Jim Hanson's Oshkosh Observations 2016
Every year, when I return from the EAA Convention (nobody calls it Airventure), people ask, "How was Oshkosh?" Usually they don't mean how was the city, and they don't mean how was the show? Most people mean "What did you learn there?"
People have been going to Oshkosh since, well, since the EAA Convention moved there when the Convention outgrew Rockford, Illinois. The Convention had become so popular that it also outgrew its own self-proclaimed boundaries as a convention of builders of home-built airplanes, something still lamented by some EAA-ers, to become the largest general aviation gathering in the world.
Oshkosh has become emblematic of the health of the aviation industry. Every year, people look to the Oshkosh Convention to divine the health and future of the industry by scrutinizing what happened at Oshkosh this year, much as wizards and fortune tellers used to try to read the future from tea leaves and animal entrails. One could say that any prognostication from any of these methods foretelling the flying future had about the same likelihood of success, little better than average, but here are some of my Oshkosh Observations.
Oshkosh was big
Attendance declined a few years ago, but has been building ever since Jack Pelton took the helm of EAA. By the start of the Convention on Monday, there was no parking for non-show aircraft--though some of that may be attributed to loss of the North 40 parking/camping, much of that was made up by an addition to the south. The campgrounds were almost full Monday as well. Though the headliner acts (the Snowbirds and the U.S. military presence) wouldn't show up till the end of the week.
Vendors and Exhibitors
The buildings and grounds were full again, another example of optimism in the industry. Some vendors were no longer in their traditional locations. Some vendors downsized. It did seem that there were more non-aviation vendors hawking their wares. Sadly missed, Jerry's One-Man Band, an Oshkosh staple for a lot of years.
Some years, Oshkosh is full of proposed new aircraft and aviation technologies. This was not one of those years, Rather, this year previously introduced technologies came to maturity and fruition.
ADDS-B solutions abounded, as well as avionics innovations. Avidyne introduced a new and improved version of their 550-series nav/com and GPS unit which has a built-in solid-state AHARS (pitch and roll), complete with synthetic vision, traffic, and weather. Great, I thought, just what we need, another $20,000 piece of avionics. I judged too soon.
The unit also gives you an updated transponder with ADDS-B out. That's a big portion of the price tag saved. They also revealed innovative thinking made possible by the cooperation of AOPA, EAA, the FAA, and avionics manufacturers. The unit has Bluetooth capability to export the image from the screen to a tablet device. Even better, you can Velcro-mount an I-Pad directly over your six-pack of conventional instruments for big glass utility. Your conventional instruments remain behind as a back-up. No complete panel work up, saving thousands in installation cost
That's around $20,000 for big glass displays featuring synthetic vision, freedom from vacuum pump failure for IFR flying, ADDS-B in and out, traffic, weather, and terrain avoidance, and a new nav/com and transponder. That's less than the cost of a conventional stack of radios, with so much more capability. It's also half the cost of a big glass panel update. If you want another glass panel on the right side to display fuel and engine readings and diagnostics, all it costs is the cost of the sensors and the cost of an I-pad. That means that even 40-year old airplanes can have nearly the same instrumentation as a new aircraft for a lot less money. Look at AOPA's Sweepstakes aircraft panel. That can't help but support the resale costs of used aircraft. It's still a lot of money, but it makes our existing aircraft much more capable and safe. That's good news!
New aircraft models
There were a few new concept aircraft offerings this year, but mainly, there were actual certified aircraft on display. Most of these had gone through the rigors of certification--most of them took years to do so, but some weren't through relatively quickly. Textron/Hawker/Beechcraft showed a mock-up of their new single-engine turboprop aimed squarely at the PC-12/TBM competitors. Cessna hyped a new announcement featuring the Cessna 206. It turned out that they gave it about 180# more gross weight, which lowered the service ceiling, climb rate, and cruise speed somewhat but many 206 operators had been flying their airplanes at that weight anyway. There was a dearth of Diesels, no breakthrough applications from the existing manufacturers. Mooney says they will have one in their new trainer, but it isn't certified yet. Diesels haven't been popular in the US because while they save on fuel, the overhaul/replacement costs per hour have wiped out the savings. In my estimation, TBOs will have to go up. Avgas costs would have to jump another dollar per gallon or more, or the aviation diesels would have to be approved for automotive diesel before they become viable.
Forums and workshops
There were over 1,000 Forums and workshops presented this year. Some were How To informative Forums. Some were informational. The Medical Reform and How to choose an ADDS-B solution were among the most popular, but it seemed there were more Forums on Aviation History and meet and greet with aviation luminaries than usual.
Brickbats and bouquets
What went right and what went wrong?
• It was hot and muggy the first few days. EAA did a great job of getting extra water for consumption out on the flight line and having bags of ice for sale.
• As happens every year that it rains, the grass streets of Camp Scholler camping turn into a sea of mud and it stays that way for the rest of the convention. At nearly $30 per night for camping (no water, electricity, or hookup--just a spot to park) EAA needs to make an investment in the grounds. Far more people today have motor homes and campers. Contrast that with the tents that were the norm when Camp Scholler was first laid out. Start a program to improve some of the main streets every year by putting down crushed rock. They can even charge more for those spots, while keeping the price down on unimproved and tent areas. Related issue every year, the area where the busses load and unload passengers near the Theatre in the Woods becomes a mud hole. If there is one spot that needs improvement, that's it. Thousands of people traverse it several times a day.
• It seems that there is still far too many extra vehicles traversing the grounds. The old cars don't add to the ambiance. There seems to be far too many golf carts and Gators. Related issue, the streets are clogged with both pedestrians and vehicles. In the infrastructure planning, it would help if there were more dedicated sidewalks along the heavily-trafficked areas, especially the tram and bus routes.
• The Tram system and the Bus system provide super mobility around the grounds, and the drivers are so friendly! An observation, the busses used to go in front of the Red Barn store, now they are routed half a block south. This not only strands passengers looking to get on at the store, but making the S turn to move half a block south is difficult for the bus drivers. Suggest either going back to the original route, or eliminating the bicycle parking at the S curve.
• The map of the grounds needs to be updated. Some of the roads are now one way, causing confusion for bicycle or scooter drivers trying to get to the museum area. The generator/no generator and pets area needs to be defined. As Camp Scholler has grown, the former "No Man's Land" no longer accurately depicts them.
• Helicopter rides are popular as ever, and a good source of income for EAA. I own and fly a helicopter, but the constant noise in flying over the Forum area robs those attendees of what they came to hear. With over 1000 Forums presented, that's a LOT of people! This could be ameliorated by keeping the helicopters south of the Tower.
I realize that helicopters need to stay within safe landing areas in the event of an engine failure, but, emergency landing areas are available further south as well. Moving the helicopters is a lot cheaper than soundproofing the Forum buildings.
• Kidventure - I don't know who comes up with these names, probably the same person that coined Airventure. I don't know about you, but when I was young, I couldn't wait to do adult things. That's why I learned to fly, soloing on my 16th birthday. I resented being called a kid. In flying, I could do something most people my age could not. They've moved the children's activities to the Pioneer Airport. I'm of two minds on the subject. The Pioneer Airport was built to showcase Vintage airplanes. Many of them were not to be seen. That's a loss.
On the plus side, EAA has done an outstanding job of providing learning experiences for children with activities like assembling and flying balsa wood gliders, weight and balance, carving a toy propeller, riveting, wing rib construction, and even putting a cylinder on an engine. There are booths for simulating air traffic control.
The old FSS station is temporarily converted to become a working HAM radio station, where kids can talk to HAM radio operators around the world. Half of the kids are just goofing there, just playing around, but the other half are totally immersed in their activities. This would be a great adjunct to the Young Eagles program. Written descriptions and age-appropriate lesson plans provided to school teachers would be a perfect way to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math--a hot subject right now. Perhaps with the success demonstrated by Kidventure EAA could erect one of those tent buildings for the activity on the new aviation education row (and provide demonstrations and lesson plans for teachers as well and let Pioneer Airport become what it was originally built for, to demonstrate aviation progress.
• The new dining hall on the Tall Pines Cafe on the south end of the flight line was a welcome addition, providing more eating options down there, especially with the addition of the "South 40" aircraft parking.
• Volunteers are so important! This year, there were 5,500 of them, both locals and EAA members. They are almost all cheerful, and that's difficult in working with half a million people! Particularly impressive because they are the point of first contact, the people manning the entrances, nearly all say, "Welcome to Oshkosh!" The traffic people could be aided with better direction on giving directions. They sometimes gave conflicting directions on how to go someplace.
• The air shows - what used to be a convention, gathering, information exchange, and trade show has been overshadowed by the air show. It dominates half of every day. As pilots, we like to watch aircraft fly, but five solid hours of aerobatics and flybys is a little much! Suggest instead taking some of that time to do as other large aviation venues like Farnborough, Paris, Friedrichshafen, Sun N Fun, etc. do, fewer aerobatics (how many times can you watch different performers doing the same maneuvers?) and more aircraft demonstrations, which by themselves can be pretty exciting. Think of Bob Hoover, or many of the YouTube videos from the aforementioned air shows.
The Martin Mars is another example of a unique airplane that people loved to watch. The Valdez STOL demonstrations would be entertaining if conducted at show center, and including a "run what 'ya brung" class demonstrating the short-field capability of both production and experimental aircraft. Watch the crowd as the air show begins. You will see many non-pilots with kids in tow incoming to the flight line, but many older pilots leaving to visit the less-crowded exhibits, which is a segue into the next section.
What have we become?
We're getting further and further from being participants in aviation to becoming spectators. Where we used to love to fly just for the love of flying, half of our convention time each day is devoted to simply watching others fly. We used to meet friends, share flying experiences, pick up tips and aeronautical knowledge, and also pick up a bargain at the show. Now it seems we live more and more vicariously.
We have more and more non-pilots attending the show as well. That can be a good thing as long as we don't forget what we came here for. In that respect, we've become NASCAR, a spectator speed sport viewed by large crowds. Many of those people have never participated in racing or flying in their life and never will be a participant. In the 25 years I've been attending, I've noticed a discernible reduction in decorum in the last few years.
Where EAAers used to be renowned for their courtesy, and most still are, a general lack of respect for people and property has begun to creep in. There's that NASCAR fan thing again. Perhaps those people are not EAAers.
The grounds at Oshkosh used to be famous for having not one bit of trash on the ground. Paul Poberezny and old-time EAAers set an example. We've become more like the general population than the acts of civility that used to set us apart, though I've never heard so many thank yous in one place as I have at EAA. Maybe it's the changing social mores of the general population in the country. Maybe it's the same affliction that is exhibited by any large gathering of people from urban areas to Woodstock. "It's not my job to take care of that issue. Someone else will take care of it." How do we change it? By becoming examples ourselves; picking up trash when we see it; being courteous ourselves; taking an active role in making change happen.
Don't take this as a complaint about the Oshkosh convention. I plan on going there as long as I can. These observations are just that, my own observations and are intended to be used to accent the positive and as constructive criticism to make a good experience even better. After all, that's what writers do,make observations and comments.
See you at the greatest aviation event in the world, next year!
Jim Hanson is the long-time airport operator at Albert Lea, MN. Hanson says, far from being a grumpy old man, he has reached an age where he has achieved curmudgeon status. He says though he means no harm, his writing has been described some times as acerbic. If you would like to comment on Jim's Oshkosh Observations, contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone him at 507-373-0608.
Opinions expressed in this editorial are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Minnesota Flyer.