I go to Oshkosh (nobody in aviation calls it "Airventure") every year to cover what's new in the industry. It's a chance to try to gauge the health of the industry - to try to spot emerging trends - to see what products and programs get people excited.
Some years are revolutionary, with new products introduced. Some are evolutionary - like baby elephants, products conceived years before are just now reaching the end of their gestation period. This was one of those years - very few NEW announcements - but a lot of products moving from the conceptual stage to "must-have" status.
I fully intended to go to Oshkosh early this year. For several years, I've been curious as to how they put this show on - 5400 volunteers - 200 paid EAA staffers and contract employees - hundreds of vehicles - hundreds of porta-potties, service trucks for garbage and septic systems - etc. etc. etc. My best-laid plans to visit Oshkosh as a volunteer this year in order to give a behind-the-scenes look at the prep work didn't work out this year due to a heavy flight schedule so I decided to just report the facts.
I arrived at Oshkosh three days before the show to watch the set-up. I made inquiries at EAA Headquarters - nobody seemed to have the definitive answer as to the timetable. I sought out EAA Communications Director Dick Knapinski-unfortunately, every other media contact wanted part of Knapinski's time, as well. (One of the EAA Media staffers called him "The calmest person on the grounds today!") Dick is one of those people with the rare gift of being able to remember names - one of the best compliments I've ever had is to have him call me by name - though I only see him once a year. I asked if he could direct me to a staffer with the information - he told me "I'll E-mail the information you requested this afternoon" - and whadda 'ya know - he DID! You've gotta love people that do what they SAY they will do!
Knapisnki told me "We start planning for the next year's show even before the current show - we've been planning for 2016 for a couple of months now." There are acts to book, changes in procedures, vendor contracts, and changes to the show site to contend with. Last year, for example, to accommodate the Thunderbirds jet demo team, they had to evacuate homes and personnel on the East side of the airport, and temporarily move the crowd line on the West side back for safety reasons.
That's a tall order, requiring coordination with regulators, vendors, parking, and security personnel. I asked him when the physical site prep started. "About April - when the ground dries up after winter," he replied.
"We do painting, repair, signage, and grounds work. We move airplanes out of the buildings and onto the grounds and secure them."
I asked who did the work. "We have people that have volunteered here for years," he replied. "Many people find their own niche - doing the things they like to do. Some people come over in April - some later." I asked if camping was available for volunteers, and was told "Our Volunteer Chairmen handle that on a case-by-case basis." Someone coming here to volunteer for a longer stretch may bring a camper, and though Camp Scholler isn't officially open, we try to make arrangements. We continue through May and June - and the volunteer center opens in July." Here is the contact site for volunteering at Oshkosh https://www.eaa.org/en/eaa/volunteer/volunteer-at-eaa-airventure-oshkosh
I plan on giving it a try next year.
When I arrived early, the displays were just being set up. Trucks and tractors hurried up and down the roads - sod and potted plants were ready for installation - tents were being set up - and there was the inevitable jockeying for position as a display was being set up and an airplane needed to be squeezed through. Through it all, I never observed a confrontation - everybody worked it out. What I DID NOTICE was the incredible amount of packaging and crating material involved in setting up - it was strewn everywhere! Garbage trucks were busy picking it up - and I despaired of the grounds EVER achieving the famed Oshkosh cleanliness - yet when the show opened, all was spic and span. Cleanliness and order - it's something that impresses every first-time Oshkosh visitor - as airplane buffs, EAA members, and Midwesterners - it's something we can all be proud of.
Yogi Berra famously opined "You can observe a lot just by watching!" I stepped back a bit to observe for myself and surprised myself with what I saw. Some random observations - in no particular order:
• The final numbers aren't in as I write this just before the final weekend, but early attendance was WAY up. The campgrounds were getting full, even three days early. By show start, there were almost 1000 more airplanes attending than last year - and last year was a good year, with over 500,000 people and 10,000 airplanes.
• I noticed that there seemed to be more large motor homes. I asked one of the registration volunteers, who agreed with me. "I've been doing this for almost 20 years - early on, there were many more under-wing campers and people with Pop-Tents - then pop-up trailers - now motor homes."
• On the grounds, I noticed far more electric-motor disability scooters-perhaps another sign of the "graying" of the pilot populace, but not enough to keep them away.
• Along those same lines, I got the feeling that there were fewer kids on the grounds-and those that were there were often in the company of Grandparents.
• The early numbers for homebuilt aircraft was up - I'm guessing due to the success of the kit manufacturers-but the number of Vintage aircraft was also up. I have no way of knowing, but I believe the preliminary numbers of Vintage airplanes showed a minor decline in Antique airplanes, and an increase in "contemporary" Vintage airplanes of the 1940s and 1950s.
• International participation is WAY up. Knapinski provided a handout of the number of International visitors, as of 5 p.m. the first day. On the first day alone, the number of international registrants exceeded all of 2014! The most common countries-Australia with 153, Canada with 149, South Africa with 60, and New Zealand with 57 - 40 nations in all - including 2 from Cuba!
• The display buildings were full again - a marked change from a few years ago when they were not full.
• I took the time to stand back and watch the people as they made their way through the booths and outdoor displays. I got the feeling that people seemed to be taking more time to study the displays - to stop and ask questions. I stopped a number of times to confirm that feeling - and believe it is true.
• I followed up by asking vendors if they were seeing increased interest. Most seemed to think that was the case though nobody could definitively say why. My feeling is that buyers have put off buying decisions for several years, as uncertainty over equipment requirements, equipment price, and FAA mandates like ADDS-B Out and the 3rd class medical issue sought resolution. Some people have given up on trying to figure out the system - they just want resolution and are ready to buy.
• The Warbird area seemed a little less congested-even with the 70th anniversary of the end of WW II. There was the usual collection of WW II airplanes - acres of Mustangs and Corsairs, and some interesting single-example airplanes - but only one Mohawk, 4 O-2 Skymasters, and 7 Bird Dogs to represent the Vietnam era.
• There were major changes in the Vintage area - viewing area, display space, etc. The vendor dining area has been moved further south. The Vintage Tall Pines Café also now has additional seating for their famous breakfasts.
• The furor over the $500,000 air traffic control assessment by the FAA has all but been forgotten - EXCEPT for complaints heard about the increased prices from food vendors ("$3.50 for an ice cream cone!") SOMEBODY is paying for those controllers - often through charges to vendors.
• The airlines were well-represented by recruiters looking to hire (some were giving on-the-spot job offers -subject to credential and background checks). The colleges were also there, looking to sign up students to fill those airline crew needs. I noted that there were very few A&P or technical schools recruiting potential students - though there will be more technicians hired than pilots in the coming years.
• As usual, I attended as many forums as I could squeeze in. They featured the experts in the industry, and were well-attended. There are well over 1000 demonstrations and Forums to attend at Oshkosh - enough so that I would sometimes have three or four that I'd like to attend - all scheduled at the same time. Like any other activity today, "There's an app for that." There is an interactive app for your cell phone to be found at https://www.eaa.org/en/airventure/eaa-airventure-news-and-multimedia/eaa-airventure-app where you can find your location on the grounds - find out what is going on around you - check for scheduled events, food vendors, etc. SUGGESTION: Since the forum schedule is already known - how about having a feature that lets you know if a forum presentation will be available at a later date, so you can resolve conflicts with Forum topic schedules? If a conflict occurs, you would be notified that you could pick up the other desired conflict at a later time - or that one of your choices would not re-occur.
• Last year, I had asked EAA if they could alter the pattern of the helicopter rides to mitigate the noise over the forum pavilions. The helicopters go north of the control tower to the Warbird area, then turn around and come back - setting up a right base for the Antique Airfield landing area. That's just one minute going north and back, but it is a constant noise that prevents people from hearing the forums - and the forums are what Oshkosh was all about. The Forums contain thousands of people at any given time - contrast that with those few people in the helicopters. I like helicopters - I own on e- but the noise destroys attendance and learning in the forums. The forums can't be relocated - but the helicopters can. There is a need to keep the helicopters within reach of a suitable area for autorotation in the event of a problem - that can be solved by moving the helicopter pattern south to the ultralight runway and it's emergency extension through the campground. The change didn't happen this year. I'll try again.
• There was an accident involving a Piper Malibu early Wednesday morning. I saw the smoke over the intervening displays - but the fire department was on the scene within a minute - WELL DONE! All five passengers survived, but some were hospitalized plus a bystander that was injured getting them out. The airport was shut down for over two hours. The quiet seemed out of place. Nobody speculated on "what happened?" No "instant experts" giving opinions. Everyone remained calm and went about their business. It's the way that I wish the broadcast news media would handle airplane accidents and incidents.
• Much was made of the Thunderbirds attending the show last year. While they ARE an attraction, having the military back for static displays was every bit as good. Two F-22 Raptors made a high-speed "burners on!" arrival, and the crowd ate up the jet noise. Not to be outdone, a private T-38 did the same thing and the crowd appreciated it up as well, proof that people can still get excited over a 55-year-old airplane. Speaking of old airplanes, the lead C-47 (out of over 800) to drop parachutists in the Normandy invasion appeared at Boeing Square - as did a 1961 B-52 (one of the LATER ONES) and a Canadian Lancaster bomber. Big as they all were in their time, they were dwarfed by the new Airbus 350 twin-engine airliner. EACH of the engines on the Airbus 350 produces as much power as all 8 of the original engines installed on the B-52 - but unlike the B-52, it is unlikely that the Airbus will still be flying 60 years after being introduced.
• Some things never change - "Jerry's One-Man Band" is still there, as well as the enthusiastic "Welcome to Oshkosh!" from the Tower, ground crew, entrance gate, camper registration, bus drivers - almost everyone you meet - and they keep the enthusiasm up all week! SOMEONE is certainly responsible for that enthusiasm and the entire organization should be commended. Do you usually find that kind of company-wide enthusiasm in a retail store? I haven't, either. It makes me feel good about coming to Oshkosh for the last 20 years, and that wholesome atmosphere and enthusiasm keeps me (and 499,999 other attendees) looking forward to next year.
Jim Hanson is the long-time FBO at Albert Lea, MN. Jim has been going to Oshkosh for 20 years, and to use another Yogi Berra quote: "It's like déjà vu all over again!" every time he goes there - except that he looks for the changes. If you have Yogi Berra-like words of wisdom for Jim, he can be contacted at his airport office at (507) 373-0608-or email@example.com