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EAA Airventure at Oshkosh

EAA Airventure at OshKosh – My First and Definitely Not Last

Flying into Airventure at Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) is likely on the top of most general aviation pilot’s to-do list, and I was no different. I started my flight training during the pandemic – I found I finally had the free time and the free funds to devote to doing it properly. An attorney by day, I was relegated to studying on weeknights and doing flight training on the weekends. Between weather cancellations, airplane availability, and my CFI’s schedule, it took me just about 6 months to accumulate the hours and experience needed for my checkride on December 7, 2020.

After that, I joined Jersey Aero Club in January 2021 and mostly twiddled my thumbs in anticipation of our Piper aircraft coming back online since all of my training was in an Archer II. In March 2021, still “grounded” along with my preferred choice of aircraft, I daydreamed of what I could do once I was able to get back in the air with regularity. I texted my father – a retired USAF pilot who instructed in T-38s in the twilight of his Air Force career – with an out-of-the-blue query: “Do you have plans the last week of July?” After assuring that he had no plans and could not claim to be busy, I popped the question: “I was wondering if you’d be interested in flying to OshKosh for Airventure.” He’d love to, he said.

My father lives in Minneapolis, so he had to fly commercial to New York just to fly back that way in a four-seater for our trip. Funny enough, his commercial flight flew right by our planned destination.

Non-flight planning: Planning for OshKosh was a little apprehensive. Our lodging was simple, fortunately. My father took me camping, hiking, and backpacking growing up and so neither of us were unfamiliar with the chilly, firm embrace of the ground beneath a tent, which made our choice of accommodations a foregone conclusion – we were camping. But we were unfamiliar with the procedures at OshKosh. The website at the time had limited information that felt something similar to piecing together a puzzle. Were we guaranteed a camping spot or is there a high risk of it being full by the time we wanted to get there since it is a “First Come, First Served” ordeal? How much will it cost to camp? What is the bathroom/shower/food/room service situation? There’s an airshow the entire week – can you arrive and depart during the week or is it just before and after the show starts? I gleaned as much information as I could from the website and YouTube videos and write-ups from years past, but I was still left with uncertainty, particularly in the times of COVID. I picked up the phone and called EAA and spoke with a very friendly individual who confirmed to or provided me all of the information I needed: camping will be $37/day, they’ve increased the land used for camping and so there will be plenty of spots (but it may fill up – they just don’t know), bathrooms are in porta-potty form (though there are some flushing toilets around) and are placed about every 100 yards, shower stalls are also provided on trailers, similarly spaced, convenience shops where you can buy water, snacks, and other supplies are also within reasonable distances to all camping sites, but believe it or not there was no room service. The representative reminded me that you must be an EAA member to camp. Other than that, there was nothing to plan in regards to securing plane camping – you just plan your arrival, have a placard in your window, and taxi as directed.

Camping not for you? You’ll want to book a hotel room, AirBnB, or even a dorm room very early. By the time we decided to go in March, everything was booked. But check out community boards as there are always people cancelling plans, offering to share spaces to offset costs, or just looking to give a fellow pilot a good deal.

Flight planning: The key to a successful OshKosh fly-in is in the planning. A NOTAM booklet is mailed for free to those that sign up for one on EAA’s website. It arrived a few weeks before the trip and gives you plenty of time to review and study it. If you are VFR as we were, “only” about 8-9 pages apply to you. We both reviewed the NOTAMs before our trip, and then studied them thoroughly the night before we planned to fly into KOSH. My father marked up his copy with yellow highlights for important information that he believed to be critical information. About 50% of the words in his copy were highlighted almost defeating the purpose of a highlighter.

Beyond the NOTAMs, we still had to get the plane from N12 to its destination – 683 nm direct. As a low-time pilot (about 70 hours total by the time of the trip), I was focused on ensuring we had plenty of fuel and planned stops that would leave us with more than the FAA’s recommended reserves. We planned our route:

First day, 2 legs:

N12 to Parkersburg, WV (KPKB) – 355 nm

KPKB to Batavia, Ohio (I69) – 130 nm

Second day, 2 legs:

I69 to Kenosha, WI (KENW) – 286 nm

KENW to OshKosh, WI (KOSH) – 144 nm

We had family (my brother) near I69 (which is Sporty’s airport), so we decided to make a visit out of the trip – it was a good middle point. My niece also wanted to drive down from Ohio to see us. The return trip from OshKosh was up in the air, and we wouldn’t plan it until we were ready to go.

We were flexible in our planning and booked the plane (N41JA) for about 9 days to give us the necessary buffer to not feel rushed – an all too common contribution to aviation accidents.

Pre-trip Flight: My father had not flown general aviation with regularity for quite some time. He owned a Cherokee 6, but the plane was sold before I was born 34 years ago. The only time I ever flew with him was when I was six years old – he rented a Cessna 172 from a local airport near Whiteman AFB in Missouri to take us up to see my childhood house before we moved to Tennessee. He had a 25 year gap with no flying up until a few years ago when he decided to get current and did his Biennial Flight Review (“BFR”). He did no flying between then and a few weeks before our trip when he once again did his BFR and re-upped his CFI ratings at the youthful age of 83.

All this to say that I did not want his first time being in the plane to be on the first day of our trip. So we planned a flight at twilight the night before to go up and get familiar. It…was…gorgeous!

The flight was worthwhile, though it did end up causing us to delay our departure in the morning (the fuel pump could not be operated and so we had to wait until the FBO was back open at 8am). We stayed nearby at McGuire AFB which proved to be further (~40 minutes driving) than I thought. On a sectional, it looked so close! But it was better than driving from Queens on the day we were trying to fly out.

The Big Day(s): The beginning of the trip – the first legs to get our lil’ putter plane halfway across the country – felt surreal. Flying with my father as pilot and co-pilot was a dream come true and you couldn’t erase the smile from my face. In true millennial form, I wanted to document everything. Plenty of pictures of us and the plane, a GoPro in the cockpit also recording cockpit audio, and a 360 Degree GoPro on the tail. And my sister and wife also made commemorative T-Shirts for us to wear.

We got to the plane and I saw my father share the same “kid in the candy store” smile that I was wearing. I had to immortalize it with a photo of the plane. I’m wearing the hat in case there was doubt.

The plane never looked better. Nice and clean, no issues, and coming fresh off an oil change the Trustee Julius arranged just a couple days before the trip.

We weighed everything we put into the plane to ensure proper weight and balance, completed the pre-flight, got ourselves situated, and with an excited shout out the window and the push of a button, our trip was officially beginning – “CLEAR PROP!”

It was a beautiful day for flying with greater than 10-mile visibility. We filed a VFR flight plan and received flight following, which allowed us to skim through the Northern edge of the presidential TFR that was in place near Philadelphia. Aside from occasionally changing frequencies or making small directional adjustments to avoid traffic, we played the “spot the traffic” game – something my father was out of practice on and something that I certainly can continue to improve. Assisted by ADS-B, spotting and tracking traffic up to 6 miles away identified only as “that black speck at 2 o’clock moving North” was a fun exercise and we both substantially improved by the end of the trip. We stayed relatively low – between 3,500 and 4,500 depending on whether we were avoiding a cloud layer and cruised at a smooth 115 kts.

We talked about father/son things, stories of his flying days which always serve in a teaching capacity of some sort, the weather, interesting objects on the ground, and the chatter on the radio. It’s not everyday that I have my father in a confined space and we made the most of it.

The flight was otherwise uneventful aside from some light precipitation and light turbulence 100 nm East of our first stop. We squawked VFR, contacted Parkersburg Tower, landed, and taxied to the FBO for a refuel, a recharge, and a little relaxation. We only had 130 nm to go – a little over an hour in the 41JA – but we weren’t in a rush. Once ready, we paid for the fuel, hopped in the plane, and departed. On departure the tower controller asked if we wanted flight following and offered to set it up and give us the departure frequency – a new experience for me in finding a tower controller offering to do more work than requested. We graciously accepted and off we went.

We landed at I69 without issue, checked out the Sporty’s pilot shop, and my niece met us at the airport to pick us up. She’d never been in a small plane before so I took her up quickly, flew up to her house, circled it to let her get some pictures, and then returned. Safely on the ground, my niece drove us to meet my brother for dinner. On the way there, my niece mentioned how safe of a driver she was right before running a stop sign and nearly colliding with a truck – but the accident was avoided and so now I can look back on it fondly and make fun of her for it. Good times.

We had a great time eating at one of their favorite local spots, catching up with my older brother and his fiancée who I rarely get to see, and hanging with my niece who I had not seen since she was 13 – all things that I realized wouldn’t have happened or been possible but for this trip (Kentucky is typically not on my “10 places you have to see” list). We stayed at my brother’s condo and took our time in the morning. The weather was overcast with rain, predicted to clear up by late morning, and so we all went to breakfast and spent even more quality time together. After breakfast, we went to the condo, packed up, and checked weather for our planned route. Once it appeared we’d have VFR the entire way we headed back to the airport for departure.

The cloud layers were interesting to say the least. We flew through the Cincinnati Bravo to climb up to our intended altitude, but the overcast clouds had not fully cleared out so we hung at about 3,500 feet until there was a break North of the city. On our way to 8,500 MSL, we began climbing to 4,500 before realizing we wouldn’t be able to climb above the clouds in the break fast enough and descended back to 3,500 (ATC loved us). There were a lot of PIREPs regarding the clouds – reports of wider breaks further North, cloud tops at 7,500, 8,500, or 9,000 depending on who was reporting, and one controller commenting that a Piper twin-engine reported they were able to get up over all the clouds at 12,500.

Sure enough, the breaks did get wider and we were able to begin climbing in earnest. We hit 6,500 and confirmed we would need to go higher; we agreed on 8,500 for the time being and advised ATC. The climb to 8,500 produced some of the coolest aerial shots from the trip:

Every now and again, there would be a developing cloud that would climb above and in front of us that would force us to deviate around it. It helped me understand how much movement actually occurs within clouds as I watched clouds “roll” upwards. We maintained the required distances away from the clouds, and the views were amazing.

As we approached Chicago airspace, we requested clearance into the Bravo to transition to Kenosha. I am dead serious when I say this – the controller laughed and then said “no.” He didn’t have to transmit the laugh. He pushed a button to make sure I heard him laugh at my request. “Fine, we’ll go above.” Chicago Bravo airspace tops out at 10,000. I love this plane, but it took about 15 minutes to climb 2,000 feet. The important thing is, we did it and flew directly over Chicago. On the other side of O’Hare, we called up Approach and asked whether we could get cleared through the Bravo on descent to Kenosha. We were pleasantly surprised that the controller had already planned to clear us into the Bravo North of Chicago Executive – it made the approach more direct. The handoff to tower was seamless, we landed, and taxied to the FBO to refuel. It was about 5:30 p.m. at this point and while we could have refueled, hopped in, and gone to OshKosh, we agreed that getting a hotel, studying the NOTAMs, and enjoying a nice dinner was a more appealing plan. The FBO gave us the keys to a courtesy car, we booked a room at the Holiday Inn Express, and we treated ourselves to dinner and a comfy bed before the “roughing it.”

We spent the night reviewing the NOTAMs together, comparing notes and ensuring that we had the same understanding on the directions being given. We probably spent about an hour doing this before we were both comfortable. We created a planned route in Foreflight, plugging in each of the possible transition points depending on the volume of traffic and the directions of the FISK controllers, got our rest, and then drove to the airport for an early departure.

As expected, no flight following was available within 60 miles of KOSH during Airventure, and the airspace was very busy – the ADS-B traffic on the Garmin 430 lit up like a Christmas Tree. Of course, there were NORAD planes and non-ADS-B planes and so keeping a head on a swivel looking for traffic was a crucial exercise (it’s always important, and always your responsibility to see and avoid, but the urgency of it seemed more emphasized here). We tuned into the arrival ATIS 60 miles out from KOSH as required by the NOTAMs, which identified the transition that was in use. After obtaining the ATIS, we switched over to the Fisk Approach frequency where you monitor, but do not respond verbally. Although originally directed to Puckaway Lake transition (VPPLK), a decrease in traffic resulted in a change to the Green Lake transition. Each transition’s procedures were set forth within the NOTAM with helpful graphics and descriptions. Some important notes included not to follow your GPS – follow the visual references or else you will cut off the track and have to circle back – and maintain ½ mile distance with the aircraft in front of you at exactly 90 kts.

We were ready for the excitement of trying to slip in behind an aircraft with more traffic on our tail, but the reality for us was much less hectic – by the time we reached Green Lake, the closest plane in front was 2 miles and the closest plane behind was 1.5 miles. Right before we arrived at Green Lake, we also fixed our trim and power settings to hold the required pattern altitude and 90 kts speed. Once that was done, we only had to focus on ground references.

The controllers had one flight go direct to Ripon in order to fill the gap between us and the plane in front but otherwise we just had to wait for the controller to call out to us: “Red and white low-wing – rock your wings.” I rocked those wings and heard the hyped up “GOOD ROCK – Runway 2-7, follow the railroad tracks northeast, monitor tower frequency.” Each runway in use had its own frequency.

The visual reference to turn onto the downwind for runway 27 was a large gravel pit – you turn just inside of it and fly the downwind. The controller called our plane by tail number, and then subsequently by color and type – “41JA, begin your descent we are going to line you up for the green dot.” Because no one was close to us, we were landing on the runway alone but throughout the day they would land multiple planes on the same runway at different spots designated by colored dots. It’s a real-life spot landing contest with your reward being a safe, efficient landing.

We began the descent, but not as expeditiously as the controller wanted. He called back “Red and white Cherokee, give me a good descent, good descent - I need you to get down. Cleared for runway 27, green dot, exit runway to left when able, grass has been rolled smooth.” I looked over my right shoulder down at my intended landing spot – the green dot – and saw the sea of planes and people on the grounds. It was my first real look at what OshKosh was all about.

I began turning at the orange dot, continuing a fast descent, and lined up centerline with the runway. Once center, I cut the power as I worked towards hitting my mark. So close…I was SO CLOSE to nailing that green dot, but like the Spot Landing Context we had on September 12, 2021 – I landed just past it.

Taxiing at OshKosh was something else entirely. No directions in your ear – only following the marshalling signals you receive from those in the brightly colored vests. We placed the “GAC” placard in the window, indicating “General Aviation Camping” and showed it to each marshal so they could direct us appropriately. We had very little time when the plane was just stopped and yet the total taxi time took approximately 20 minutes. Once we arrived at the parking for us, the marshals guided us to an angle so we could push the plane back. In doing so, they positioned us perfectly to blow away our neighbors’ two tents – a fact we didn’t know until reviewing the GoPro footage when we got back home because our neighbors were super nice and welcoming, never mentioning that we wrecked their home. The marshals told us to take our sweet time as there was no rush (planes were parked in a way that did not require urgency in parking). The marshals assisted in pushing our plane back, gave us the registration ticket to take to the window, and provided three stakes and ropes to tie down the plane along with a hammer. We gave him $40 cash - $20 he would give back to us when we returned his beloved hammer and another $15 we would get when we returned the stakes upon leaving. That’s $5 for the mathematically challenged amongst us.

Camping at OshKosh: I’ve never met a person that camps that is a mean, unkind, or disrespectful person and I think that has a lot to do with the type of mentality required to want to camp. Our neighbors were friendly from the get go – striking up conversation before we had a chance to tie down the plane. But once the initial introductions were done, we went back to securing the plane and setting up our tent. We had the tent on the Northwest side of the plane and the marshal came over to us. He said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but if we do a get a storm (and we are not expecting one), they tend to come from the North/Northwest, so it is generally a good idea to put it on the East/Southeast side of the plane for some extra protection. We took his advice, moved the tent to the other side between the wing and the elevators, and got everything set up.

We enjoyed what OshKosh had to offer that day (Monday), and came back to the tent, sat in our foldout chairs, and drank beer with our neighbors. As the sun set, the mosquitos began to buzz relentlessly. It got progressively worse (but not unbearable) despite repellant in use, and eventually we decided to take showers and go to bed. We grabbed our stuff, walked 50 yards to the trailer showers (there were two trailers – one with group showers and one with individual stalls), and cleaned up. Refreshed, we went back to the tent and went to sleep pretty quickly.

At about 2:30 a.m., the pitter-patter of rain drops begin to hit the tent and I wake up. The wind picked up with some clear movement of the sides of our tent. At about 2:45 a.m., it began pouring and the wind became stronger. It was about this time the PA system set up on the entire grounds had an announcement to share: “Attention. Attention. There is a severe thunderstorm warning in effect for the area with gusts of wind up to 50 mph and heavy rain. The cell is anticipated to be here by 2:47 a.m.

We couldn’t do anything but smirk at the “warning” as we sat in the thick of it during the announcement. Gusts ended up peaking at about 70 mph according to one report, and the side of the tent hit my father in the face (but held its structure). Briefly the sound of the rain was drowned out by my laughter. The tent ultimately kept us completely dry and safe, and we were able to weather the second wave at around 4:00 a.m. with no issues. In the morning, we were thankful for the sage advice of the marshal – the storm did in fact come from the North/Northwest and the plane did provide us protection.

We stayed until Wednesday (before the tornados hit the area but not the airport). It was more of the same (enjoy the airshow, come back to tent, drink beer with our neighbors, exchange flying stories, get viciously attacked by mosquitos, shower, bed) on Tuesday night. The mosquitos were in full force, worse than Monday, and caused us to cut short our beer drinking. Wednesday morning was nothing but a beautiful day and I woke up to a familiar-feeling tableau – my father aw before me sitting in the chair outside the tent as the morning sun began to rise – calling back some great childhood memories.

Although we had planned to attend Wednesday’s airshow activities, a threat of an impending storm between OshKosh and Minneapolis (our destination that day) caused us to hasten our departure. The storm looked as though it would move East steadily in a single large line. We chose to fly North to an airport away from OshKosh to let the storm pass. By the time we left on Wednesday, the marshals said they still had about 250 spaces for camping available in the South 40 where we were – an impressive number considering how many planes were already parked.

The Airshow: I don’t want to spend too much time describing the airshow as it’s pretty self-explanatory – there is a reason this year saw 608,000 attendees and 10,000+ aircraft fly-in. But I will say that getting the Aviator’s Club tickets for Monday was a welcome luxury. For about $130 per ticket, you get breakfast, lunch, drinks, ice cream treats, and a front row, partially shaded seating area for the airshows. We splurged on this for Monday, missing breakfast, but it was still worth it. On Tuesday, we spent the day checking out the insanely large collection of Warbirds, Homebuilt aircraft, and various exhibitors.

Departure from OshKosh: Similar to arrival, special procedures are in place for departing from KOSH during Airventure. You place a placard in your window that says “VFR” and you get routed for a VFR departure. The marshals assist in pulling your plane out and away from the other campers. There is no runup area, and running up in the camping parking is a big no-no. Basically, they tell you to do it when you can. We completed ours during taxi on our way to the runway. Like before, you monitor tower frequency but do not respond. We watched as planes lined up side by side on the runway ready for departure. “N41JA, runway 1-8, line up and wait on left side of blue dot; blue and white Cessna, runway 1-8, line up and wait on right side of blue dot.” We pulled out to the left side of the runway and sat parallel to the blue and white tail dragger on the other side of the dot. It was a weird feeling having two planes on the runway at one time.

“Red and white Cherokee, clear for takeoff, maintain runway heading until outside of the Delta.” Full power, right rudder, and away we go intentionally not riding the center line. Exactly 5 seconds after our roll starts, we hear “blue and white Cessna, clear for takeoff, maintain runway heading until outside of the Delta.” In reviewing the video, it was surprising at how much space that 5 seconds gave us.

We continued at heading 180 until outside of the Delta, and then turned right and climbed towards the Northeast. We made our way towards Central Wisconsin airport to refuel (we didn’t refuel at OshKosh, but the prices were frankly about the same as anywhere else in the area) and to avoid the storm. After landing, we hung out in the FBO and kicked our feet up on some furniture for the first time in a couple of days, waiting for the storm to pass or for a change that could allow us to pass safely. Eventually, we saw what appeared to be a wide gap in the storm and called Flight Services to get their interpretation. They agreed we could fly South of Minneapolis and if for some reason conditions changed on our way down, we had other options to divert. In the end, it worked out and we had somewhere between a mist and light precipitation for about 5 minutes before making our way to Flying Cloud airport (KFCM).

Landing at KFCM officially concluded the father/son portion of the trip. I stayed in Minneapolis for a couple of days but decided to depart on Friday due to smoke moving into the area – I had the reservation until Sunday but leaving early seemed like the right decision. Sure enough, KFCM on Friday morning had such heavy smoke that the airport was in IFR condition. As the sun rose, visibility improved slightly to MVFR. Reports indicated that the smoke cleared at about 3,000’ and that there was no smoke about 50 miles before my intended stop – Gary Executive Airport (KGYY). I departed from KFCM, climbed above the smoke, and enjoyed a peaceful flight home via KGYY and KJST back to N12, landing at about 9:22 p.m. There were two events worth noting – first, the lineman at KJST gave me pizza they had left over from an event earlier that day, which was nice; and second, I was hit with a green laser passing Philadelphia. I reported it but there were no injuries and got to hear ATC make multiple “unauthorized illumination event” warnings to my fellow aviators. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable 940-mile cross-country that officially brought my total time to the triple digits.

The trip was everything I wanted it to be and more, and I would not have been able to have done it without this club.

OshKosh 2022 sounds promising. I hope to see you there!

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