The 11 hour, 1,500+ nm, three-leg return trip from Oshkosh to San Diego in a baby Beech Bonanza give me a full day to reflect on this year’s EAA AirVenture at Wittman. EAA chairman Jack Pelton says that more than 16,200 airplanes landed at Oshkosh, a ten year high. More than 3,000 aircraft arrived on some days and about 550,000 visitors attended the event, most of whom arrived in automobiles rather than light airplanes.
What was once a quirky annual meeting of pilots who owned garage-built flying kites, odd-duck antiques and très outre experimentals has now morphed into a mainstream aviation event enjoyed by both aviators and non-pilots. AirVenture has become a veritable aviation theme park with distinct fantasy, frontier, adventure and future sections.
At this year’s event, for instance, the $300-million Airbus A350XWB and the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning made their Oshkosh debuts, representing the future. Airbus experimental test pilot Frank Chapman flew virtually the same demo routine in the A350 as he did at the Paris Air Show. Another link to the future was the F-22 Raptor. It made an encore appearance, showing off its 9 G sustained turn rate and unmatched low speed handling capabilities.
The Boeing B-52H Stratofortress also made its first appearance at AirVenture, signifying a link to frontier days. Also on static display were dozens of historic aircraft, including “That’s All, Brother”, the C-47 that carried the first US paratroops to land behind enemy lines near Sainte Mere Eglise, thereby spear heading the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Afternoon flying demonstrations also featured large groups of American World War II era trainer, fighter and bomber aircraft, plus a Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Sea Fury, Avro Lancaster and the only flying de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito, among many other vintage allied and axis power warbirds. A North American F-100 Super Sabre, Hawker Siddeley AV-8B Harrier and McDonnell-Douglas F-4E Phantom II were part of the show. Sean D. Tucker starred in a large cast of pilot performers in single-engine civil aerobatic aircraft. Even the new Goodyear Wingfoot One Zeppelin airship performed for the crowd.
A heritage flight, linking old and new, was a highlight. A P-51 led a three-ship formation with a P-38 Lightning on one wing and the F-22 Raptor on the other.
General aviation manufacturers displayed bevies of new business jets and turboprops. Major aviation firms including Boeing, Embraer and Garmin, along with GE, Honda,Honeywell, Rockwell-Collins and Textron Aviation, were in attendance. Virtually every light aircraft and LSA airframe and avionics manufacturer was represented.
Kirk Hawkin’s Icon A5 light sport amphibian generated plenty of excitement. Our personal adventure was flying splashes and dashes in the A5 on Lake Winnebago. Although the A5’s fully-equipped price has jumped to $247,000, Icon’s order book actually has increased to more than 1,400 positions. Many of those positions are held by comparatively young general aviation enthusiasts.
EAA is acutely aware of the aviation industry’s aging employee problems, so it’s stepping up its youth programs. This year, the youth forum was chaired by Dillon Barron  a sophomore at University of Central Missouri, a private pilot, a skydiver and Gold Lindy award winner for his restoration of a Cessna 170. Barron started flying at age 13 in a Blanik L-13 sail plane and earned his private pilot license at 18. Four other members, age 16 to 20, also discussed their aviation adventures at the forum. McKinley Siegfried told young people about flying her father’s Beech 18 from California to Oshkosh. Other Young Eagles, EAA’s freshmen pilots, told of their aviation experiences.
Several colleges with strong aviation programs, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Perdue University and University of North Dakota, among another half dozen institutions, staffed booths to tell young people about educational and career opportunities in aviation.
Pilot and technician recruiting has become a major emphasis at EAA. Boeing signed a long-term contract with EAA last year for naming rights on AirVenture’s central display plaza. System chief pilot Captain John Hornibrook led Alaska Airlines’ recruiting team at the Career Center. Air Wisconsin, Compass, Empire and Endeavor, plus GoJet, Republic, SkyWest and Trans States were among the regional air carriers wooing applicants with promises of signing bonuses and offers to help pay for flight training costs.
Major firms are pumping money into their exhibit spaces at EAA, many adding top floor outdoor lounges where company guests can view the afternoon flying demonstrations. For example, Brad Mottier, VP and general manager of GE Aviation’s business and general aviation enterprise, said his firm plans to double the size of its chalet in 2016. Mark Van Tine, VP for digital aviation at Boeing, noted that Jeppesen has upgraded its facility with an indoor/outdoor mezzanine level for company guests.
The aviation A-list at Oshkosh grows every year. Unlike many other air shows, most every all-star is accessible to the crowd. Triple ace Clarence “Bud” Anderson was seen around “Old Crow”, a P-51 Mustang named for the North American fighter he flew in Eighth Air Force during World War II. His close friend R. A. Bob Hoover, the senior statesman of the aviation industry and top-notch raconteur, was honored at a barbeque sponsored by Honda Aircraft. Among other luminaries, Dick and Burt Rutan were there, along with USAirways flight 1549 pilots Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, Qantas 32 skipper Richard de Crespigny and Representative Sam Graves [MO-06].
All of these components added up to one conclusion. EAA AirVenture has become the de facto US National Air Show. Admittedly, it lacks the frills and trappings of the Paris, Dubai and Zhuhai air shows. Leave your Savile Row suits, Givenchy ties and Bruno Maglis in your closet. Pack your polo shirts, khakis and Nikes.
No other aviation event in the world can equal its home spun charm, low profile dress code, family friendly events and exceptional variety of aircraft. And business deals are getting done behind the scenes, just as they do at the high profile coat-and-tie shows.