Oshkosh: The Sport Pilot’s Rite of Passage

And you thought Oshkosh was only a label on your toddler’s overalls! Actually, Oshkosh, a small town in Wisconsin, is to aviation what Indianapolis is to car racing. Every summer, beginning in the last week of July, this town of about 60,000 is overrun by more than 700,000 swarming aviation fanatics from all over the world. Visitors look at giant jets, secretive ultra-modern military planes, and small, racy propeller planes of all descriptions. But mostly, they are there to be a part of an aviation event that every pilot feels drawn to attend at least once.

So why have few people heard of Oshkosh, while the Indianapolis 500 is a national institution? For one thing, the Indy 500 was first held in 1909, while the Oshkosh festival marked only its 47th anniversary in 1999. For another, as long as more people drive cars than fly planes, auto racing will continue to receive more television coverage than events such as Oshkosh and the Reno Air Races (see Chapter 4, “Great Flyers of the World Wars”).

Oshkosh: The Sport Pilot's Rite of Passage

By the Book

Hangars are the buildings that house airplanes, sort of a garage for flyers. The word, like so many flying terms, is French, and it was used to describe a covered shed or stable. Hangar flying is what pilots call the good-humored story-telling that can, over fame, elevate small events to mythic tales.

But to the sport pilot and aviation buff, Oshkosh, a six-day event that the sponsoring Experimental Aircraft Association has dubbed AirVenture Oshkosh, is a kind of rite of passage. Once you’ve been there, you’ve always got a story to tell on a rainy day at the airport when you and your flying friends are hanging around the airport and doing a little bit of hangar flying.

The thousands of airplanes that fly into Oshkosh each summer turn the town’s Wittman Regional Airport into one of the busiest in the nation. The Federal Aviation Administration staffs a temporary control tower that, for a few days, handles as many arrivals and departures as some of the world’s busiest airports while ground workers lead hundreds of airplanes to parking areas that surround the airport. Cessnas, Pipers, and Beechcraft make up the majority of planes at Oshkosh, though there are dozens of other great airplane lines represented, from the Grumman Tiger (the beloved model that endured terrible abuse from me as I was learning to fly) to the sleek-waisted Mooneys that look fast even when they’re parked on the airport ramp.

Each year, pilots of Cessnas, Pipers, Mooneys, Beechcraft, and the hundreds of other models and variations of planes that can be found at America’s airports find one common meeting point: Oshkosh.

The Least You Need to Know

V Sport flying is not only increasing in popularity, it’s also getting safer.

>■ Cessnas and Pipers are the most popular, and least expensive, airplanes in America.

Beechcrafb and Mooneys are not as affordable as Pipers and Cessnas, but they’re popular airplanes with wildly loyal fans.

>• The Oshkosh festival is a pilgrimage every small-plane pilot should make at least once.

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