Above a particular highway in Wisconsin each summer the skies swarm with small airplanes, like mosquitoes. On the side of the highway squats an RV campground called Osh Vegas. But what happens in Oshkosh does not stay in Oshkosh. It spreads, in waves of unintended consequences and inspiration, around the world — even reaching a little girl growing up in South Africa. That girl was me and I grew up hearing stories about the experimental airshow in Oshkosh from my father even though he never attended. The day he earned his private pilot’s license was one of the proudest in his life and he dreamed of flying into the airport that becomes the busiest in the world each year during EAA Airventure.
This year, I’m at Oshkosh for him. And to support marketing efforts for the GEICO Skytypers — who are making their Oskhkosh debut this year. I’m not a pilot, never owned a plane, even get motion-sick in the air — but I’m enchanted. You don’t need to know anything about aviation to fall in love with this airshow. I expected to be awed, even overwhelmed, by the scope and history here — statistics like 10,000 aircraft, 30,000 campers and more than 500,000 visitors over the course of seven days. For this week every August, the FAA tower in this town with a population that normally might not guarantee an airport at all becomes the busier than Heathrow, JFK or Narita.
Everything you’d find at a “normal” airshow is an order of magnitude bigger here — from the incredible airshow performers to the static display of warbirds dating back before WWI. As a shopping mall, this place makes husbands get in trouble with their wives for buying the newest gadgets and technology imaginable. You can even play in a simulator for the latest frontier of military aviation — the F35 Strike Fighter. But none of that is what makes Oshkosh so special. What does is the conversation I overheard between three teenagers as they waited for the GEICO Skytypers debut performance. Instead of sitting around posting selfies, they were excitedly discussing every plane making its way down the flightline. These two boys and one girl were as fluent in engine data, flight vocabulary and performance specs as any of our pilots. Ask Tom Daly or Jim Record and they’ll tell you how aviation mechanics jobs are already going begging as the industry expands, not to mention the predicted shortage of pilots by 2022. If the enthusiasm of the young people attending Airventure is any indication, there’s cause for hope.
In some ways the conversations that happen at Oshkosh are the reason it grows each year, maybe even the reason so many international visitors flock to this tiny town in an otherwise obscure corner of America. Oshkosh is everything that’s right about this country. Those old fashioned barn raisings that used to define rural life? That spirit is still alive and well — just watch the teams of ordinary people from all backgrounds who get together to build their own airplanes from kits, then fly them to Oshkosh and pitch tents under their wings each night. Midwestern friendliness and frankness? Still here — the elderly man standing in front of me waiting for a pretzel brat thought nothing of asking a hearing impaired pilot with Cochlear implants how he liked his hearing aids, and the pilot spent the next ten minutes patiently explaining the difference. By the time their brats were ready they were exchanging emails, new friends.
It’s almost impossible not to make friends here. Or to rekindle old relationships. That’s what happened right outside the GEICO Skytyper hauler when Victoria Tod stopped by. She’d heard the rumble of the SNJ2’s and recognized the unmistakable sound of the WWII plane nicknamed “the pilot maker.” Her late father, Tod Hodgdon, was a GEICO Skytyper in Long Island back in the 80s — back when Larry Arken’s dad Mort was running the show. When Larry told her stories about her father she’d never heard before, she had to fight back tears. So did I. And that’s why I’m loving Oshkosh.