The AirVenture effect

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.


  1. Greg W says

    I acknowledge the sentiment however, I will not be back to Oshkosh(AirVenture,now,yippee!) any time soon. I was an active attendee through the ’80’s when Paul was still running the organization. The problem is they have forgotten their roots, homebuilding was a means to affordable flight. Now thw “official” stance of the EAA is do not modify or change from what the designer/commercial vender says to do. What ever you do do not design your own machine. They need to remember that the impetus in 1953 was cost. I am still a national member and will remain so in hopes of a return to the original core principles of EAA, they are returning slightly under Jack Pelton. Kent Misegades has a point about mogas, after all EAA was awarded the first mogas STC so why are they so siliant about it’s usefulness in the current avgas debate? Is it simply that in 1982 they cared about cost for the “little guy” and now they really don’t out side of sound bites of course.

  2. Parker says

    Lighten up, Kent. While you’re playing your one-note song of grumpiness (you’ve got a dog in the fuel fight, we know), you’re missing the whole symphony. If there’s something that I don’t like at Oshkosh, I just go find something else I love.

  3. Rich says

    I married a lady once. We have had some knock down drag out disagreements.
    But that relationship will be 39 years old pretty soon.
    Like any relationship, the one I have with EAA isn’t perfect but it is worth salvaging.

  4. Kent Misegades says

    AirVenture is summer camp for the big boys, but it would be nothing without the selfless efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers who make the trek each year, toil in the heat, floods, wind, and rain. The hard core of these are people who build and restore aircraft, the ones who buy all the stuff from countless vendors. No wonder most were shocked when the prime parking of homebuilt aircraft was replaced by the chalets last year. While Jack Pelton had the good sense to end this silliness, the wounds are still deep among builders for this and numerous other slaps from EAA leadership in recent years. What happened to Hightower’s promise last year to make having mogas at AirVenture 2013 his #1 priority? Nothing. One of the few ways that the EAA could really lower the cost of flying and dealing with the leaded fuel public relations nightmare and they have failed again. I am not an EAA hater, heck, I ran on of the largest EAA chapters in the country until last December. I will not miss going to Oshkosh this year however.

    • Rich says

      Does that last sentence mean you are definitely going and would not miss the event?
      Or you’re not going and won’t miss the act of going?
      It could be read either way.
      As for me, I plan on being there.
      Too many friends to meet up with once a year.

    • says

      With that kind of attitude, it’s amazing that anyone would vote you president of anything. Tom and Paul wanted take a backseat role in the EAA Organization. You have to realize how the structure of the EAA worked. The President of EAA had most of the decision-making power. It’s been restructured and rebuilt and is a lot stronger, a lot more sound, and even more-so in the best interest of aviation enthusiasts. You’re the type of individual that I love to hate. You most likely claim to be an EAA-er, but when anybody makes a mistake, and they clearly want to make it up by reversing everything, you jump ship.

      Extremely shallow, and I’m tired of reading posts just like this one.

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