AirVenture from the ground up

Every summer, I face a decision that millions struggle with as much as I do. Should I go to Oshkosh to be a part of AirVenture? If the answer if yes, another set of decisions follow: If I go, how should I get there? Once I’m in the neighborhood, where should I stay?

Unlike most years, my decision came late this time around. Generally speaking, the later the decision, the more complicated the planning, and the less satisfactory the available options. Yet in this case, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I went bare-bones this year, at the last minute, and I had the best time ever.

I drove to the show. From my home in central Florida to Oshkosh, Wis., is 1,360 miles. Or at least it is using the route I followed. I allowed for three days driving each way, but I made it in two, without undue effort or excessive sleepiness. In fact, the trip was an adventure. While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively by air, rail, road, and even by motorcycle throughout the United States, I have never had the pleasure of driving through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, on my way to Wisconsin before. It’s beautiful country. If the postcard industry was more vibrant, I’m sure you would see more of the heartland. As it is, I’d strongly advise anyone to take the trip. Winding through the mountains of Chattanooga alone is worth the journey.

Jamie Beckett campsite AirVenture 2011 Because I made my plans so late, the decision of where to stay became a simple one. I decided to take a tent and pitch it in Camp Scholler. It’s been more than 30 years since I camped. But I enjoyed it when I was young, and the affordability of camping made the decision much easier for me to commit to. Admittedly, my wife’s recommendation to take along an air mattress undoubtedly improved my demeanor at the show. However, I’m fairly certain AirVenture would have wowed me enough to have a good time no matter what.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I did have a few outs. My local FBO offered me a Tecnam Light-Sport airplane to fly to the show, and my editor at General Aviation News, the ever wonderful Janice Wood, offered me the extra room that was available in the house she was staying in. I appreciated both offers, but I turned them down. Once I had committed to the idea of roughing it, I found I liked the idea. So I packed up the Scion xB, headed north, and drove passed Orlando, through Atlanta, into and out of Chattanooga, then added Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis, and Chicago to my list of major cities along the way.

I had a blast.


Pulling onto the grounds surrounding Wittman Regional Airport at the end of my second day on the road, I was pleasantly surprised to find the friendliest, most accommodating people on the planet there to greet me. My initial thought was that the cream of DisneyWorld’s crop had escaped and gotten to Wisconsin ahead of me. It was Saturday evening and the line of cars and RVs turning off the highway onto Poberezny Road seemed endless. Yet the crew at the camping registration booth took it all in stride. Within a matter of no more than a few minutes I was on my way to pitch my tent in any open space I could find. I got lucky. I found a space on Schiack Ave and 8th right across from Ron Rogers, a fellow camper who hails from Missouri.

As luck would have it, Ron had a tent exactly like mine, and he willingly lent a hand to erect my tent before the rains came. We just made it, too. My first night on the ground was a festival of blowing wind and streaming rain. I made a new friend, though. And I was dry. So all was right with the world.

Paul Poberezny visits campground

EAA Founder Paul Poberezny visits the campground.

What struck me most about camping at AirVenture was the number of non-pilots I met. After years of either going to the show, or following it in the press from a distance, it had never occurred to me that large numbers of visitors aren’t pilots, or aircraft mechanics, or air traffic controllers. I met scads of people who were none of these things. Not professionally, not as a hobby. Their motivation to come to the show gave me a whole new and entirely unexpected insight into the general aviation market. That new view of the GA community made the whole trip worthwhile for me.

Each of the non-aviators I spoke with enjoy the sense of community they find at AirVenture. They revel in the technology, both new and old. And they enjoy the fact that they are welcomed with open arms into a society of aviation enthusiasts who aren’t preoccupied with one-upsmanship in the least.

Ron, my neighbor from Missouri, has been wanting to attend AirVenture for 30 years. He was dissuaded by a co-worker back then who told him the show was too big to enjoy at that point. Attendance was at roughly 80,000 then. This was his second consecutive year, and he loved it. Every night he struggled with the decision of whether to go to the open air movie, or to the live performance at the Theatre in the Woods.

AirVenture attendees don’t lack for entertainment.

Barry, a newly unemployed diesel mechanic from Texas who had been working in Alaska, was camped behind me. He doesn’t fly, although he has logged time in light aircraft. He’s been coming to AirVenture for a number of years, and he’s good at the camping aspect of it. He brought a small one-man tent and a bicycle he picked up at an auction for $10. While I was building up my muscles and burning calories walking back and forth from our campsite to the show, Barry was whistling Dixie, and enjoying the breeze blowing through his hair as he cycled along.

Bicycle corral at AirVenture Bicycles are so prevalent at AirVenture that there are Bicycle Corrals located near the entry gates to keep them in. The next time I camp at AirVenture, you better believe I’ll be taking a bicycle along. They’re the cheapest, easiest, most cost-effective mode of transportation available in the pop-up city known as Camp Scholler.

Walking has its benefits, though. I met a graphic designer from Minnesota while walking to the show down Schiack Road one morning. He’d ridden in on a motorcycle, while his truck driving friend hauled in his gear and set up his campsite. An exchange of beer was agreed on as a fair payment for this favor. Like so many campers I met, Mike the Minnesotan doesn’t fly, and doesn’t intend to. As he explained it, he thinks the most exciting technological advances in locomotion are happening in motorcycles and airplanes today, so he comes to look, and watch, and feel the excitement of getting a sneak peek at what’s coming down the pipeline next.


All these non-pilot aviation enthusiasts fascinated me. But what really struck me was that what can only be described as a big empty field suddenly transforms into a city of refugees for a short time each year. Entire families come en masse, couples travel together, solo performers like Ron, Barry, and me all show up — and we live peacefully together for days at a time. I never saw a policeman, or felt that one was needed. Traffic flows smoothly, but slowly, throughout the day and the night. People shop, cook, eat, go to the movies, play cards, watch television (RVs have an advantage over tents in that department), and surf the Internet from the comfort of the grass in Camp Scholler.

Camping at AirVenture

Camping at AirVenture. Photo by Jim Koepnick

For five days this summer my home was a Dacron tent with an air mattress inside. I grilled bratwurst for my neighbor Ron and myself on a little charcoal grill, I made friends, and I slept well — all in a field on the side of the road in Wisconsin. Oh yeah, I saw one heck of a great airshow, got to see airplanes I’d never heard of before, and ran into people from all over the continent who I’ve known for years.

You can’t see it all. You just can’t. AirVenture is too big for that, and the sun only shines for so long each day. But you can have one heck of a time trying to fit in as much as possible. In fact, I can honestly say that I have not yet met a single person who didn’t think they’d gotten their full entertainment value for their dollar at AirVenture, whether they were there for a single day, or the full week.

In my case, I got rained on, exposed my skin to more UV rays than was probably prudent, and walked more miles than a gym full of fat guys. But I had a great time and would do it all again at the drop of a hat. In fact, I think I just might. After all, AirVenture 2012 is only 11 months away.

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  1. says

    Jolie and I call it Disneyland for aviation enthusiasts. We too are hooked. AirVenture 2011 was our 4th of many to come. Yes, it chocked full of everything aviation but it’s really about the people. Thanks for sharing your take on the whole thing. See you at Oshkosk 2012.

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