On a bright and beautiful central Florida morning, my phone rings. Steve McCaughey of the Seaplane Pilots Association is on the other end, upbeat and chipper as ever. Since we both live in the same town and have a common fascination with waterborne flying machines, he’s offering me a ride and a room at AirVenture, which is creeping up on the calendar. Only days remain until the gates open to throngs of visitors to Wisconsin’s most famous airport.
Talk about hospitality. You just don’t find that kind of camaraderie in most businesses, or hobbies.
Wittman Regional Airport is the center of the aviation world. That distinction is true all year long, not just during the week of AirVenture. And while the argument can be made that Wittman is in fact a sleepy field 50 weeks a year with nowhere near the kind of excitement and crowds that AirVenture generates, that doesn’t matter. There is a lesson for all of us hidden in the annals of Oshkosh’s history.
The massive event we know today as AirVenture didn’t start out quite so impressively. In fact, that first gathering of homebuilts and certified airplanes that had been lovingly tweaked by their owners only recorded 150 visitors. It was 1953 and not a single participant could have dreamed AirVenture would one day grow to include more than 10,000 campers, hundreds of thousands of visitors, and have an economic impact of $110 million on the area. But it has.
The key word to the whole shebang might be tenacity. Because, as is true of so many success stories in business, a small handful of true believers set their minds to finding a solution to what they perceived as a problem, and they hammered away at their plans for decades until they found a level of success that has been just flat out unimaginable to their peers.
Love it or hate it, AirVenture has established Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as the heart of general aviation in the world. It pumps life into the industry year after year, providing a showcase for companies and individuals who have anything aviation related to share with the rest of the world.
The variety of products and services available in the aviation marketplace is staggering. So much so that it is nearly impossible to believe the average man or woman on the street wouldn’t find something at AirVenture that calls out to them. Whether their curiosity is piqued by a roadable airplane, a powered paraglider rig, a new King Air, or Yves Rossy’s Jetman setup – it is virtually impossible to pass through the turnstiles to AirVenture and come away saying, “Yeah, I didn’t see anything that really caught my eye.”
If the chief business of the American people is business, as Calvin Coolidge suggested, AirVenture is an important tool in our box. It provides us with an exceptional yardstick to measure the size of the general aviation market. Not because it brings together every participant every year. No, it doesn’t do that. No event does.
But what AirVenture has done for the industry and the nation is provide a clear and astoundingly successful example of what a small group of industrious men and women can do when they truly believe in a dream. That small group of volunteers has grown into a cast of thousands. And those 150 initial visitors have ballooned into millions who trek through the rolling hills and farms of the midwest to see what is happening at Wittman Regional Airport for themselves each summer.
If you’re one of the naysayers, if you hate the EAA, if you can’t tell a Wisconsin Poberezny from a Penobscot of Maine, heck, if you don’t care one way or the other about this whole thing, it doesn’t make one bit of difference. The market is the market, and AirVenture has done an amazing job of expanding it, encouraging it, developing it, and gathering the players together for an annual shindig like no other.
If you think general aviation is dead in the U.S., I invite you to pitch a tent in the soft grass at Camp Scholler, grill up a bunch of hotdogs, and see how long it takes to make new friends from all across the landscape. I’m confident you will come away with a new, brighter perspective and an understanding that general aviation is merely in transition, not dying.
Like a sports team in a rebuilding cycle, we may not win the pennant this year, but we’re in the game and setting our sights on victory down the road. AirVenture is our summer camp. It allows us to gather together, show our wares, and network like nobody’s business.
GA is on the move and the AirVenture Effect is a powerful tonic. If you haven’t taken your prescribed dosage yet, I suggest you get headed to the western shore of Lake Winnebago and seek out some aviation-minded folks who can help you out. It really is worth the trip from anywhere.