us for most of the one-hour, 40-minute flight from Chicago. “It’s the calm before the storm,” Tony said. He was right. As we neared Puckaway Lake in Wisconsin—the starting point of the Fisk Arrival—early Saturday morning, I saw the conga line of aircraft lining up a half-mile in trail at 1,800 feet msl as directed in the AirVenture notice. I was focused and alert. It felt like an intense general aviation version of Top Gun: Maverick, with Stagnito being Maverick, leading Tulis and me in dagger attack formation—not into enemy territory with surface-to-air missiles looming, but into one of the friendliest GA gatherings of the year, joining thousands of other pilots, dozens of them on the arrival with us. We stuck together as a flight of three throughout the orderly arrival, and the Fisk controller welcomed us to Oshkosh, assigning us Runway 36L. The tower controller cleared us for the yellow dot, and we got a coveted “nice job” from them after landing. Many who had already flown in lined up their chairs along the flight line to listen to the Fisk and tower controllers give clearances and to watch pilots land.

I parked with the Cessna 170s, immediately greeted with a warm welcome from Knutson and the International Cessna 170 Association’s Daniel Wood. We had never met before, but I felt like I was among family right away. Within 10 minutes, three children from Denver stopped by with cleaner and rags in hand, offering to wipe the bugs off the airplane. Call it the Oshkosh equivalent of offering to mow lawns or shovel snow—a free gesture but tips are not turned away! In a day and a half, they had already made $300 in gratuity from other pilots impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit.

AirVenture has many sides. I’m not sure if I can experience them all, even if I’m able to come frequently over my entire lifetime. I’ve enjoyed the wonder and excitement of watching the airshows; the nonstop bustle of working at a display tent, meeting industry leaders, and reporting on the show; and, now, the peace and camaraderie of camping with other Cessna 170 owners. Owners stop by to talk, get my story, and share their own.

More than 100 Cessna 170 classic taildraggers are celebrated during a seventy-fifth anniversary reunion at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by David Tulis.

Veteran AirVenture airplane campers were quick to offer me a hand—it was obvious I was a rookie to camping here. I’ve flown and camped before at the beach and camped under the wing of a Piper Cub Special at Triple Tree Aerodrome in South Carolina, but those fair-weather camping events are nothing compared to the weather changes and storms that frequently pop up at AirVenture.

“Alyssa, what are you doing?” asked Charlie Ross, a fellow Cessna 170 owner who keeps his aircraft at his 1,300-foot grass strip in Cross Plains, Texas. Ross shook his head in disbelief when he saw me trying to inflate my air mattress with a bike pump. He and his wife, Beverly, had befriended me shortly after I parked. He offered his battery-powered pump that did the job in a matter of minutes.

Folks aren’t in a hurry in the camping area. They rest in their lawn chairs after tying down their aircraft and setting up their tents. My camping neighbor, Bill Rehm, who is based near me in Ohio at Findlay Airport, sat in the shade of his wing and enjoyed a cold beverage after tying down.

I was proud that I had my campsite all set up before heading out to explore the grounds. That changed as I watched a massive thunderstorm head right over Wittman Field while I was on the other end of the grounds. The Biblical proverb, “Pride goes before destruction,” is probably the best way to describe what happened next.

Rehm called me to let me know my tent had collapsed. Rookie mistake No. 1: I put my tent too close to my wing, and the rain washed off my flap and flooded my tent. Sleeping bag, blanket, air mattress—all soaked. Some of my clothes were soaked. Stagnito, his son Tony, and Tulis returned to my campsite with me, and while I stood in shock, Stagnito and Tony started brainstorming how to remedy the situation—this was nothing new for these AirVenture campers who had weathered many storms. I pulled everything out of the tent, and Stagnito and Tony turned it upside down to drain the water and let it dry. It was still early in the day, maybe 3 p.m., which was a good thing, Stagnito explained. There would be plenty of time for everything to dry. I was skeptical.

My Cessna 170 quickly turned into a drying rack—my sleeping bag draped over the fuselage, a blanket on the horizontal stabilizer, and a sheet on one strut. In less than half an hour, my tent and air mattress were dry. “It’s an Oshkosh miracle!” Tony exclaimed. Indeed! This time, we staked the tent farther from my wing and secured it better to keep it from collapsing because more storms were forecast. True to Stagnito’s prediction, everything had dried before the next round of rain, thankfully a gentle rain and not a powerful thunderstorm.

After an uneventful, restful night’s sleep, Oshkosh greeted me with a beautiful foggy sunrise, the start of another promising day filled with airplanes and camaraderie. This just might be my favorite side of AirVenture.

Alyssa J. Miller
Alyssa J. Cobb
The former senior director of digital media, Alyssa J. Cobb was on the AOPA staff from 2004 until 2023. She is a flight instructor, and loves flying her Cessna 170B with her husband and two children. Alyssa also hosts the weekly Fly with AOPA show on the AOPA Pilot Video YouTube channel.
Topics: EAA AirVenture, U.S. Travel

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