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What it is like being a Tram Operator at AirVenture 2015
By Paul D. Fiebich
September 2015 - During the past 15 or so years, while attending AirVenture, the balance of my time between being a visitor and a volunteer has shifted considerably. I now spend almost as much time as a volunteer as I do a visitor. During AirVenture 2015, more than 5,000 volunteers helped the event run smoothly. This first-person account will illustrate how much fun it is, and perhaps you’ll consider volunteering next year.
This year I volunteered on the trams, those tractor-pulled people-movers. The trams transport visitors north and south on the combined red and the blue lines. These lines connect the North 40 airplane parking area with the Seaplane base bus-loading station south of the Fun Fly zone (formerly the Ultralight runway). The east/west green route connects the Tower Tent to the Bus Park.
There are two tram operator tasks: tractor driver and conductor. All the tractors are John Deere diesels. Some have air-conditioned cabs; others are open cockpit. With hydrostatic transmissions and governed throttles, the driver uses only three controls: accelerator, brake pedal, and steering wheel. With a little practice, smooth starts and stops can easily be achieved.
The conductor is seated at the rear of the tram and informs passengers of safety precautions and provides en-route information. The driver and conductor are a team, coordinating their actions via the conductor’s loudspeaker. The conductor gives the “clear” signal to the tractor driver, who then sets the tram in motion. Personally, I think being a conductor is more fun than driving.
How about joining me on the red line tram and I’ll take you on a typical ride? We all use a talking-point script to provide the conductor with a list of mentionable AirVenture topics. But we also have the freedom to ad-lib and interact with passengers. I like that part the best.
We’ll start our route from the Hangar Café and head to the North 40.
“Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EAA’s AirVenture 2015. Please only enter and exit the tram when stopped at the designated loading places. During our travel, I will announce the tram stops and points of interest along the way.” I feel the anticipation of the group growing.
I like to interact with the passengers. One of my first questions (intended to get the greatest response) is, “Who on this team is not from Oshkosh?” Lots of hands go up. I ask people to shout out where they’re from. A number respond. Many are from the states, while a few are from other countries. This warms up the group, starting some smaller, friendly conversations among the seatmates.
“Our first stop is the Vintage Aircraft area. The airplanes on our right are former Grand Champions. On our left is a 1911 Bleriot replica. It has a tailskid instead of a wheel, wing warping instead of ailerons, and a radial engine. The pilot says it flies terrible. Visit the EAA museum to see another Bleriot replica with an original Anzani engine.”
A jovial family of four boards the tram and finds room in a backward-facing seat looking directly at me. They look left and right, out of sequence with my verbal instructions, and point with their arms in both directions, indicating confusion as to which is on the right and which is on left of what I’m talking about. Collectively, they look like an octopus reaching for various food sources. They’re very humorous and are having fun with it. It’s a lot like looking at a computer screen while talking on the phone with tech-help. We all laugh. Then I say, “The tram’s right.”
Passing the Vintage Aircraft area, we come to Jerry’s One-Man Band. I announce, “84-year-old Jerry has been entertaining here for the past 29 years. This will be his last. Please listen to him as we pass, then return to purchase one of his CDs, cassette tapes, and, for you really old people, 8-track tapes. Sorry, no wax cylinders.” A laugh ripples through the group.
At the next stop, two young girls hop on, sit in a seat facing me, and tell me that they hope I’m more fun than their previous tram conductor. I tell them to just wait and listen.
As we approach the next stop, I announce that John Deere Company is a major sponsor of EAA and point out the diesel tractor that’s pulling the tram. Seizing the opportunity, I ask, “Does anyone know what our tram said to the tractor?” No one answers, so I reply slowly: “Pull me closer, John Deere.” Everyone groans and the girls roll their eyes.
Then I announce that since we are talking about farm equipment, “How about a question concerning animals? Can anyone tell me why the cows headed for the marijuana field?” Again, no answer. Slowly, I say, “Because the pot called the cattle back.” More groans. At the next stop, lots of riders get off. I like to think it wasn’t because of the groaners I laid on them.
As we cross Celebration Way, I point out the adjacent café. “The road we are crossing is the main thoroughfare between the parking lot and Boeing Plaza. Our next stop is between commercial buildings A and D. There you will find a Papa John’s food service and air conditioned, flush-toilet restrooms.” A lot of women get off at this stop.
Announcing that Ford Motor Company is also an EAA sponsor of AirVenture, I ask a few automotive questions.
“What model Ford would an optometrist drive?” Answer? “A Ford Focus.”
Ok, how about this one: “What model Ford would Sir Edmund Hillary drive?” Answer? “A Ford Explorer.”
Finally, “What model Ford would a jail prisoner drive?” Answer? “A Ford Escape.” Suddenly, an older man pipes up with “What car would John, Paul, George, and Ringo drive?” Almost simultaneously, several people shout, “A Beetle!” I say, “Good answer but game over; that’s not a Ford.”
As we continue, I announce, “I love this job and am having a great day. I hope you are too.” From their reaction, it seems as though they are; what a happy group of people! They all have the AirVenture smile. One woman asks if there are any benefits to this conductor job. I point to my daily wristband then tell her about our sack lunches and ample supply of pop, water, and Gatorade. I add that each year our salary is doubled. She knowingly jests, “So double nothing, is still nothing.” I answer with a nod and a thumbs-up sign.
“Our next stop is the Tower Tent area, where you’ll find food services and the green tram going to the Bus Park. From there, buses will take you to KidVenture, the museum, the Orange lot, Camp Scholler, the airport terminal, and other specific locations. Our red tram will continue northward.” Beth, one of the on-ground volunteers, directs those exiting the trams to various destinations.
With a full tram, I announce, “Looks like all of our eggs are in the basket and the lid is closed. Okay, driver. Clear!” I continue with, “Our final destination is the North 40.” That eases a lot of questioning faces. Then, to encourage the airplane sweepstakes raffle ticket sales, I announce they can be purchased at the booth on our right. “The sweepstakes prize this year is that yellow Piper Cub with the traditional black lightning bolt painted on its fuselage. Tickets are only $1. Where else could you buy an airplane for $1?”
Passing the Miller and Lincoln welding exhibit, I tell the passengers that many homebuilt airplanes are made of welded tubular steel. “These two exhibitors will show you how to do wire-feed welding. If you don’t like that, they will stick it to you.” More groans from the passengers. One says I ought to write for Jimmy Fallon, while another suggests I shouldn’t give up my non-vacation day job. As he gets off the tram, I plead for him to send me some new material. He grins and gives me a thumbs-up.
After announcing the next stop as the Forums area, the two girls who boarded earlier get off there and thank me for keeping the patter lively, saying that this was a better ride than their last one. I hope they weren’t just patronizing me. A lady exiting the tram gives me a fist bump to show her appreciation. Wow, what a great feeling that gives me!
Traveling on, I talk about the Replica Fighters Association, where a Sopwith Camel, Fokker Triplane, and a Nieuport are parked. While passing the RV airplane parking area, I mention that John (our tractor driver) is building an RV. I add, “He said he will finish it on Friday. He didn’t say what Friday, or what month or year, but it will be Friday.” He waves back from his tractor cab.
Now, we have some quiet time, so I ask if anyone has seen my youthful Native American friend named Falling Rock. A lady passenger exclaims, saying he must be somewhere in the Colorado mountains. When asked how she knew that, her response is, “There are many highway signs stating ‘Watch for falling rock.’” It’s nice to get some audience participation in my jokes. And no, she wasn’t a plant—just a lady who is really on her toes.
Since half a million people visit AirVenture each year, what are the chances of encountering someone you know? Pretty slim, right? I had three instances worth mentioning. My first chance encounter, Bruce, a fellow chapter member (Chapter 88 of Wichita, Kansas) hopped on the tram and sat directly in front of me. Another time, two other fellow chapter members, Bill and Jeremy, waved to me when I was a driver; they then hopped on the tram at that stop. Finally, and the best one, was when I identified myself, my EAA chapter, hometown, and where I used to work. A lady loudly exclaimed, “I know you! We worked together at Cessna Aircraft Company. My name is Kim.” Sure enough, I remembered her. I was a manufacturing engineer CATIA operator and she an M.E. planner. During work, we had corresponded via e-mail and phone, but never met. That was before I retired 13 years ago. And now, here we meet for the first time in person at AirVenture! Imagine that!
Reaching the taxiway, I continue with my script. “Tickets for the B-17 and Ford Tri-Motor rides can be purchased near the flightline on our right. The B-17 flies out of Appleton and the tri-motor from this airfield. Did you know that Ford Motor Company purchased the Stout Aircraft Company, renamed it the Ford Tri-Motor, and began production? For a while Ford Motor Company was the largest producer of commercial airliners in the world.”
An airplane crosses the taxiway in front of us. My identification is limited to it being a Piper brand and I ask if anyone knows the model. A fellow passenger raises his hand and shouts out that it’s a Piper Pacer. I thank him and ask the other passengers to show their appreciation. Everyone applauds! I think, wow, what a great time we’re all having!
We then stop at the Warbird area and many passengers get off. The fellow who identified the Piper Pacer walks past my conductor platform and tells me he knew what that plane was because he has one. Again, I think, people here are just unbelievably nice.
More passengers board the tram. I shout “Clear” and we’re off again. “Welcome aboard; our next stop is our last. On our right is the Army and Air Force re-enactors encampment area. You are encouraged to visit them and learn more about the ground living conditions our service men and women endured during wartime. For some, this was their environment for four years. My, what endurance!
“Also on our right are several liaison warbirds—light planes made by Piper, Cessna, Aeronca, Stinson, and other manufacturers. These were used extensively in World War II. The two aircraft with tandem-placed engines are Cessna O-2s. They’re the military version of the Cessna Skymaster 337. This was the type of plane featured in the movie Bat*21. They served two roles during the Vietnam War: One was as forward air control, spotting enemy ground gun locations; the other was to distribute propaganda leaflets and broadcast audio messages. Those were called ‘B.S. Bombers.’” The group chuckles.
“We are now at the end of the line, the North 40. Thank you for riding with EAA Air Tram Lines. A yellow school bus will take you to the West Airplane parking area. This tram will turn around and head south.” The passengers rise, and, as they exit, many thank me for my information and for making the ride a fun experience. My heart swells.
And so ends our 25-minute ride from the Hangar Café. Volunteering on the tram is a wonderful way to become an integral part of the AirVenture experience. It is one way we can give back to the organization that does so much for aviation.
Paul D. Fiebich, EAA 577724, is an occasional contributing author and a member of EAA Chapter 88 of Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website, airbikeace.org.