““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
Why Oshkosh Matters
Located 80 miles north of Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Winnebago, largely blue-collar Oshkosh is perhaps best known as the home base for companies that make military trucks and dungarees. But for one week every summer, it also hosts the largest airshow in the U.S., the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture, which attracts nearly 800,000 visitors and features 14,000 airplanes.
It’s sort of like the iconic 1969 Woodstock music festival, only with airplanes instead of guitars. As at Woodstock, people at Oshkosh get high, but they do it in a way that’s legal. It is a polyglot festival of the strange and sublime: workshops, seminars, lectures, rock concerts, a tent city of junk peddlers called the “fly market,” slick multimillion-dollar pavilions sponsored by the aircraft manufacturers, a dazzling array of cuisine that Gordon Ramsay would never eat and spectacular airshows. More than 50,000 attendees camp on the grounds.
It is all there–everything from the most modern business jets to antique warbirds to basement-built, single-seat one-of-a-kind specials. The EAA was formed in Milwaukee in 1953 to support enthusiasts who wanted to build their own airplanes, but over the years it has grown into much more than that. Today only 16 percent of EAAers build their own airplanes–the remainder buy off the shelf, collect antiques, restore warbirds, fly amateur aerobatics or pursue some other sub-specialty through the hundreds of local chapters scattered across the U.S, and around the world. Today’s EAA literally has something for every stripe of aviation enthusiast. Its “Young Eagles” program nurtures the next generation of pilots, aeronautical engineers and tinkerers.
However, home-building is still at the core of the EAA’s DNA. Today, many build-it-yourselfers opt to construct from kits as opposed to from scratch, adding their special tweaks or modifications along the way. Some of the nation’s most innovative aircraft manufacturers and other companies got their start in the kit-building business, including Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Columbia (later bought by Cessna) and Cirrus Design. These companies all attracted their initial constituencies at Oshkosh.
When it came time for Honda to unveil the prototype of its futuristic light jet in 2005, the company decided Oshkosh was the place to do it. “We chose EAA AirVenture for the HondaJet’s world debut in the pure spirit of our passion for aviation and to share our technology with the aviation community from a research and development standpoint,” Honda Aircraft president Michimasa Fujino said at the time. It was a logical homage.
The EAA and its members have been at the forefront of the latest trends in aviation, including the use of composites in construction in place of aluminum, development of alternative aviation fuels and designing unconventional but highly efficient airfoils, the revolutionary small turbofan engines used to power today’s very light jets, and now, electrically powered aircraft. At this year’s AirVenture, the EAA will award a $60,000 Electric Flight Prize for the electric-powered aircraft that can remain aloft the longest.
And again at AirVenture this summer, you can count on big company engineers fanning out to solicit the latest ideas from the gathered gaggle of garage geniuses, the amateur innovators unconstrained by stock share price and corporate balance sheets. If you love aviation, Oshkosh is a not-to-be-missed good time. But it is so much more than that.
When it comes to innovation in aviation, Oshkosh matters.–Mark Huber
IF YOU WANT TO GO
Oshkosh 2011 AirVenture takes place July 25-31. For more information, visit www.airventure.org.