Friday, September 17, 2010

The Show

In the summer of 1999, when I was 18 years old and freshly graduated from high school, I flew a Cessna 172 to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Annual Convention and Fly-In - then newly branded as "EAA AirVenture Oshkosh" - in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I along brought my little brother Josiah (then ten years old), and we camped under N738FZ's wing for the week. For a plane-obsessed kid about to head to college for aviation, it was absolute heaven.

I didn't make it back for eleven years. I got busy with flight training, and then moved to the west coast. Although I stayed current in small planes for a while, it wasn't a priority, and by this summer it'd been over three years since I'd flown one. My work tends to scratch my flying itch, so I never felt any overwhelming need to go back to Oshkosh.

It turns out that I've been blessed with a wife with a flying itch of her own, and my job doesn't do anything for her. Dawn had been nudging me to get checked out in a light plane here in Minneapolis, but most of the FBOs and flight schools of my youth have withered away and the survivors' rental rates are painfully high. In July, though, I got back in touch with my first flight instructor and had the chance to get reacquainted with N738FZ. My first few landings, it must be admitted, were humbling, but before long I got the hang of Cessna wrangling again. I meekly asked my old CFI what he'd think of me stealing Foxtrot Zulu for a week and taking Dawn to Oshkosh. He said yes without batting an eye.

The plan was to fly in on Sunday 25 July, the day before the show begins. Mother Nature had other ideas. Eastern Wisconsin, already the recipient of record rainfall in July, got an utter drenching that Thursday night. On the very eve of the world's largest airshow and fly-in, virtually every unpaved inch of Oshkosh Airport was either underwater or was a bottomless mud bog. There was no place to park the 12,000 expected aircraft, no place for RVs and tent trailers, few places even suitable for parking cars. I checked the uniformly grim site updates through the weekend. Maybe we should throw in the towel and just head to Spain instead? My friend in Girona invited us to come on over. We almost did, until insane loads to Atlanta made the open flight to Barcelona a moot point. Finally, EAA announced that general aviation camping would be opening at some point on Monday. We decided to take off from on Monday morning and head that way.

The air was still as lifted off Runway 16 at CBG and turned eastward to climb out over the St Croix River. We leveled off at 5500 feet and admired the stunningly green Wisconsin scenery as it passed slowly by. Dawn helped me identify landmarks from the WAC chart; no GPS in this old bird! Past Eau Claire, scattered cumulus started popping up around us. I weaved around them for a while until they became too numerous to avoid, then descended to 2500 ft and followed a high-tension powerline eastward. Approaching Wisconsin Rapids, I tuned up the Oshkosh ATIS. It was still faint but I picked out the words "General Aviation Camping closed." Oh well. I chopped the throttle and banked into the downwind for Runway 20 at KISW.

There was only one spot to park N738FZ, for we weren't the only ones waiting to go to the show. I talked to a couple of guys in Super Cubs with bush tires, one of whom had come from Edmonton. Long flight. A couple of ultralight trikes landed for gas. I checked the OSH site update page on my Palm obsessively; frequent updates kept promising an imminent opening but suggested it might be after the airshow. Dawn and I walked into town for lunch. Sure enough, while we were at lunch Oshkosh opened briefly for general aviation campers, but we didn't have enough time to get back to the airport and fly to OSH before it closed for the daily airshow. I figured we'd take off around 5:30pm to arrive over Ripon around 6PM, when the airport usually reopens.

Everyone at Wisconsin Rapids had the same idea; we all took off in quick succession and proceeded southeast en masse. Approaching the start of the VFR arrival procedure at Ripon, it quickly became apparent that everyone within a hundred-mile radius of Oshkosh had the same idea. The approach control frequency was utterly clogged with pilots self-announcing their arrival over Ripon and holding over Green Lake, contrary to the NOTAM's instructions and the approach controller's exasperated admonitions. "OK, we have entirely too many airplanes over Green Lake," she finally declared. "Everyone pick a spot near you and circle it until we reopen the airport and get Green Lake cleared out!" I spotted a Mooney circling under us, and dropped down to stalk him around his circuit of a large marsh, playing with his wake. Within a few minutes I saw a Cherokee doing the same thing behind us.

The airport reopened shortly after 6PM, as expected. At first the line out of Green Lake, over Ripon, and up the railroad tracks seemed to proceed in an orderly fashion. Then somebody cut in line, and a speedster caught up to a slowpoke, and soon the frequency was again utter chaos. The approach controller kept admonishing the pilots to listen rather than speak, then gave up in frustration and was relieved by another controller. Finally the end of the line was reached and all of us holding outside Ripon were given clearance to proceed inbound. I stayed behind the Mooney, establishing a half-mile in trail at 90 knots and 1800'. With any luck, I thought, I'll be able to follow him into the line and up the tracks. That turned out to be wishful thinking.

As we approached Ripon, an utterly incredible sight unfolded. The airspace above the small town was positively swarming with dozens of airplanes buzzing about in every which direction with no sense of order whatsoever. It strongly reminded me of a dogfight sequence in an old WWI film. As we closed in, even more airplanes appeared, more than I've ever seen flying in close proximity; for a few seconds I was filled with utter dread, and then we were in the thick of it, planes all around us. I followed my Mooney guide toward the tracks, my head on a constant swivel. There were five or six of us roughly abreast of each other, all converging on the tracks. This was not going to work. The Mooney had some competition of his own and bugged out to the left. I had just rolled into a left bank to follow him back around the northern edge of Ripon when a C210 flashed by right-to-left a hundred feet or so ahead of us, cutting into the slot between me and the Mooney. I slowed five knots to increase the separation, then kept following the interloper in the absence of any other semblance of order around us. Our little conga line again made a move towards the tracks and was again thwarted, then snaked off to the southwest around the west side of Green Lake. Another conga line was going the other way, up the east side. When it ended, the Mooney swung around to follow, with the Centurion and Foxtrot Zulu close behind. Ah, order out of chaos! There were still planes on every side, above and below, many of whom attempted to cut in, but our impromptu squadron held formation through the gauntlet.

The radio was strangely calm during this frenetic fifteen minutes, for the approach controllers had mostly succeeded in berating the pilots into holding their tongues and waving their wings in reply. Now, as we closed in on the town of Fisk, I listened intently for them to call Brown and White Cessna. "Red RV4, follow Fisk Avenue for left downwind 18L, monitor tower 126.6. Yellow Cub, wag your wings. Thank you, Yellow Cub, follow the tracks for right downwind 27, tower 118.5. Blue and Yellow Biplane, rock your wings...good rock, sir! Follow the RV4 for 18L, tower 126.6....OK, white Mooney, rock your wings!" I perked up - the Mooney was two ahead of us. "OK, Mooney, Oshkosh is saturated, break left, start holding at Rush Lake." Uh-oh. "Retractable Cessna, follow the Mooney. Brown and white Cessna, follow him, everyone hold at Rush Lake."

We didn't even get to Rush Lake when the controller announced that General Aviation camping was closed for the night, but showplanes could proceed inbound. Technically, any airplane built until 1970 qualifies as a showplane - and we later saw many beat-up spam cans in showplane camping - but Foxtrot Zulu is a '78 model. The door had slammed shut. I decided to beat a quick path to Fond du Lac before everyone else got the same idea. I climbed well above the swarm at Ripon and then turned east and began descending to FLD.

Fond du Lac was as busy as I expected, with the controllers issuing the same continuous stream of instructions to anonymous aircraft as Fisk Approach was. Our downwind was extended to follow a flight of T-28s, and then on a three mile final were told to maintain at least 90 knots for a P-51 breathing down our neck. I kept the airspeed high all the way to the numbers, then bled it off seemingly forever in ground effect before making an embarrassingly flat, skittish landing. I braked hard to turn off and was barely clear when the P-51 went roaring behind us. Our timing was fortuitous, for we claimed the third-to-last camping spot on the airport. As we set up camp, representatives of the local EAA chapter came by to fleece us to the tune of $50 (!); this, in addition to $25 per person per day to shuttle to Oshkosh. The airport had very basic facilities, no potable water for cooking, one food stand, and nothing else nearby. After the adrenaline rush of aerial warfare over Ripon, this was a bit disheartening.

Dawn and I talked about it over burgers and cheese curds. We hadn't come all this way to camp at Fond du Lac and take a bus to Oshkosh, we decided. Tomorrow we would break camp and brave the crowded skies above Ripon once again. It would be Oshkosh or bust!

(Next: The Show part of The Show)


Capt. Schmoe said...

It's amazing no one balled it up over Ripon. My uncle used to live in Ripon, we stayed there in 1992 when I made the pilgrimage to Osh Kosh.

We arrived the day before the show, I spent the afternoon in his yard with a pair of binoculars and a folding chair. If I remember correctly, an aircraft flew overhead once every 20 seconds or so. It was VMC, all was well at Whitman.

I can't imagine the chaos you experienced, thankfully everybody was in the game enough so that nobody got together.

I can't wait for the arrival!

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

I am anxious to read about your experience at Osh Kosh by Gosh. (My stepdad grew up in Neenah, left in his early 20's went to Chicago, got hired by TWA and spent 45 years working for them).

sounddoc said...

wow, welcome back to GA! i'm curious as to what it's like handling a 172 after all that turbine time. at least the checklists are a little lighter. my AE FO friend keeps telling me that the planes i'm training in now are the hardest i'll ever fly in my career!

Anonymous said...

Sam, I've been reading your blog for a couple of years but now felt compelled to write. I looked around for a way to email you but could not... Interesting coincidences:

1. I first went to Oshkosh in 1999 when I was 18 years old, flying there in a C172 from Oregon (solo)... and had a wonderful time. I camped out in the north 40, and made a lot of friends.

2. This year I returned for the first time since '99, with my wife in our 1966 Mooney. Sorry to say, it was not us that you were following around Rush Lake. We got rained out as well, delayed in Madison, WI, then meandered to Door county (Ephraim.. what a place!), and then attempted to get into OSH on the same Monday you did. We wound up landing at Appleton and taking a bus.

It was good to finally see the show, but not nearly as fun as staying there. Without any accommodations planned (we wanted to camp too) we got bilked on a very expensive motel and stayed just one night before heading west.

With that said, OSH was the culmination of a 2 week summer vacation for us and only one of many cool places visited, so it wasn't a total loss.

Anyway, I found our respective circumstances pretty interesting.

Take care,


Sam said...

sounddoc-- Actually the checklist for the 172 is longer than the JungleBus, go figure. Most modern airline checklists are pretty short, because they are true checklists vs "do-lists." Flow patterns replace do-lists, and then you double-check the "what can kill me?" stuff with checklists.

Honestly the biggest difference in the 172 is not having the instant, easy situational awareness that comes with GPS, glass, TAWS, TCAS, etc. In the JungleBus I know exactly where I am, every second. In the 172 you have to think about it a bit. I like that.

The controls in the 172 are lighter, as the JungleBus has somewhat heavy controls for a jet. The flying qualities aren't as different as you'd think, though. I often describe the JungleBus as flying "like a big 172."

Sam said...

Jesse-- That is quite the coincidence! Sorry you didn't have the time to fly into OSH on Tuesday. Still sounds like a great trip, we'd love to have our own plane but there are higher priorities for now.

DaveG said...

"Over Ripon? No, I don't think I'll ever get over Ripon."

My seventh solo landing in a taildragger of any kind was in my RV-6 at Oshkosh. I spent a harrowing 45 minutes circling Ripon - it' the only time I have ever been afraid in an airplane.

I drive to OSH now.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just found your blog a couple weeks ago and I think it's good to go. I'm a Twin Cities native, private pilot and Marine (soon to get out) in Afghanistan and I enjoy hearing your stories flying commercially. You make Oshkosh sound like a lot of fun, hopefully I can make it next summer. The airspace there sounds a lot like the outskirts of LAX Class B on a nice weekend.