In July 2013, if you were driving near the sleepy Wisconsin town of Oshkosh you might have heard an unexpected roar overhead. If you looked up, you would have seen the world's largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380, doing pirouettes in the sky before landing at nearby Wittman Airport.
Two years later, Airbus's new A350 XWB flew right from the factory in France to the same destination. Coming out of the clouds, the British Airbus test pilot, Frank Chapman, put the plane through its paces, doing high-banked turns and low passes, before coming in for a landing.
Later, that same week, the U.S. Air Force's B-52 Stratofortress touched down on the same runway with only a foot of clearance on either side. What, you might be wondering, were all those aircraft doing in the middle of Wisconsin. The answer is simple, they were doing "Oshkosh."
The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration
"Oshkosh" is the colloquial name for the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual fly-in called AirVenture. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) was founded in 1953 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for aircraft enthusiasts who built and restored their own aircraft. Over time, EAA's membership expanded to over 200,000 members from more than 100 countries.
Today, EAA's membership includes recreational pilots, aircraft builders and restorers, and those interested in antique airplanes, classics, warbirds, aerobatic, ultralights, helicopters, and contemporary manufactured aircraft.
The Busiest Airport in the World
Every year on the last Monday in July, the EAA sponsors its annual AirVenture fly-in at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin airport. It is the largest annual general aviation event in the world, and during that week, the large number of aircraft arrivals and departures makes the Wittman Field control tower the busiest in the world.
The control tower is staffed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA ) air traffic controllers, supervisors, and managers who compete all year for the privilege of working the show. These staff wear bright pink shirts during the show in order to stand out in the crowd. Besides FAA staff, every year more than 4,000 volunteers contribute 250,000 hours before, during and after the show.
In 2018, attendance at AirVenture was over 600,000 people coming from 87 nations. There were also 10,000 aircraft, 2,979 show planes, 867 commercial exhibitors, and almost 1,000 journalists from six continents. During AirVenture, EAA holds nearly 1,000 forums and workshops for attendees.
Historical Aircraft Debuts
Many revolutionary aircraft designs have premiered at Oshkosh. In 1975, famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan introduced his VariEze canard aircraft at Oshkosh. This plane pioneered the use of moldless glass-reinforced plastic construction, which commercial planes went on to adopt.
At the 1987 AirVenture, Cirrus Aircraft's founders, the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, unveiled their Cirrus VK-30 kit aircraft. This plane led to the creation of the highly successful SR20 and SR22 aircraft, which are the first planes that included all-composite fiberglass construction, glass-panel cockpits and airframe ballistic parachutes.
A glass cockpit features digital flight instrument displays, rather than analog dials and gauges. Analog displays relied on mechanical gauges, while the displays in a glass cockpit are driven by flight management systems that can be adjusted to display only the flight information that is needed, simplifying aircraft operation and navigation.
A ballistic parachute is ejected from its casing by a small explosion and opens rapidly. This is ideal for light aircraft, hang gliders and microlights, where an emergency situation can occur when they are close to the ground. A conventional parachute wouldn't open quickly enough.
EAA Aviation Museum
Also at Oshkosh is the EAA Aviation Museum, which houses over 200 aircraft, 130 of which are on display at any one time. Another point of interest at Oshkosh is the Pioneer Airport, which is a recreation of a vintage aerodrome. It is open daily from May through mid-October, and flights are offered in vintage aircraft.
Technical Counselor Program
The EAA runs a Technical Counselor program, where experienced and trained volunteers visit the construction of amateur-built aircraft. They determine whether the aircraft are well-constructed, safe, and if there are any areas of concern.
In 1992, the EAA began its Young Eagles program with the aim of giving one million children the chance to fly in an airplane by December 17, 2003. That date was the Centennial of Flight, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight. When the program reached its goal, it continued on, and so far more than 2 million young people have flown.
The Young Eagles program has had some famous chairman including the actor Cliff Robertson, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, Chuck Yeager, actor Harrison Ford, and pilot Chesley Sullenberger, hero of US Airways Flight 1549 that landed safely in the Hudson River off Manhattan after both its engines were disabled by a bird strike.
AirVenture 2019 is going to be the "Year of the Fighter," with some of the most legendary military aircraft in history on display. The 2019 show will also include a salute to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Apollo 11 Command module pilot, astronaut Michael Collins, will be a guest.