The radio crackles, “Cherokee Six, rock yer wings and rock ‘em good.” Jim Kren ignores the command. We’re no Cherokee Six. Is the controller looking at another airplane?
The sky is lousy with traffic converging on one tiny airport Too many planes for back-and-forth radio chatter. Special rules apply. The controller spots incoming with binoculars and radios his instructions—the pilots respond in a kind of airborne sign language. Keying your mike is tantamount to declaring an emergency.
Jim can comply. He can bide his time. Either is dangerous if he’s wrong. Aviation is full of moments like that. The entire air transport system won’t function unless responsible people break the law in just the right way.
Again, the command squawks over our headsets. Jim ignores it this time, too. Not my problem. A pilot is ultimately responsible for the outcome of his flight. He’s expected to use good judgement. I’m just here to take in the festivities and snap a few photographs.
We’re approaching the biggest airshow on earth. For one week every year, the diminutive Oshkosh Airport hosts the EAA—the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In. For that week, Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world. That’s right—busier than O’Hare, busier than Atlanta, busier than LAX. Airplanes buzz around like hornets.
Control calls a third time: “Cherokee Six!—sorry—BEECH BONANZA! Rock yer wings for me please.” This time, Jim obeys with vigorous enthusiasm. When the plane rolls back and forth, I expect boisterous complaints from Loop Lonagan behind me. Not a peep. He’s sprawled across the passenger seats, entirely relaxed, smiling and gazing out the window.
This is a fine day. One great thing about Chicago is the selection of terrific events close by. It takes just 45 minutes to get here from the grass strip where Jim hangars his plane.
Jim preflights his Beech Bonanza
The Fly In
Flying machines of all shapes and sizes arrive at this hornet’s nest You’ll see fabric or fiberglass homebuilt creations. These are powered by tiny engines like the Rotax, Corvair, or Briggs & Stratton—motors that sip fuel and buzz like chain saws.
You’ll see the venerable Stearman biplanes, some original, some modified with monstrous 500 HP radial engines. One has a jet.
Then the glorious WWII Mustangs, the B-17 Flying Fortress, and other magnificent aircraft from wars fought long ago.
This year we’re expecting the fabled B-52 Stratofortress, the F-22 Raptor, and the first public showing of the new Lockheed Martin F-35a Lightning.
You might just get a chance to land your tin can between a couple of these special planes. If you’re worried about wake turbulence, don’t come.
This is no place to go on your private pilot solo. Call me crazy but that’s precisely what I did as a young man. I put my rented Cessna 152 down at full cruising speed between two WWII warbirds. Later, my flight instructor blanched when he realized his error, but hey—great moments make life memorable.
Cleared to Land
At Oshkosh, they routinely do two—count ‘em, two—yes two flight operations on the same runway at the same time. Simultaneously.
Yes, that is unusual.
These controllers handle it with aplomb. They’re the best-of-the-best, hand picked out of O’Hare and they work here for the honor of it. This system has run smoothly for tens of thousands of flight operations over decades of airshows.
Another authoritative voice sparkling with static asks us to maintain a brisk 100 knots on final due to warbird traffic astern.
- The Tower clears us to land on runway 27 at the green marker. That’s a temporary stripe about 2/3 of the way down the field.
- Then our clearance changes to orange—the 1/3 point.
- When we turn on final, we’re told to land at the numbers—the start of the runway. Somebody on the ground must’ve screwed up.
Ah, the array of adjustments a pilot must make in a compressed period of time. The situation is somewhat challenging and I’m eager to see how Jim handles it.
It’s a good wide expanse of concrete and they expect small planes to favor one side of center, just in case somebody lands long. Is this your first time here? No problem—all the procedures are published in the NOTAM—Notice to Airmen.
Well, it seems there are some who don’t read such things, and this year we run into a situation I’ve not seen before at Oshkosh. I snap a photo of the runway. Take a look:
Two planes squat on Runway 27
See the two airplanes on the runway? Those guys didn’t read the NOTAM. The yahoo in a low-wing is just starting a long-delayed takeoff roll. That means the high-wing is squatting like a toad at the orange mark. Both planes hog the middle. There’s not enough room to land a plane like ours—and something from WWII is barreling in behind us.
This arrival is getting interesting. I turn to ask Jim if he’s enjoying himself but then think better of the idea and keep my mouth shut.
With an aircraft on takeoff, it’s unwise to abort the landing and do a straight-ahead go-round. Several runways are active and there’s too much swarming aloft to veer left or right. But what else can Jim do? I see how focused he is. I don’t yet realize he’s got a trick up his sleeve.
Rather than carry power into the landing, he throttles all the way back. Drops the gear and flaps. Air speed bleeds away. In a moment, we seem to float, but we’re still way too high.
Jim’s Instrument Stack
As soon as we cross the runway threshold, he slides the stick all the way back and stalls his Beechcraft onto the numbers. We slam down on the main gear with an authoritative jolt and roll forward a mere 50 feet before he applies power and drives off the runway in time for a beautiful Corsair to land on a clean path. Nice! Like a carrier landing without the tailhook! I never saw it done so well. Loop and I cheer and applaud our hero of the day! Hooray! What a great way to start the airshow!
- FACT—There are only seven airworthy Corsairs left in the USA. We get to see three of them today!
Men and Boys
Yes, you actually can tell men from boys by the price of their toys. It may be the only substantive difference between them. So what’s the most expensive toy? An airplane, of course. If you want to pay more, get a bigger one—or another one. It takes skill to fly—especially the exotic ones and the fast ones—and that takes practice, which takes time—another form of capital. If you do it wrong enough times, it will cost you your life. That is indeed a high price to pay. And it doesn’t count if you hire a pilot—that just makes you a passenger.
- A six place Beech Bonanza like Jim’s goes for half a million bucks. But that’s nothing compared to owning and operating a WWII warbird—especially a multi-engine job.
- Then there’s maintenance. Mandatory maintenance. Lots of it. And it’s expensive. If you buy a warbird, you better get certified to fix it yourself.
- Then there’s fuel. Lots of that too. Those big round engines suck gas something awful. Jets are even worse. The big multi-engine bombers sell airplane tours and souvenirs just to cover transport to the event. One enterprising pilot hires two buxom models in polka dot dresses to sell T-shirts and posters. They do a box office business!
May I remind you that there’s an alternative to big bucks. IT’S CALLED WORK. Build it yourself! Kits of all kinds are available for less than the cost of a top-end automobile. Hey—it only takes a few thousand hours of meticulous labor to do it, so what’s stopping you?
Over 300,000 people a day attend the Oshkosh Fly-In. And you can examine the planes as close as you want. Everybody’s polite. Nobody touches anything they shouldn’t. No litter on the ground. Compare that to your typical rock concert in a Chicago park.
Everybody here is a volunteer. Even the stunt pilots don’t get paid—it’s an honor to perform at the world’s #1 airshow. For a week every year, the entire town of Oshkosh opens its doors and staffs the booths and tents. It’s what you call free enterprise.
The military likes to demonstrate their various fleets here. Massive military aviation always inspires awe in me. I’m talking huge size and drop-your-jaw power. And it turns out that Jim is a walking encyclopedia of military aviation knowledge. Today I get a guided tour of the design details of these amazing aircraft.
Jim and Loop show me the B-52
But older warbirds are privately owned. These planes each carry a rich history and one amazing, overarching attribute—they’re still flying!
Jim and Loop show me the DC-3
We tour what’s affectionately called the Gooney Bird—the DC-3. This one bears the name “THAT’S ALL BROTHER.” This is the plane that carried the first US combat troops into Europe on D-Day—the paratroopers. It’s original inside and out. Most of the DC-3s you see today are fitted with turboprop engines to serve as airliners in the northern wilderness.
Seems like everybody with a classic airplane is here. Stearman, Curtiss, Waco, Ercoupe. The Piper Cub. The Beaver float plane.
We see fabric kit-built airplanes, gyrocopters, and the tiny aluminum Monex that can hold one small human in a reclining position. There’s a flock of Burt Rutan’s fiberglass Long EZs that appear to graze on grass, and even a homebuilt jet. Homebuilt aircraft make up the core mission the Experimental Aircraft Association. It’s a concept imprinted in their name.
The Big Show
The real airshow starts after lunch. We sit in the grass at runway-edge and watch it real close-up. I mean in-your-face close. And it goes on all afternoon!
We’re talking world class aerobatic pilots performing under FAA waivers that make it legal to work close to the ground!
But Jim and Loop agree with me—the warbirds are the best part of the show.
This year, they demonstrate the capabilities of planes from WWII, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the latest stealth technology.
With loud speakers planted all the way up and down the field, professional announcers do a running play-by-play that keeps everybody engaged. I always learn something.
Today, the show’s climax is the F-22, which shows off its incredible maneuverability. I stand amazed to see a big fast plane like that turn such a tight circle. This has to be the most maneuverable fighter ever built—and it’s stealthy.
How is it that I get to do this? Anybody can come! Drive here in your car or motorcycle. Camp on the grounds or stay in town. Fly in and camp next to your plane. But this year we’re here just for the day. Tonight, on the way home, we stop by a friend’s art show and sample the wine.
For information contact EAA AirVenture.
Photography by John Jonelis
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