By IVY McIVER
“Silver and white Cirrus, right side of the runway.” As I taxied my aircraft through the chaos at Wittman Regional Airport (OSH) on the last day of AirVenture, it was hard to believe that only one week ago I had arrived at the big show for the first time.
Not really knowing what to expect, I remember I approached the main gate with a cautious attitude of excitement and dread. I am a regional sales director for Cirrus Aircraft and for the last six years I managed to avoid Oshkosh. I was prepared for battle based on everything I had heard about being a vendor at AirVenture. It would be hot, the days would be long, the qualified prospects would be few and far between, but the children with ice cream-stickied fingers would be plentiful and they would all want to sit in my airplane. My feet would hurt, I would get sick of answering the same questions over and over, and the drive to and from Appleton every day would be awful.
Of course, these words of warning were layered through the overall description of Oshkosh and its collective cool factor but, for some reason, I never listened hard enough to hear the positive side. This year, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to see for myself what this Oshkosh thing was really all about, so I raised my hand and volunteered to work Oshkosh.
In the days preceding my departure, I put together a survival kit: Advil, gel inserts for my shoes, Chap Stick, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, vitamins, and breath mints. I had a list of reminders from veterans of the show: Drink plenty of water, don’t forget to eat, try to stay in the shade when possible, keep smiling, and have patience. I was determined to keep an open mind and a positive attitude in hopes that this would be my key to surviving the week.
Arriving at an event as big as Oshkosh with no concrete idea of what to expect is a funny thing. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it all: Endless rows of aircraft, vendor booths, parking lots, porta-potties, campers, and planes lined up on final. It was Sunday and the show was not scheduled to start until the following day, yet there were thousands of people already there. In the short walk from the main gate to the Cirrus display, I began to realize that Oshkosh was so much more than I had ever imagined. I was at the center of the general aviation nervous system with my finger on the pulse, and it was awesome.
As the hot, sticky, sweaty days passed, I became more and more inspired but tried to temper my excitement. I reminded myself that after a certain number of days staffing the display under the relentless Midwest sun, my enthusiasm would wane and the drudgery would creep up on me. “How do you like Oshkosh?” people would ask. “It’s fantastic, but it’s only day 2. I may feel different in a few days.”
“Silver and white Cirrus, cleared for takeoff.” It was pouring rain, the windows were completely fogged over (is an IFR clearance required on a VFR day if the windows are so foggy you can’t see outside?), and I was departing OSH eight days after I had arrived. As I applied the power and rolled down the right side of runway 18R, I remembered Dale Klapmeier addressing the crowd at the Cirrus display on the previous Sunday evening. He talked about how much he loved Oshkosh and that there was always a twinge of sadness when it was over. At that moment, I understood what he meant and completely sympathized with the sentiment. The last week had been a blur of airplane noise and aircraft specs; 6 a.m. meetings followed by long, hot, sweaty days and late nights with not enough sleep; the days blending together, as did the conversations, but I couldn’t believe how fast eight days had flown by and I was not ready for it to be over. I felt a sense of melancholy as I climbed away from the earth and headed west back home to Seattle.
How was my first Oshkosh? Inspiring. I witnessed a gathering of 500,000 aircraft owners, pilots, and aviation enthusiasts who genuinely love flying. It was an opportunity to meet well-known legends like Kirby Chambliss and unknown legends like the gentleman who had just earned his Private Pilot’s license at the age of 72. When his friends asked why he decided to learn how to fly now, his reply was: “What was I going to do? Wait another 10 years?”
While at Oshkosh, I got to fly right seat in a Ford Tri-Motor with Rand Siegfried, who is a CFI and signed me off for 0.2 hours of dual flight instruction in a Ford 4-A-T-E, NC8407, the same aircraft Sully Sullenburger of Miracle on the Hudson fame had flown the previous day. I was able to see a row of beautifully restored Cessna 195s, close to 200 Piper Cubs, a Stinson, a Waco, a Howard DGA (does it really stand for Damn Good Aircraft?), an Aeronca Chief, and countless other vintage aircraft all parked in the same field, tents pitched aside each wing.
I watched a night airshow where Bill Leff flew his T-6 trailing sparks and shooting fireworks from the wings. I met aircraft builders and aircraft buyers, saw crazy aircraft designs and new aviation innovations, and spoke with pilots from New Zealand, South Africa, and all over the U.S. and Canada. I was peppered with questions about flying the Cirrus and how to get into an aviation career.
I heard a story about shearing off the entire right side of the tail on a Cessna 185 during a mis-judged approach but not realizing that there had been extensive damage and flying it home with no adverse handling, then following that up with a letter to Cessna recounting the event: “No wonder your aircraft are so expensive, you use twice as many parts as you need!” The simple two-word reply from Cessna: “Holy S***!”
I learned about Glacier Girl, a P-38 that was recovered from her crash site 260 feet below the surface of the ice in Greenland and restored to flying condition. But most of all, for the first time in my 15 years of flying, I felt like I was invited into a special and unique family of people and adopted like I was one of their own.
“Cirrus 327NM, cleared to land runway 13R.” As I flew down the glideslope towards Boeing Field, I wondered how I would summarize my trip to AirVenture. I had met so many interesting people, heard so many stories, and felt like I had gained a whole new appreciation for general aviation. From the 12-year-old boy who visited Oshkosh with his dad on a fact-finding mission for his budding aviation career to the builder of the egg-shaped death-trap to the Edge 540 and Citation Mustang pilots, we all shared a special bond that is impossible to describe. I am looking forward to my next visit to Oshkosh, this time as an AirVenture veteran and proud EAA member. Care to join me?