July 22, 2017 - EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is a weeklong celebration about airplanes and all things aviation. But for the hundreds of people who fly in as groups for an opportunity to park and camp together, it’s as much about renewing old friendships and making new ones.
Three groups arrived en masse at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017 on Saturday, and three other groups are scheduled to arrive Sunday.
After departing from Waupaca, Wisconsin, Cherokees to Oshkosh became the first to arrive on the AirVenture grounds around noon Saturday. With 21 planes and 40 people from more than 10 states, this was their seventh year of flying in as a group, said first-year lead pilot Tony Harding. About 33 planes originally registered for the flight, but the numbers dropped as people pulled out because of health, airplane, or work issues, he said.
Their arrival was delayed by an hour because of the low ceiling, Tony said, noting that was really the only problem they encountered.
But that’s because safety is the No. 1 thing the group preaches during their nationwide clinics. “We usually fly two to four wingspans away from each other, but if someone isn’t comfortable with that, we tell them to go to five wingspans.” To ensure safety, they also mandate that all pilots attend the formal briefing and fly sorties on Friday prior to the group flight, he said.
While it’s a lot of work to fly in and camp together, the people make it worth it, Tony said. “It’s really about the people,” he said. “I had problems with my plane in Waupaca, and two people said I could use their plane to lead the flight,” he said. It wasn’t necessary, but the group has become good friends who are always willing to help however they can, he added.
Tony said flying lead with his wife, Sandra, was the best birthday present he could receive. He’ll turn 75 on Monday.
What is he looking forward to most?
“Getting here next year and my 76th birthday,” he answered, laughing.
Bonanzas to Oshkosh made its 28th annual trek to AirVenture, flying in from Rockford, Illinois. However, the flight didn’t go as planned. Originally scheduled to arrive in Oshkosh at 1 p.m., they still hadn’t left Rockford by 1:30 p.m. due to thunderstorms.
The Bonanza flight began in 1990 when Wayne Collins and a few friends decided the only way to ensure camping together was to arrive together in formation. Elliott Schiffman took over the organization in 2001, and soon established a nationwide network of regional training sessions.
Since 2007, Larry Gaines has organized the mass arrival, which arrived in Oshkosh around 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Nine pilots made the first mass flight to Oshkosh in 1990. That number now averages more than 100 annually, and about 75 percent of the pilots come back year after year.
The third group, Cessnas to Oshkosh, arrived on the AirVenture grounds at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Leaving from Juneau, Wisconsin, the group had 49 aircraft registered and represented 31 states and two Canadian provinces. 2017 was their 12th mass flight into the AirVenture grounds.
Gil Velez, of Jersey City, New Jersey, said 69 planes were registered for the mass fly-in, but many couldn’t make it to the staging area because of bad weather. But Gil said he wouldn’t miss the mass arrival for anything.
“In the beginning, I came to AirVenture because of my love for aviation,” he said. “But now I come back to see my friends.”
Suzie Bowden, of Lenexa, Kansas, agreed. “I’ve made great friends here, and I look forward to seeing everyone each year. When we came by ourselves, we were just two people out of hundreds of thousands. But now, we’re in a family.”
Besides the people, Dan McCullough of Salt Lake City, Utah, said he enjoys the challenge of becoming a better pilot that comes with formation flying.
Three more groups will fly in together Sunday, including Piper J-3 Cubs, Cirruses, and Mooneys. The Mooneys are expected to be the last mass arrival at 11 a.m. after gathering in Madison, Wisconsin. This will be their 20th mass flight to Oshkosh.