The numbers are incredible: almost 600,000 visitors, more than 10,000 aircraft arrivals, 5,000 volunteers, 17,223 aircraft operations (for an average of 123 takeoffs and landings per hour), a total of 2,991 showplanes which included 1,107 homebuilt aircraft, 1,162 vintage aeroplanes, 351 warbirds, 168 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 79 seaplanes, 54 rotorcraft, 60 aerobatic aircraft and 10 hot air balloons. More than 11,600 camp sites were set up, there were 881 commercial exhibitors and 75,000 people attended 1,050 forums and workshops.
In a nutshell, that’s AirVenture at Oshkosh. The facts and figures are mindboggling and everyday it brought new surprises with more to see and do.
EAA CEO and Chairman, Jack J. Pelton, summed it up: “What an incredible year it was at Oshkosh. From the US Navy Blue Angels and Apollo reunion, to new aviation innovations on display and two B-29s flying formation as part of 75 years of bombers on parade, it was a week filled with only-at-Oshkosh moments. You could feel the energy as thousands of airplanes arrived early and stayed longer, pushing aircraft camping to capacity for most of the event. The aviators and enthusiasts who attended were engaged, eager, and passionate, demonstrating how Oshkosh is the best example of why general aviation is so vitally important to the country. I believe it’s the best AirVenture week that I’ve ever seen.”
For me, this was my third pilgrimage to the largest gathering of aeroplanes and avgeeks in the world. Every year it just seems to get bigger and better, and 2017 was no exception. The figures of attendance and aircraft participation was up by an average of 5% from 2016.
I spent 10 days there and I didn’t see it all. This year I didn’t get to the EAA Museum, the Seaplane base or browse a lot of the stands. It’s almost impossible to try and encapsulate the spectacle of Oshkosh in one article, but what follows were the highlights for me.
THE US NAVY BLUE ANGELS
The big drawcard this year had to be the Blue Angels. Considered one of the best military display teams in the world, the Blue Angels are renowned for their incredible ability to fly high speed F-18 Hornets in overlapping tight formations.
The Blue Angels arrived at Oshkosh in style on Wednesday. The Star-Spangled Banner had just finished its final note when the five-ship team flew low level, straight overhead in vic formation to the screams and shouts of delight from the massive crowd.
The crowd line for their shows on Friday and Saturday was moved back by 50 m, the airshow centre got moved to accommodate their display and during the show, only the Blue Angels tactical crew are allowed beyond the crowd line ̶ no exceptions.
The show is incredible. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to see the Blues and they did not disappoint – from their formation changes during aerobatic manoeuvres to the five-ship line abreast loop. Any formation pilot would applaud the unbelievable skill required to pull these manoeuvres off. Their ability to formate quickly after a bomb burst or similar showstopper is mind boggling. Six F-18s converging on show centre from a huge separation to meet there only with a few feet of vertical separation, form two three-ship formations and quickly turn that into a six-ship formo with high G turns, all requiring massive skill and timing. The soloist sneaking passes in his very low flying F-18 doing 800 mph made me lower my camera to just take it all in.
The whole show is a masterpiece and there are moments when the hairs on your arms stand-up. One such moment is when the five-ship comes running in for the line abreast loop and the ‘smoke on’ signal looks as though it was triggered by one switch. Then the soundtrack of Disturbed’s now iconic rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ starts to play. It’s art.
Fightertown at Warbirds has always been my favourite destination at AirVenture. It’s like stepping back 70 years as you walk amongst the rows of B25 Mitchell Bombers, P51 Mustangs, P40s, T28s, Wildcats, Bearcats, Hellcats, Corsairs and Avengers. Even the first and second generation jets are parked here: Sabres, Skyhawks, Shooting Stars, L39s a-plenty, MiG 17s and lots more.
An awesome sight this year were some very rare Bell P39 Airacobras and P63 Kingcobras.
But this year one warbird stood out among her worthy counterparts, even amongst the stable of Mustangs, as you walked into the paddock. Her camouflaged body stood proud as it once did many years ago in a scrapyard in Salt River in Cape Town. The Spitfire that many Capetonians came to know as a rusting piece of scrap metal for many years in the 70s and 80s is now flying again. I remember driving past the scrapyard as a child and seeing this magnificent fighter up on a pole and had always wondered what had become of BR601. After being exported to Biggin Hill in England to be partially restored, she was eventually bought by Rob Collings of the Collings Foundation and fully restored to flying condition. I was always led to believe that BR601 was pretty much a SAAF Spitfire, but little did I know she had a much more famous history.
BR601 was the sixth Mk IX Spitfire built and was the first Mk IX to ever fly a combat mission. Some of her most significant missions included flying escort on the first 8th Air Force mission (B17s) commanded by Paul Tibbets, who flew the Enola Gay to drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And she escorted the ‘Memphis Belle’ on four missions, including the famous Mission 25. She flew escort on ‘Big Week’ and flew cover for ‘Operation Torch’. BR601 completed 121 combat missions and was flown by legends such as Gaze, Zurakowski, Grey and Donnet.
On 13 of March 1949, Spitfire IXC BR601 arrived in South Africa for another tour of duty with the SAAF as 5631.
Every year AirVenture uses the Saturday airshow to focus on one particular aspect of aviation. 2017 was the year of the bomber, and what a treat was in store for us.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, 16 B-25 Mitchell’s got airborne, followed by a B-17. Then for the first time since the war, two B-29s ‘Fifi’ and ‘Doc’ got airborne and flew in formation for the crowds at Oshkosh.
Then the showstopper arrived, the Northrop B-2 flanked in formation by a B-1B Lancer and a B-52 Stratofortress. I actually uttered the words: “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.” But that’s Oshkosh and nothing surprises you after a week. What a thrill to see those three in the air.
It was also the 75th anniversary of the 8th Air Force (United States Air Force Global Strike Command). The 8th Air Force includes the heart of America’s heavy bomber force.
The airshows featured a star-studded line up of aerobatic pilots, such as Rob Holland, Matt Chapman, Kirby Chambliss, Mike Goulian, Patty Wagstaff, Bill Stein, Skip Stewart and Sean Tucker.
The aerobatics are world class and just amazing to watch. The unique acts are always something to appreciate as well – John Klatt’s Screamin' Sasquatch was something really different. Starting life as a classic 1929 Taperwing Waco, ‘Screamin’ Sasquatch’ has been completely redesigned and structurally reinforced using modern day engineering and materials, along with state-of-the-art technology to allow the addition of a jet engine to the aircraft. ‘Screamin’ Sasquatch’ is powered by dual power plants: a Pratt & Whitney 985 radial engine and a General Electric CJ610 (J85) jet engine with 3,000 lbs of thrust. Total thrust of the combined engines is rated at 4,500 lbs. A three bladed Hartzell propeller is used to harness the power of the 985 radial. This system allows the plane to achieve feats other stunt planes are unable to do, along with reaching speeds up to 250 mph. Snap rolls, spins, barrel rolls and the hover are among the list of manoeuvres this aircraft can perform. The plane has a thrust ratio greater than 1 to 1, which allows it to accelerate going straight up.
The Twin Tigers performing a dual display with two Yak-55s flying through giant smoke rings was something unique as well.
The night airshows were a blast. Flypasts of a B-1B Lancer on full afterburner lit up the skies while airshow performers flew magical routines with LED lit-up aircraft and pyrotechnics. The show ends with a 15-minute firework display paralleled only by the 4th of July and Disney World.
APOLLO 50TH ANNIVERSARY
Space travel was a big theme this year, with NASA setting up an interactive area for young and old.
Astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman, Walt Cunningham, Joe Engle, Fred Haise, Jim Lovell, Al Worden, and flight director Gene Kranz were present. A very interesting panel discussion took place at the Theatre in the Woods on the succession of Gemini and Apollo missions.
Looking ahead to the future of mankind in space, Aldrin said, “I believe humanity will move and settle on Mars, and people will go there and will spend the rest of their lives there. … I think that is our destiny.”
When summing up what space travel taught him, Lovell memorably said, “We hope to go to heaven when we die. Ladies and gentlemen, you go to heaven when you’re born. You arrive on a planet with the positive mass that provides the gravity that contains the water and an atmosphere and the essentials of life. … God has given mankind a stage that we saw out there for us to perform on. How that play turns out is up to us.”
There was even a genuine Blue Origin Rocket on display throughout the week. This particular rocket has already made three trips into orbit. Blue Origin is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
AirVenture brought many other great events and days. We celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Piper Cub, the 40th anniversary of the Christen Eagle, the launch of the new Vans RV-12 Skyview, and 25 years of the Young Eagles, in which Marvel Comics Founder, Stan Lee, flew in personally to attend.
One of the most intriguing designs I saw there was the QueSST programme. Lockheed Martin are working alongside NASA to produce the next generation of commercial supersonic travel. The aircraft will generate a sonic boom that will, for all intents and purposes, be unheard, making supersonic commercial travel possible again. The QueSST X-Plane accomplishes this by tailoring the volume and lift distribution to separate the shock waves associated with supersonic flight. The resulting supersonic ‘heartbeat’ is dramatically quieter than the disruptive N-Wave boom generated by today’s supersonic aircraft. According to NASA, a smaller prototype should be ready to fly at Oshkosh by 2019.
Notable too were tributes to Bob Hoover, Charles Lindbergh and Ryan aircraft, the 80th anniversary of the Wittman Buttercup, and the 50th anniversary of Rotorway.
Daily arrivals were always a surprise, Airbus’s A400M, an F-16, an F-15, A-10s, UPS’s Boeing 767, a KC-135, F-22 Raptors – the list just goes on. I’ve always said that AirVenture is an overload of aviation.
One sad mishap this year was an accident at the Seaplane Base involving a six-seater Lake Renegade with three on board. Sadly, one of the passengers passed away.
Other than that, the event went off extremely well. AirVenture is well organised, very professional and a must for anyone that has even the slightest bit of Avgas or Jet A1 in their blood.
I was very fortunate this year to once again be a part of Neil Bowden’s Air Adventure group. The 160-strong crowd of mostly South Africans camps in the famous Camp Scholler on Wittman Airfield. Neil’s outfit is the perfect way to enjoy Oshkosh. All your needs are catered for and after a long day (I walked an average of 15 km a day) it was so great to come to Neil’s camp, grab an ice-cold Bud and sit down and chat to all the likeminded people, friends and aviators about the experiences of the day.
One such person I managed to sit down with was South African legendary Mirage F1 pilot, Arthur Piercy. Arthur was struck by an air-to-air missile from a MiG 23 during the Angolan War in September 1987. His story will appear in a later edition of SA Flyer.
Neil’s camp was awarded the EAA Grand Champion Chapter Award for the best campsite of 2017.
Check out www.airadventure.co.za to book your 2018 Oshkosh AirVenture.