Everybody knows that people who are into aviation are rich. They’re spoiled, self-absorbed, 1%-ers who have no regard for what it takes to get by in the real world. Heck, airplanes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that’s just for the small ones. Yep, pilots and aircraft owners are filthy rich scum who do nothing but sponge off the poor and the middle class so they can live out their dreams in luxurious splendor.
That’s a common perspective, you have to admit. If you fly, or wish to fly, you’ve heard it time and again. But you’ve also noticed that your personal experience doesn’t quite match up with the classic stereotype of what this aviation crowd is supposed to be.
There may be no better indication of what type of people the aviation world is truly made up of than the campgrounds at AirVenture.
Somewhere between the tents pitched beside aircraft in the North 40, and Camp Scholler where tents and recreational vehicles mix in an odd but symbiotic way, there is a whole different population roaming the grounds.
This is documentary worthy material. When some imaginative Ken Burns aficionado comes along one day with a camera and a plan, the film they produce could bust this whole rich-pilot thing wide open.
For those who have never spent a night in Wisconsin, protected from the elements by a thin sheet of nylon, let me provide some context. For approximately a week the grassy infield and outlying areas of Wittman Regional Airport are transformed into a tent city that houses thousands upon thousands of itinerant travelers.
You might think of it as a depression era Hooverville, without the starvation, the anxiety, or the population of homeless with an almost complete lack of direction. Just the opposite, in fact. These campers aren’t stuck in the wilds of Wisconsin with nowhere to go. They come by choice. In some cases they plan this excursion all year long. They wait for AirVenture to roll around with great anticipation.
This is living, y’all.
Dirt roads with names like Lindbergh and Doolittle are punctuated by numbered cross streets, making it relatively easy for campers to broadcast their location to others via social networking, texts, or e-mail. “I’m at Lindbergh and 45th” has as much meaning to an AirVenture camper as “Meet me at Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street” does to a New Yorker. That’s important, because a big part of the camping experience for many of the attendees is having the ability to reconnect with old friends they only see at the show.
During this most recent AirVenture I wandered out to the campgrounds to visit with some old friends. These hearty souls have a name for their campsite, which in the interest of discretion I will not divulge here, but I will share this much: The name honors not just a group of longtime friends, but also a tasty breakfast meat product that is loved by many. These campers hail from California, Florida, New Hampshire, yes, even Wisconsin.
Some sleep on the ground in tents, while others house themselves in recreational vehicles only a few steps away. If the rains come, the RVs can be transformed into shelters, filling up with friends who remain cheerful even when damp. They’re thankful for the kindness. If the sun shines, or the moon pokes through the clouds, the festivities occur outside, under the stars, where hushed voices and the clinking of bottles can be heard as a hand fumbles through the cooler in search of a cold one.
Discussions tend to focus on who found what to be interesting on the flightline that day. Or perhaps the group debates the relative merits of walking over to the Fly-In Theater to see an aeronautical-oriented movie on the enormous blow-up screen, or sauntering down the road to the Theater in the Woods to hear a luminary of aviation history discuss his or her career highlights.
These folks wear shoes that are often caked in mud. Their pants have no sharp creases and their shirts come back from the laundry with no starch. In fact the laundry may be nothing more than a spray hose found in a stall at the shower house. They eat food that is tasty, but not necessarily a recognized component of a well balanced diet.
They are a diverse group in terms of age, gender, profession, and flight experience, but even so, they are far more representative of real aviation enthusiasts than the classic stereotype could ever be. What’s more, they’re fascinating people.
Each of them has a different favorite. They may be enamored of the extra-wide body Airbus 350 as it makes low, slow passes. Yet their personal choice may be to fly an inexpensive, low-powered, fabric covered machine from the days before television was common.
Some of them fly professionally, guiding a glass paneled machine over the ocean on a regular basis, but they don’t own an airplane of their own because they’ve got a mortgage and a car payment, and that’s enough of a strain for them at the moment.
These folks aren’t rich. Not in the monetary sense, anyway. After all, they’re spending their vacation sleeping on the ground next to people they only see once or twice a year. They are immeasurably wealthy in another sense, however. They know what they like, they know who they enjoy sharing their hobby and vocation with, and they are perfectly willing to make personal sacrifices to make their dreams come true.
Don’t believe the hype. If you want to meet real aviation enthusiasts, you have to get off the paved road, wade into the grassy infield, and hunker down shoulder to shoulder under a tarp when the rains come. That’s where the real aviators are. And they like their low-rent digs just fine.