by Scott Thompson
We had a good group of chapter members who made it to the EAA convention at Oshkosh during the last week of July. Talking with some of those from our chapter that attended as well as some other visitors, I think many came away with a renewed sense of optimism about the future of aviation in general and sport flying particular.
There are some very innovative thinkers out there who are not constrained by “the way we do it” attitudes and who are looking forward to creating flying machines that don’t look anything like your father’s Cessna. From electric airplanes to scaled-up drone looking vehicles to new designs that cover the whole gamut of sport flying, there was excitement in the air that I haven’t sensed in many years.
One of the highlights for me was the “One Week Wonder” whereby a core group of volunteers teamed with an enthusiastic crowd of riveting participants assembled a Vans RV-12 over the course of the week. It was amazing to see the airplane come together as I visited it each day, but it was more amazing to observe the crowd observe the build. There were a bunch of folks who I could see were thinking “I could do that.” And each of the visitors was offered the opportunity to pull a rivet on a wing section, under some close supervision. There was usually a long line of people waiting to do just that, many of them young people who never considered such a thing as building an airplane or even an airplane in itself.
Oshkosh is really four events all happening at the same time at the same place. You have the airshow part, with glitzy if not repetitive aerobatic acts, loud military flybys, and crowd-pleasing massed formations and skydiving performers. Behind the airshow line is a large plaza that features some of the big show-attraction displays like C-5 transports, a shiny B-29 bomber, and the occasional airliner. Beyond that are the big aviation manufacturers like Cessna and Piper and Lycoming and Continental and Garmin and all the rest with flashy displays to entice the wealthier amongst us to come on in and take a look. And beyond that are four big display buildings with every aviation vendor imaginable to offer every aviation thing imaginable, plus the few odd ball vendor exiles from the state fair circuit.
But if you drift off the midway towards the northern and southern parts of the air field you dig a little into the real muscle of American aviation. To the south are acres and acres of vintage aircraft, rows of Beech Staggerwings and Cessna 195s amongst other rows of Stinsons and Spartans and Swifts and Seabees. Not so busy but more purposeful as pilots and owners and admirers all join together to appreciate classic things. Further south and there is a pleasant grass airstrip with powered parachutes, ultralights, and the like arriving and departing in obvious enjoyment of both crowd and participant.
The north side of the field shows the roots of EAA: a large forum complex where hundreds of topics are offered at all times of the day for every day of the convention. They offer aviators and enthusiasts expert presentations and hands-on opportunities. Everything from how to weld to riveting to engine rebuilding to aerodynamics to iPad utilization. I doubt it is no accident that these forums are next to the homebuilt area because they go together. All the smaller homebuilt kit vendors like Vans and Sonex and Rans are there, plus start-ups, engine and propeller providers, and a few outside-the-box thinkers all jumbled together in a few acres of display area. Beyond that are parked thousands of homebuilt airplanes of every type and description, and beyond that are thousands of Cessna and Pipers and Beechcrafts parked with tents underwing and towels hanging on propellers.
I sensed an undercurrent of enthusiasm returning to aviation. I’m not sure general aviation should be written off as something for days gone by. There are many challenges facing our industry and our sport. Flying is complicated and expensive, and it is always one oil boycott away from a downturn. But the current pilot and technician shortage is opening eyes toward aviation and, meanwhile, the forward thinkers are plotting a way toward the next great age of aviation. It’s all on display at Oshkosh, and well worth the trip.