A suggestion for keeping the magic of AirVenture alive

AirVenture is a magical place. I didn’t attend in 2011 and couldn’t wait to attend this year. After all was said and done, I wasn’t disappointed.

By the numbers, AirVenture is huge. Official numbers from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) shows:

  • 2,489 showplane registrations, including 200 Piper Cubs to celebrate the venerable aircraft’s 75th anniversary;
  • More than 10,000 aircraft arrived at Wittman Regional (OSH) and other east-central Wisconsin airports;
  • Attendance was 508,000;
  • More than 4,800 volunteers helped to make it all come together;
  • 802 exhibitors sold or promoted all kinds of products and services; and
  • 2,078 international visitors registered onsite.

Any of the above, alone, makes AirVenture world-class. The fact they all come together at the same time and the same place is what makes it magical. In addition to the party-line numbers, don’t forget about:

  • The outdoor, aviation-themed walk-in movie theater;
  • Nightly entertainment including concerts from some big name bands;
  • a campground with campers ranging from single-person tents to ultra-high end motor coaches;
  • hundreds of workshops and forums of nearly every aviation topic imaginable;
  • a daily world-class airshow;
  • the rekindling of old, and making new, friendships;
  • the bucolic ultralight area;
  • and much more…

Of course, the show — and EAA for that matter — aren’t without its detractors. They’ve been around for years.

EAA’s VP of Publications Mac McClellan penned a blog post titled, “Half a Million at Oshkosh Can’t Be Wrong.” As I wrote this post, Mac’s post had generated nearly 70 comments. Many take him to task for touting, “Once again more than one-half million people came to AirVenture Oshkosh.” There’s no way 500,000 individual people attended AirVenture, they say. I agree. I’d prefer EAA release the number of wristbands they distribute. But either way, there were a whole lot of people packed into EAA’s 1,400-acre campus the last full week of July this year.

Some perceive EAA has turned its back on the homebuilt segment. They point to the decreasing number of how-to articles and homebuilt aircraft features in the monthly Sport Aviation membership magazine, among other examples, as proof.

For years EAA has catered to “The Spirit of Aviation.” That spirit can be felt in a J-3 Cub (built in a factory) just as it can be felt in a plans-built Pietenpol Aircamper or a kit-built Van’s RV-10, or any other aircraft for that matter. Decades ago, EAA grew beyond its original grassroots. The current flavor just adds to the magic.

I attended the annual EAA membership meeting this year. My first. The gentleman I sat next to told me the meeting usually attracted 20 to 30 people. I’d guess more than 200 attended this year. During the comment period, some expressed anger at the appearance of VIP chalets at airshow center. “That’s where my family watched the afternoon airshow each year,” I heard one person say. Another commenter said, “Nothing says you’re not welcome here like a little white picket fence,” which was used to secure the chalets. Personally, I don’t see where EAA could place the chalets (assuming they want to keep them) where they won’t negatively impact someone. I’m sure the chalets brought in a good chunk of change, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2013.

Even our own Ben Visser has a beef with EAA. “Another thing is the location of the homebuilt exhibits,” he wrote in  blog post yesterday. “The homebuilt/kit built market is one of the things that built the EAA (I believe that EAA does stand for Experimental Aircraft Association). Now they are out in the back of the site.” Actually, if memory serves, the homebuilt exhibit area hasn’t changed location. The grounds around it have.

EAA can’t win — whether the issue is a change or a non-change.

At the annual meeting, EAA President Rod Hightower announced the launching of a new email address, feedback@eaa.org, dedicated for member and attendee feedback. I can assure you, it works. I sent three comments — don’t run the Ford Model T rides through the exhibit area; thanks for the great WiFi access; and thumbs up for the new media check-in location — from my iPhone before the meeting ended. Within a few days I received a personal reply with copies to the people who were responsible for the areas my feedback concerned.

I think the passion many members are showing is a good thing for EAA and AirVenture, as long as both sides are committed to working together.

All this brings me to my suggestion: We need to find a way to pair up a dissatisfied EAA member attendee with a first time pilot attendee. To see AirVenture through the eyes of an excited first-timer may be just the juice an old-timer might need. I’m not trying to dismiss a legitimate complaint or concern, but sometimes we are so close to something we fail to see the bigger picture.

After all, seeing Disneyland while holding the hand of a 7-year-old makes the magic come alive in a way that’s not possible as an adult alone. (I should know, I spent the second week of August in Disneyland celebrating my son’s 7th birthday.)

And remember, for all the reasons noted above, and many more, AirVenture is a truly magical place. Let’s find ways to keep that magic alive.


Ben Sclair is Publisher of General Aviation News.

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