As others have discovered before me, it’s impossible to try and fully encapsulate an event the size and scale of the annual Oshkosh AirVenture. It’s like trying to cover the Olympics in a single article.
Oshkosh is quite simply the largest aviation event in the world. I thought that the Paris Airshow or Farnborough might compete in terms of visitor numbers, but it would take the combined attendance at both of these airshows to begin to challenge Oshkosh, which drew 563,000 paying visitors this year.
Whatever your aviation interest, from model aeroplanes to space flight and everything in between, you will find it represented. It’s impossible to see everything, even taking into account that the show is spread over a whole week. For someone like me, who has a broad aviation interest, this can be a source of frustration, as I saw pictures taken at this year’s AirVenture of interesting planes that I didn’t manage to see!
Getting the most from Oshkosh takes planning and you have to pace yourself. Unless you are a fitness fanatic, you will find yourself walking more than you ever believed you could. A South African who had one of those pedometers which measures how far you walk, clocked over 80 km during the eight days he was there.
Each year, EAA AirVenture selects a number of themes for commemoration. This year, amongst the themes were the 100th anniversary of WW1 (well, it’s a 100 years according to the Americans, as WW1 for the Brits started in 1914), the 100th anniversary of Boeing, the 100th anniversary of the US Coast Guard, the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour raid and the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War. Each them was celebrated with static exhibits and representation in the flying programme.
Other anniversaries that were celebrated included the de Havilland Chipmunk turning 70 and the 30th anniversary of the Vans RV series of homebuilts, for which a 30 ship RV formation was flown.
This year, total aircraft attendance was once again over 10,000, of which 2,855 were registered as ‘showplanes’ made up of: 1,124 homebuilts (up 11% on 2015), 1,032 vintage aircraft (up 7%), 371 warbirds (up 7%) and over 100 seaplanes. I was told that this year was the highest participation of warbirds for the past 10 years – so I had chosen a good year to visit.
Considering that the town of Oshkosh has a population of only 66,000 inhabitants (Hey Pofadder, can we put you down for hosting an event this size?), it’s absolutely amazing how well-organised everything is. A core staff of permanent EAA employees, backed up by an army of volunteers, ensures that everything flows smoothly.
It’s well known that Oshkosh ATC becomes the busiest tower in the world for a week, but try to imagine all the other logistics involved in an event of this scale – it’s mind boggling. For example, EAA has a fleet of 700 vehicles at Oshkosh, many of which are their ubiquitous chopped down VW Beetles as well as tractors, mowers and golf carts.
SOUTH AFRICAN PARTICIPATION
I attended Oshkosh as part of the 100 strong Neil Bowden tour group staying at the so called Plakkersfontein South African Camp within Camp Scholler, which is a short walking distance from the airfield entrance – well, it’s short at the beginning of the week.
Neil has been running this tour for the past 20 years, and since my last visit, 13 years ago, he has made many improvements. There are other ways to visit Oshkosh, but I can’t think of a better way than to be with like-minded South Africans right in the centre of the action – there’s nothing like waking up to the sound of Merlins and Pratt & Whitneys every morning.
Two South African businesses that I noted flying the flag high for SA were The Airplane Factory, with both their Sling 2 and Sling 4, and SkyReach, with their BushCats in both landplane and amphibious forms.
In the static park I saw a couple of ex-SAAF Harvards, and in the flying display, one of the recently restored F-86 Sabres was ex-SAAF. Now in the markings of US Korean Ace, Major Jabara, it is in absolutely stunning polished metal condition. Also in the static park were two recent exports from SA, a Pitts S2A ZS-LLK, now N800LK, and a PZL-102 ZS-UDI, now N800UD.
If warbirds are your thing, then you wouldn’t have been disappointed with the selection this year. It’s difficult to know where to start, but amongst the many P-51 Mustangs, Harvards, T-28s and T-34s there were some real gems. The Warbird Grand Champion Award went to an immaculate Kiwi marked Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk, while other warbird eye candy on show included four Vought Corsairs, four Douglas Skyraiders, four Curtiss Kittyhawk/Warhawks, four F-86 Sabres, ten B-25 Mitchells, two B-17 Flying Fortresses, two Mig-17s, two T-33 jets, about 20 L-39 jets, four Grumman Avengers, a P-47 Thunderbolt, a P-39 Aircobra, a Yak-3, a Grumman Wildcat, a Grumman Duck, a Supermarine Spitfire, a NA T-2 Buckeye, an Alpha Jet, two Aermacchi S-211 jets, an A4 Skyhawk, a Grumman Bearcat, a Grumman Tracker, four Dakotas, two Hawker Sea Furies, a Curtiss C-46, a C-123 Provider, a B-29 Super Fortress … and I could go on! And this excludes the EAA Museum warbirds such as the DH Mosquito and Mustang prototype.
During the warbird flying displays, several replica Japanese aircraft that featured in the original Tora Tora Tora movie re-enacted the attack with convincing authenticity, being suitably chased by a lone P-40 Warhawk.
US MILITARY PARTICIPATION
The USAF and US Navy came out in full force this year, with flying displays by the Navy’s F-18 Super Hornets and the USAF’s F-16 Fighting Falcons Viper Display Team, two F-15 Eagles, two A-10 Warthogs and two F-4 Phantoms, which sadly were destined to become target drones shortly after the show. There were also several other USAF military static displays including a C-5M Galaxy, a Boeing KC-135, and a Blackhawk Helicopter. NASA had two early model F-18C Hornets on display, which took the total of F-18s in various marks up to seven.
Celebrating their 100th anniversary, the US Coast Guard displayed a Lockheed HC-130J, a CASA HC-144A Ocean Sentry, a Eurocopter MH-65 Dolphin and an Alenia C-27 Spartan. There were also several privately owned ex-Coast Guard aircraft, including a Grumman H-16 Albatross and a DH Beaver.
THE CANADIAN SNOWBIRDS
The Canadian Air Force’s 431 Demonstration Squadron flying their 50 year old Avro CT-114 Tutors and known as the Canadian Snowbirds made a reappearance at Oshkosh, after last displaying there in 1976. Having seen many of the world’s nine ship aerobatic teams, I have to say the Snowbirds are right up there with the best, which is amazing considering the age of their equipment and the limited 2,650 lb thrust available from their GE-J85-CAN-40 engines.
The accuracy of their flying and their energy management is spectacular, as is their smooth and seemingly effortless ability to change their formation midway through a manoeuvre. As someone mentioned, other teams fly like a rock concert; the Snowbirds fly like a symphony. Interestingly, the Snowbirds are credited with being the first aerobatic team to accompany their display to music, which at Oshkosh was extremely well-integrated into their display.
Altogether the Snowbirds bring along 11 aircraft, nine for the formation, one for static display and one reserve. This is a considerable investment, especially as they will soon have to contemplate modernising their equipment. Two of the Snowbird Team decided to taxi their aircraft over to the vintage airpark and camp there overnight, as they said their CT-114s qualified as vintage.
THE MARTIN JRM MARS WATER BOMBER
The Martin Mars water bomber was initially conceived as a long range patrol aircraft for the US Navy, but only six were produced, one of which crashed before entering service.
Retired by the US Navy in 1956, four of the Martin Marses were converted to fire-fighting water tankers in 1959 for use in Canada. Two were destroyed in a typhoon and two remain – both retired from active water bombing duties.
The one that was at Oshkosh is known as Hawaii Mars. With a length of 117 ft (35.7 m) and a wingspan of 200 ft (60.96 m), the Mars is an impressive aircraft. Powered by four 18 cylinder Wright R-3350 radials, each producing 2,500 hp (imagine that fuel and oil burn!), the Mars hauls a load of 27,276 litres of water. Both remaining Marses are now for sale, with Kermit Weeks reportedly interested in purchasing Hawaii Mars. So if anyone in SA has a large dam and a BIG fire problem, get in touch with Coulson Flying Tankers for the remaining one.
AEROBATICS – to hover is divine!
When I last visited Oshkosh in 2003, the ability to hover an aerobatic aircraft in the vertical was only achievable for a very brief time. Now the latest aerobatic aircraft seem to make it the norm.
Oshkosh plays host to the who’s who of US aerobatic pilots. Stand out performers for me included Rob Holland in his MXS-RH, which, thanks to its empty weight of 1,200 lbs and 380 hp on tap, he really makes talk.
Skip Stewart in his highly modified Pitts Special ‘Prometheus’, which has 400 hp and a climb rate of 4,000 ft per minute proved that there is still life to be wrung out of the of the original 70 year old Pitts design.
Still at the top of his game, Sean D Tucker in his Oracle Challenger III was as impressive as ever – a living legend of the aerobatic world.
A new aerobatic aircraft to watch out for is Philipp Steinbach’s new creation called the Game Bird GB-1. Backed by Walmart, the intention is to take this plane through full certification.
Whilst the variety of homebuilt aircraft designs available is huge, it’s like a hundred different dogs chasing the cat which is Vans Aircraft. Vans aircraft are so dominant in the aircraft park that you have to look around them to see what else is out there. Now celebrating 30 years and with around 10,000 flying, there does not seem to be a serious volume challenger on the horizon.
However, other types that were there in numbers included the Lancair designs and, somewhat surprisingly, the Yanks seem to have a penchant for Rutan aircraft. I think there is space, however, for an aircraft like the Sling to gain a foothold.
The bush plane/STOL experimental designs were numerous and epitomised by the various iterations of the Cub or Super Cub, such as the Bearhawk, Carbon Cub and Savage Cub. Also popular were designs chasing Lancair-type performance. One turbine powered Lancair Legacy variant, called the Turbulence, was claiming 437 mph.
VINTAGE AND VETERAN
Oshkosh provides a window of excellence into the amazing effort going into vintage aircraft preservation. The standard of restoration usually exceeds the original production line.
Oshkosh also offers the opportunity to see multiple examples of what would ordinarily be considered rare aircraft.
In SA, Archie Kemp rightly deserves a prime spot when he arrives in his Cessna 195, but at Oshkosh there were 36 of them – and they were disappointed that more hadn’t arrived. One of my favourites, the Stinson Gull Wing Reliant, was represented by at least a dozen examples.
Interestingly, early models of the Piper Cherokee and Cessna 150 and 172 are getting full recognition as vintage, and a serious amount of effort and expense is going towards turning them into gleaming show stoppers.
A standout for me was the seven Spartan Executives. Produced during the mid-30s, the US$25,000 that they cost at the time was apparently equivalent to the cost of four or five houses. Out of the 34 examples produced, a remarkable 20 still exist today. So seven at Oshkosh is a notable feat – especially considering the factory apparently only ever got to photograph six in one place.
For 51 weeks of the year the seaplane base at Oshkosh is just part of the local farmer’s water frontage. But for one week a year the area is rented out to EAA for just US$1, and guess what … a 100 seaplane/amphibs arrive for a so called ‘splash-in’.
With the massive Martin Mars in attendance this year, the base was more popular than ever. As you would expect, the majority of seaplane conversions are derived from high wing landplanes, like the Cessna 172, 182 and 206. However, I get the feeling that, given the opportunity, Americans and Canadians will attach floats to anything – there was reportedly an RV on floats, although I didn’t see it.
I do recall seeing an Aztec on floats, which looked rather odd. It was also great to see the South African manufactured SkyReach BushCat Amphibian. What a pity that until local SA regulations change, it’s impractical to operate a floatplane here.
PRIVATE TCA AND COMMERCIAL AVIATION
Faced with a bouquet of alternative exotica, it was difficult to find much time to visit the latest of what the commercial industry has to offer. Suffice to say, all the major manufacturers were represented, with Textron having perhaps the largest display, incorporating both their Cessna and Beechcraft brands. They had a mock-up of their Denali single-engine turboprop, which looks to be a direct competitor to the Pilatus PC-12.
Honda had their HondaJet on display, and to be honest I was pleasantly surprised. It looks better in the flesh than it does in pictures, and those over-wing engines look less odd than I expected. It will be interesting to see whether their home grown HF-120 jet engine does the business and gives the established engine suppliers a run for their money. Apparently there are over a 100 HondaJets on order. The Honda representative I spoke to didn’t know whether any were heading for SA.
Watch out for the Epic E1000. Six of these arrived at Oshkosh after a world tour. It’s a really pretty looking aircraft and certification is planned for early 2017. It’s in the Piper Meridian price range – only it’s 80 knots faster.
THE ‘FLY’ MARKETS AND THE CORPORATE STORES
The Fly Market has everything you need and plenty stuff you didn’t know you need, and is famous for loosening the wallet of aviators. Anything you can think of, from avionics to kitsch memorabilia to top line avionics, is available, and despite a Zuma inspired exchange rate, it’s often at a better price than in SA. If you are running to a tight budget, it’s best to stay clear of this place.
YOUR NEXT MOVE
If you have got this far, what are you waiting for? Start budgeting and planning for Oshkosh 2017. I can only provide a brief insight into what Oshkosh is all about; you need to make the trip yourself. If you have an ounce of avgas in your blood, start planning now to experience the greatest aviation extravaganza on earth. You will not regret it!
The aviation world consists of only two types of people: those who have been to Oshkosh, and those who still have to go!