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AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 Diary

Fifi the Firefly
Fifi the Kolb Firefly at AirVenture 2011

By Jerry "Engine" Anderson, EAA 351622, for Light Plane World

Everyone has an image in his head of the perfect vacation. Travel to an exotic destination, a white sand beach, a five-star hotel. My perfect vacation is 10 days in a Wisconsin cow pasture sleeping in my van. Crazy? Why yes, thank you, I am crazy for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. I have attended EAA's annual convention for the last 22 years and I'm looking forward to the next 22. I did upgrade my accommodations this year; I got a newer van.

Yes, the Oshkosh Hilton van has made her last pilgrimage to the promised pasture. After 16 years of faithful service, the old 1986 GMC lost her enthusiasm for the road, and as my good luck would have it, a lovely young 1991 Chevy came into my life. I knew she needed a name, so I toyed with the possibilities: Oshkosh Sheraton? Too many S's. Oshkosh Holiday Inn? Too many syllables. Oshkosh Motel 6? Way too lame. Oshkosh Marriott had a nice rhythm, kind of rolls off the tongue. And Marriott sounds just like Merry Yacht, so we had a winner!

So this is the story of how the "Merry Yacht" and I pulled my beautiful ultralight flying vehicle, Fifi the Firefly, to the biggest airplane party on the planet, and to the best of my recollection, all the crazy fun we had.

Fifi was sporting an upgrade of her own this year, thanks to the amazing artistic talents of my dear friend Phyllis Fox. Last winter's airplane project was engineering a wheel brake system for Fifi, and as I sat in my shop waiting for inspiration, I began to see a face on the small fairing that would keep my feet out of the wind. I got out my old model paint set and fashioned a crude pair of pouty lips around the pitot tube. Then I painted the pitot tube to look like a cigarette and sat back to admire my work. It was awful! I realized I needed professional help to save Fifis dignity. Phyllis worked her magic, and with a few skillful brush strokes, breathed life into cold fiberglass. With big, beautiful green eyes and lush lashes, Fifi the Firefly became Fifi the Seductress, and I knew she would make an unforgettable impression on the Oshkosh gang.

Thursday, July 21, 2011: Packing up the "girl"

I borrowed Dan Murphy's trailer again this year and went to the airport early to load up my girl. Besides installing mountain bike brakes during the long winter, I also had aileron braces made so the wing-folding chore was eased a bit. It only took a couple hours of work in the warm sun to fold, load, and secure my precious cargo for the 400-mile trip. Compared to the two-seat Kolb Twinstar that I trailered for many years, this was a piece of cake. That project took two guys most of a day plus a dozen pieces of foam padding and a roll of duct tape. I have attended the convention a couple of times without an airplane and there is plenty to do. But I felt like a spectator rather than a participant, and being part of the show makes any effort worthwhile.

With Fifi ready to go I bought ice blocks for my coolers and fueled Oshkosh Marriott, then went home to pack. It didn't take long to throw all my summer clothes in a bag, and I spent the rest of the evening going over the checklist: bicycle, bedding, hibachi, charcoal, camera, guitars, tarp, lawn chair, shoes, and more shoes. The Marriott is more spacious than the Hilton was, but the Marriott was eating for two and starting to stretch her waistband. My perennial camping partner, Jim Batzli, was seriously considering flying to the show this year, so we had already packed all of his gear; by the time I closed hatches for the last time, the Yacht looked like a tramp steamer loaded for the Far East. Visions of beautiful airplanes on perfect grass under a golden sun filled my head as I plopped it on the pillow. I flew the ultralight pattern in my dreams with Fifi purring her approval; I could have slept forever.

Friday, July 22, 2011: Driving to Oshkosh

I woke to a blue sky and wasted no time filling the coolers in between bites of breakfast. Even after stopping at the airport to hook up Fifi, we were on the road heading south before the sun began turning her light to heat. I have never been a coffee drinker, but you would swear I'd had three shots of espresso I was amped! The Merry Yacht turned out to be a splendid companion, sipping gas and coddling me in a manner the Hilton had forgotten years ago. Wisconsin slid by as I spun the radio dial and sang along with every song I recognized. Soon the giant Mercer Loon peeked in my window and wished me a safe trip. The lakes flanking the highway at Minocqua were filled with boats and bathing suits and smiling faces, what a fine day to be alive!

At Merrill, Fifi seemed to be dancing a bit too happily on her trailer, so I stopped for fuel and discovered two loose ties in her corset. A lady needs to have proper underpinnings, so I respectfully adjusted her stays and continued the journey. Since leaving the canopy of northern forest I had been watching the skies, and as we rolled on I spotted eagles, hawks, and turkey vultures but almost no manmade birds. I knew that would soon change.

The city of Oshkosh rose on the horizon at about 4 p.m., and the dots in the sky multiplied. It was three days before the official start of the convention, but Camp Scholler was already buzzing as we cruised by on Highway 41 heading for the back door. Rolling down Waupun Road, I slowed, opened all the windows, and took a deep breath. Twenty-two years of memories flooded my brain, all of them sweet. Good old Ed (the security guard) was at the barn gate, and he waved us through with a big smile. I parked the Yacht in the shade of the huge black walnut tree in the setup area and put my feet back in the lush grass of pilot paradise.

Eight hours in windshield mode had me a little stiff, and as I stretched I heard a voice at the fence behind me. "Hey mister, are you a real pilot?" I turned to see Doug Greenfield leaning on the fence and grinning. Doug is the chairman of the volunteer safety crew in the ultralight area, known as "the Farm," and he enjoys a good laugh. He and his sons embody the spirit of Oshkosh, giving freely of their time to make sure things go smoothly and safely. All across the massive grounds of the convention, some 4,500 volunteers do their part to make this the premier aviation event on the planet. It's certainly one of the smartest, cleanest, safest, and most exciting events of any kind.

We chatted for a while, then I began releasing my girl from her restraints. As always, a stranger appeared at exactly the right time to help me unfold Fifi's wings and roll her off the trailer. He peppered me with questions as we watched two Quicksilvers land, one on amphibious floats. One of the very first ultralight designs, Quicksilver is a double oxymoron as well. They are about as slow as anything that flies, and I have never seen a silver one. I rolled Fifi down to the very end of the fence and screwed her tie-down stakes into the good Wisconsin earth. By this time the sun had peeked around the walnut tree and I had worked up a serious sweat. Fifi had found her spot for the week and it was time to go find mine.

I unhitched the trailer in the infamous Lot "U" and turned down Ripple Road for the John Moody ultralight campground. Gatekeepers Rick and Nancy Jacobsen raised eyebrows at my fine new ride, but I still got a hug and a hearty handshake. Rick had expanded the size of campsites this year, and the Marriott eased into the last one at the fence. I had just begun to unload the tramp steamer when Jim came driving in. His mission to fly in had been aborted for a couple good reasons, but it was good to see him with or without wings. We fell into our well-practiced routine and soon had a kitchen and shaded living room set up between our four-wheeled bedrooms. Home sweet Oshkosh!

A couple hundred yards distant but in clear view lies the south end of the main paved runway at Oshkosh International (actually named Wittman Regional Airport after air racing legend Steve Wittman). This runway has welcomed all of the most famous and unique aircraft ever flown. The fastest and largest have found its 8,000 feet adequate, but this year it was a few hundred feet too short for an F-16. The fighter jock came in hot and ran off the north end into the dirt. He made a nice furrow, but his nose gear wasn't designed to plow and suffered accordingly. I know exactly how that poor pilot feels because I have made my very worst landings right here with hundreds of witnesses looking on. This evening, traffic was slow but steady, and we paused to watch a landing now and again if the sound intrigued us. The Farm runway right in front of us remained idle to our great displeasure, but we knew that too would soon change.

We were both tired enough to forgo a big meal and made sandwiches from leftover steaks and cheese. Like a time-release pain pill, the Oshkosh attitude began to seep into our veins, and we slipped into the vernacular without realizing it. The rest of the year Jim and I are just working stiffs struggling to stay ahead of the taxman, but at Oshkosh we are pilots and airplane builders in a world where those titles garner the greatest respect. We put our feet up and savored the moment.

When the sun finally found the horizon, the mosquitoes had no respect for our titles, so we retreated to our bed chambers. Just before daybreak a thunderstorm tested the moorings of my tarp, and I spent some quality time tightening ropes and spilling out puddles. When the fury dissipated I dried off and crawled back into bed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011: Recon day and watching arrivals

Jim was already on his second cup of camp coffee when I finally disembarked from the Yacht into a hot and extremely muggy morning. Brilliant white cumulus clouds were everywhere except where they might provide some shade for our kitchen. We fired up the Coleman stove anyway and took turns sun-burning our heads while flipping sausage patties. The cast iron pan was so heat-soaked by the time the eggs went in that I burned them badly, but we ate without criticism. Three trikes landed in our front yard, but we still didn't see a lot of arrivals at the Farm. Trikes are what we call those three-wheeled buggies with props on the back and hang glider wings overhead. Just one of these unique aircraft would attract attention at your local airport, but here and now they were "Not much going on."

When the dishes were washed, we mounted our trusty bicycles for the first recon run. Including runways and aircraft parking areas, the AirVenture grounds probably encompass 1,000 acres, so wheels are a necessity. The main bike parking area is close to the center of the whole show, so this is where we start most of our explorations. One of the first attractions we see when walking through the fence from there is Jerry's One Man Band. During the show we always stop and listen to the accordion master, but Jerry was still in setup mode. So Jim chatted with him for a bit and bought a CD. We walked past the Theater in the Woods to the antique and classic parking area and spent a couple of hours ogling the Staggerwings, Fairchilds, and Wacos sitting on the grass. These Golden Age icons with their mohair interiors and crank-down side windows always spark a bit of nostalgia in me even though I wasn't even around for their heyday. Like classic cars of the era they seem to be hand-made by artisans rather than pumped through a cold assembly line. Each has a unique personality.

The clouds got closer together, their bottoms turning gray, so we decided to head back to camp for lunch. While we pedaled, the Bonanzas to Oshkosh group made their mass arrival, landing three abreast in clean formation. Stopping at Boelter's for ice, we noticed the ultralight setup area was filling up with trailers bearing flying machines of all descriptions.

As we snacked back at camp, Doug scooted up in his golf cart and warned us of some nasty winds associated with an approaching front, so I pumped up my back tire and rode over to check Fifi's tiedowns. A motorcycle and trailer had parked next to her, so I chatted up the rider. He showed me his clever solution to transport his powered paraglider. An entire flying machine of his own design fit neatly on the tiny trailer, proving once again the amazing ingenuity of the motivated aviator. You only see stuff like this at Oshkosh. While we talked, the Cessnas to Oshkosh mass arrival happened on the main runway.

Once back at camp I took up my position next to Jim at the fence, and we graded landings. Dozens of Mooneys from the Mooney Caravan came in as a group, but the forecasted big winds never did. In fact the clouds began to disperse and a relatively cool breeze tickled our tarp. This new air mass caused the tower to turn the pattern around, so incoming traffic began landing at the other end of the runway. Jim tuned in the tower on his handheld transceiver so we could listen to the efficient, sometimes urgent, sometimes comical radio work.

In order to accommodate the incredible volume of arrivals at AirVenture, the parallel taxiway is pressed into service as a runway. It is designated as runway 18 left when landing to the south (180 degrees on the compass and left of the main runway) or 36 right when landing to the north (360 degrees on the compass and right of the main runway). This is how the Bonanzas and Mooneys can land three abreast, two on the wide runway and one more on the taxiway. In addition to this traffic multiplier, both runways are divided lengthwise by three huge painted circles. (In typical pilot understatement, they're called "dots.") This allows the controllers to direct the first in a group to land long (far down the runway), the second to take the middle, and a third to land short so three landings can happen on each runway at a time. It's mind-boggling to visualize but brilliant in practice. The tower controller might say, "Yellow Piper, turn your base now, cleared to land runway 18 left on the green dot," and the pilot knows what he has to do, most of the time. Some pilots, though, just don't get it.

We listened to a controller coax, cajole, and finally order a Jabiru to land on the pink dot with no success. With the patience of Job he held the poor confused pilot's hand until he finally had to send him out of the pattern to try again. Of course the whole time he was coddling the newbie he was also smoothly directing another dozen arrivals who knew what they were doing. Those tower volunteers were constantly shoving 15 clowns into a tiny car in the center ring of the circus. It's no wonder every 20 minutes or so we heard a fresh voice on the radio.

Shrimp cocktail and adult beverages became dinner as the landing follies continued and the sun crept westward. Just before sunset our old pal Mikey rolled into the camp. His girlfriend Christy had her purse dog Brewster (Brew as in beer) well hidden because pets are not allowed. We all stayed up late laughing and talking loud, secure in the knowledge we would not be flying in the morning. The cool breeze continued into the wee hours.

I had only been asleep for a short time when the thunderstorm came crashing in. I don't think Mikey had even retired yet because he was right at my elbow helping me drop the tarp. We worked together pinning the ends to the ground until my shirt was completely soaked. Mikey never wears a shirt.

Sunday, July 24, 2011: Pilot registration and time warp begins

When I finally crawled out of the Yacht I saw that a DC-3 had parked across the grass runway from us in its traditional spot. DC-3s are not quiet; I must be a sound sleeper. I suppose it helps that I'm mostly deaf. Magically the tarp over our living room had been restored to its former glory while I snoozed. Jim handed me a take-out container of biscuits and gravy courtesy of Mike. Not only does our friend never wear a shirt, I don't think he ever sleeps either. Suitably fortified for the day, we pedaled up to the setup area and helped Mikey take his Kolb off the trailer. A beautiful example of the Kolb Mark III, this bird had suffered a landing mishap long ago and was lovingly rehabbed by Mike's own hands. He is properly proud of her and we followed his directions respectfully.

The temperatures were in the mid-70s, and the cumulus clouds were just starting to form around the edges of a crystal blue sky. I put Fifi's propeller back on, torqued it twice, then gave her a full inspection. When I was sure she had made the transition from trailer queen to flying machine, I made another full inspection in the opposite direction. It never hurts to be sure and I had all the time in the world. Every couple of minutes another curious wing nut would stop by with questions, and I was popping my buttons with pride as I answered each one. Nearly everyone you meet here on the Farm is either a pilot or wants very badly to be one. Usually it's the wannabes that have the best questions, and I never get tired of bragging about Fifi.

The ticket windows were open at the Barn, so Jim and I purchased the wristbands that made us citizens of a mythical city perched on a warp in the time-space continuum. Once a solar year the wormhole opens, and people are mesmerized by amazing visions of a world beyond comprehension. When it slams shut a week later they ask, "Did that really happen?"

All the accepted rules of physics and hygiene are altered for a brief sneeze in cosmic time at this little elbow in the universe. Sir Isaac Newton would slap palm to forehead watching the aerobatic performers violate all of his sacred laws of motion. "I should have just eaten that apple!" Seeing thousands of people grow younger by the day without even approaching the speed of light, Einstein would probably chuckle, "Vell, it vas only a theory!" On observing an entire society free of crime and violence, Mr. Spock would surely arch an eyebrow and pronounce it "Fascinating."

Feeling light-headed from the change in dimensions, we bought ice for the coolers and rode the gravity wave back to camp. Feet up and sunglasses on, we witnessed the invasion of the warbirds. Mustangs, Corsairs, and a flock of T-6s made military breaks and perfect wheel landings, backfires crackling from exhaust stacks and tires chirping on asphalt. Two B-25s appeared through this same time warp and made the triumphant landings they had made a lifetime ago in the Pacific Theater of WWII. We could almost hear Tommy Dorsey in the background.

When the Cessnas and Pipers of the general aviation fleet began to dominate arrivals, I strolled down to the showers and scraped off a couple of layers of Farm dirt. I was almost back to real time until I opened my razor at the outside mirror. When an F4U Corsair drifts through the mirror while you're trying to shave, you know you're in a parallel universe. I floated back to the Merry Yacht in a euphoric haze, pretty much a common condition for alternate realities.

Aircraft of all descriptions from all corners of the globe continued to descend on Wittman Regional like bees to the hive. Traffic was picking up on The Farm as well; a pair of Challengers, one on amphibious floats, came sliding down final approach just as the sun hit that magic angle photographers wait for all day. I could see the expressions on the pilots' faces and I knew exactly how they were feeling.

Paul Rickert, the fourth in our camp quartet, parked his new SUV behind the living room just in time for dinner. Sharing the Oshkosh experience with his kids this year would require some serious shuttle work to mesh with their busy summer schedules. His home is only 90 miles south, but he would be making several round-trips. He was here alone today to scope out a program what a great dad! The three of us enjoyed the reunion and the meal. Mikey was making the same round-trip (he and Paul are neighbors) trading the Kolb-towing vehicle for the sleep-in-me vehicle, so he missed it. By 10 p.m. Paul was headed south again and I was headed for my berth in the Yacht. The next day Fifi would take the stage at the Carnegie Hall of ultralight flying, and her partner needed to be sharp.

To be continued

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