What’s behind AirVenture’s record crowds?

If you build it, will they come?

That had to be the worry of EAA officials, who invested more than $4 million over the last year on site improvements to the AirVenture grounds at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.

Would aviation enthusiasts return this year to aviation’s biggest show? Or would the continuing bad news – and worries — about the economy keep people at home?

Those questions were answered by Friday of the week-long show, when organizers were presented with a problem they had never encountered before: Where to park all the cars that just never seemed to stop arriving?

“We’re parking people in places we never thought we’d park them,” said David Berkley, an EAA spokesman.

The record crowds on Friday contributed to the show’s total attendance of 578,000, an increase of 12% over 2008.

“When times are tough, people make choices,” said Tom Poberezny, EAA’s chairman and president. “Those with a passion for aviation made their choice this year — Oshkosh was the place they couldn’t miss in 2009.”

Part of the “couldn’t miss” mentality certainly had to do with the show’s lineup. The Airbus A380 dominated AeroShell Square, attracting thousands of people who stood in line for hours for a chance to tour the behemoth airliner.

Parked next to it was “Eve,” the Burt Rutan-designed WhiteKnightTwo, which will be used to launch tourists into space by Sir Richard Branson’s newest company, Virgin Galactic. Crowds also surrounded this plane, which was ringed with volunteer security personnel from EAA.

Meanwhile retail locations throughout the grounds sold T-shirts featuring the A380 and “Eve.” When they flew, the Oshkosh crowds literally stopped in their tracks to watch these one-of-a-kind airplanes take flight.

While taking top billing at the show, an airliner and spacecraft aren’t the main reason people flock to Oshkosh. They come to see the GA airplanes – from the newest Cessnas to the latest in experimentals, and everything in between. They weren’t disappointed this year, as companies unveiled a slew of new models, from the electric-powered Yuneec from China and Sonex’s single-engine jet, to Tecnam’s twin and the Icon amphibious LSA.

The hangars and display booths were packed with new products, as well as the tried and true, while the workshops and forums attracted big crowds. Rutan’s forums drew overflow crowds, forcing people on Saturday to choose between hearing the aviation legend and the chance to talk with three members of Congress in the forum next door.

Randy Babbitt, the FAA’s new administrator, also attracted a crowd, who, for the most part, gave him a warm reception, with many noting how glad they are that the FAA is finally being led by a pilot. However, one of Babbitt’s employees didn’t fare so well, receiving a resounding “boo” when he declared the FAA has a long-standing policy against through-the-fence operations in response to a question from the audience.

“If you want to promote the use of airports, it may be time to address that long-standing policy,” noted Poberezny, who was kept extraordinarily busy during the week, introducing dignitaries, being interviewed by some of the more than 900 representatives of the media, attending behind-the-scenes meetings and meeting EAA members and other aviation enthusiasts.

In fact, that may be the real lure of AirVenture – not the daily air shows or the fancy exhibits, but the chance to meet and talk with others who share the passion of flight. No matter what you are interested in – homebuilts, LSAs, seaplanes, warbirds or jets – it’s at Oshkosh, along with the folks who build, fly, restore and design them. Just walking in the homebuilt area or campgrounds – or anywhere at AirVenture — you’ll stumble upon story after story of how aviation has enriched people’s lives.

And there were a lot of stories this year: More than 10,000 aircraft flew into Wittman and other area airports, while showplanes totaled 2,652 – the highest since 2005.

So why the record attendance? Could it be the lower gas prices than last year? Or was it part of a trend that’s been noticed all year, with air shows reporting a surge in attendance?

“Air shows continue to defy economic conditions,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “This is a phenomenon I’ve never seen.”

Cudahy and others cite the economic value of air shows when compared to a trip to an amusement park or other events, noting families get “a product that the kids will remember forever.”

For some of those kids – and many others – Oshkosh has become an integral part of their flying experiences, one they refuse to miss, no matter what the economy is doing or what else is happening in their lives.

That’s because AirVenture exemplifies the four “Ps of aviation: Planes, people, passion and participation,” according to Poberezny.

FAA Administrator Babbitt had another take on it: “To anybody who flies, this is the homeland.”

Another pilot may have summed it up even better: “Just call it what it is – Mecca.”

Next year’s show is slated for July 26-Aug. 1. For more information: AirVenture.org.

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