“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings
Sunward I have climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things…”
-John Gillespie Magee, Jr, 1922-1941
It is seldom in our lifetimes that we are able to experience the outer reaches of the performance envelope of human emotion and exhilaration. There are few activities (with our clothes on, as the saying goes) that will allow us to extend to those outer reaches, where pure thrill goes to work on our adrenaline glands. I’m not talking about the elation of scoring 100% in a Micro Economics exam or the moment one is informed of winning that dream job – all of which are good, don’t get me wrong…
I refer to those events or experiences that are ever so rare, those that we look back upon with yearning, long after they have receded in the mists of time, as if they had almost never been.
It is usually extreme sports or wildfire love, which provide such an avenue to a better reality, where the colors are brighter, the smells stronger. These are the summit milestones in our short lives. Attempts to describe such events often smite language and eloquence into inadequacy; words fall soft and short, like the gloves of an exhausted, blighted boxer.
It was my good fortune to live through not seconds or minutes of such an experience, but two full days.
This is the point where those to whom the word aviation leaves them blasé and uninspired would perhaps move on to another article. For someone who has been fascinated and inspired by this marriage of art, science, skill and engineering and its development over a hundred years and a bit, read on, interest will be found here.
In our day and age, aviation has morphed into an ultra-expensive behemoth, for most, nothing more than another shade of gray commuter transport, its only spark of interest stemming from its potential to burn us to a crisp, should something go terribly wrong.
The vast expenses of fuel and the ravages of governmental regulation have sent the costs of anything associated with flying way up into the thinnest mesosphere. As a result, recreational, sport and general aviation have all withered and wilted, all over the world, with no promise of relief anywhere in sight for at least a generation or two to come – if not ever.
There is one place only, in today’s world, where government is not an impediment or an obstacle to aviation. That is of course, the United States. Here the relevant agency, namely the Federal Aviation Administration, acts as a facilitator, striking the correct balance as regulator and policeman, as well as the scientist, the lawyer and above all, the guardian mentor. A framework is provided by the FAA in which human aviation endeavor can thrive.
This is a direct contrast to the rest of the world, Israel and Europe in particular, where the equivalent bodies are monstrous bureaucratic pythons, whose insatiable appetites for funds must be fed by the aviating public, above and beyond any measure of reason or logic.
In 1953, aviator Paul Poberezny set up the Experimental Aircraft Association in Milwaukee, USA. It started out as a flying club for those that built their aircraft at home, from scratch and later from kits supplied by manufacturers. These aircraft are marked with the somewhat dubious title of “Experimental” on their fuselages. These aviator enthusiasts and purists began a yearly fly in meet, that expanded over time, forcing relocation to Oshkosh, Wisconsin from 1970, where it has been held every year until this day. It has grown in size, to the point where some half a million visitors come to see anything between 10,000 to 15,000 aircraft of every possible shape and size imaginable, over a week each year. One can see anything, from a replica of the 1909 Bleriot that was first to cross the English Channel, to the prototype of the yet to be mass produced Honda business jet, and everything in between. Particularly special are the “Warbirds” or aircraft from the Second World War, or perhaps the wood and fabric Stinson and Waco biplanes of the 1930’s. Each of these aircraft are fully airworthy, flown in by their private owners, who are usually found lovingly polishing and oiling their steeds, or sitting by their tents erected under the wing of their airplane.
The magic of this event is that it is primarily for the average man in the street, for people who love aviation and flying. It is for citizen pilots, and is made by them, as opposed to the big business corporate hype of the Farnborough and Paris airshows.
For me it was a dream fulfilled to visit this airshow. Oshkosh is not only a spectator event, one can also participate in it, by being one of the tens of thousands who fly in to be part of it all.
The FAA rise commendably to the occasion, providing a team of some 75 controllers who are selected from all over the USA. The selection is a coveted honor and the position may only be held for a maximum of seven consecutive events, so as to allow others to participate. The controllers are divided into teams and are distinguished by their dazzle-pink shirts.
Usual rules of flight and Air Traffic Control (ATC) procedures have been modified to cater for the massive inflow of aircraft. Up to three aircraft land on one of two runways at any given time. The runway is marked by a large colored dot at the threshold, the one third and the two third points, and aircraft are directed to touchdown on these simultaneously, and then to exit to the grass as soon as speed reduction permits.
We approached the town of Ripon, our first waypoint, whilst following a railway line at 1800 feet and at 90 knots airspeed (about 160 km/h). Excitement was mounting as we began to spot other aircraft converging all around us. Every pilot’s nightmare is a midair collision and here we found ourselves in ever crowded airspace. The procedure called for a spacing of half a mile between aircraft, whoever was unable to maintain this was to leave the inbound route, enter a holding pattern over an adjacent lake, and then endeavor to rejoin the stream when a gap appeared. All this is at the discretion of the pilots, with little or no direction from ATC.
At 30 nautical miles from Oshkosh, our landing light is switched on to make us more visible and our transponders are switched off, so as not to overwhelm the radars of the controllers. We pass Ripon and continue along the railway line to the village of Fisk. At Fisk a controller is manning a forward post, addressing each aircraft as it appears in the stream, and if spacing is maintained, a runway is allocated and the pilot is handed off to the Oshkosh tower. Pilots are not to reply to the radio calls, as we are many and this will jam the frequency, instead, we rock our wings to show the controller that we have received and understood. We are handed over to the controller who is handling traffic on runway 27 and she sounds a little overwhelmed. As we join the downwind leg an aircraft appears directly in front of us, climbing out about 200 feet below us and heading in the opposite direction. The close pass is most stimulating and we are on the very edge of our seats breathless, as we are now in a swarm of aircraft, we see two ahead of us and the controllers are talking to someone behind us too. We are reaching the end of our downwind leg, too high and still have not received landing clearance. We begin the turn for the penultimate base leg, hearts pounding and uncertain what the hell is happening here. I call the controller and ask if cleared to land, as we begin to turn for final.
“Yes, Cherokee, clear to land on the orange dot,” is the reply. We are however, too high and unable to make the orange dot which is at the runway threshold. We initiate a go around with a measure of uncertainty to what the heck will come next. The controller doesn’t let us down and directs us to reenter the downwind leg immediately, when we are still not yet midfield over the runway. As we cut into the downwind I count two aircraft occupying the leg. We cut in front and I cringe, feeling ever so Israeli.
This time she sends us to the green dot halfway down the runway and with a perceptible measure of relief we touch concrete, slow down and turn off onto the grass as another aircraft roars past from behind and above us, also going around. An orange vested flagman immediately holds up his batons to direct us and we show him our sign indicating that we want to park in the general aviation camping area. We are handed off between a dozen flagmen along a convoluted grass taxiway until we are directed to a growing row of parked aircraft. Alongside each one are animated people who are pitching their tents beside their planes, stopping to watch the new arrival taxi in.
A volunteer flagwoman steps up to welcome us, with a friendly briefing on how to register and collect our tickets. Already another Cessna is taxiing in to park beside us. We tie down our Cherokee with special stakes and ropes brought for the event, erect our tent, and set off to explore.
Endless rows of light aircraft greet our eyes. Besides each one is a tent of some kind, sometimes with camp chairs and a table, but few people. I am wonderstruck – this is the realization of my dream as a little boy, a world where aircraft would hold the same role as the family car, used with the same ease and convenience. Here were thousands of like-minded aviation freaks living the dream!
Another volunteer notices us wondering, happily lost between the rows of aircraft and approaches us to explain about the free bus rides to and from the main exhibition grounds. He is interrupted by the most impressive piston engine roar that I have ever heard, as seventeen hundred, seventy year old horses of a P-51 Mustang shake the ground as the silver thoroughbred races down the runway less than a hundred meters from us.
The volunteer is amused by our open mouthed awe and off handedly says, “Oh that’s nothing, soon you’ll see about forty of those flying over here”. We accommodatingly dismissed this obvious exaggeration as an understandable symptom of enthusiasm on the part of the flagman, and turned to find the bus.
Not an hour passed when we were to watch no less than fifty three World War Two aircraft of various types, taking off before us to commence the daily airshow at 14:30.
The bus drops us off near the new control tower that proudly displays a banner that declares to all: “World’s Busiest Control Tower”. First we walk through the Warbirds section and I am feeling a little light headed. B-25 Mitchell’s of Tokyo Raid fame, Mustangs, P-40 Warhawks, a Mitsubishi Zero, A F-4U Corsair and that’s just for starters. By the time I reach the homebuilt section my adrenalin gland is protesting and I begin to wonder if this is healthy.
The “Homebuilts” area is where the hardcore twilight zone aviation freaks hang out. These people spend years tinkering with kits that arrive in boxes, and finish up as beautiful flying machines. Each one is emblazoned with the “Experimental” label below the cockpit, which I am still undecided as to whether is something to be revered or dreaded. The most unusual flying machines are here, ones that my mother would definitely not contemplate boarding.
Words will surely fail any attempt to describe them, but I can tell you about the world’s smallest jet, the BD-5J Microjet with a wingspan of just over four meters and large enough for one enthusiast who has assembled this little cruise missile in his garage. There are the superb RV family, the 3/4 scale kit Mustangs that cruise faster than the real thing, as well as a bewildering series of other planes that I have never seen before.
I come across a bright pink Lancair (pronounced Lance Air) with a suave Pink Panther reclining across the vertical stabilizer. This little beast, despite being assembled by Joe Bloggs in his garage, can cruise at an incredibly high speed. I am deeply envious except for, well, the color.
An Extra 300 aerobatic aircraft has just taken off and is tumbling through the air in seeming out of control abandon, only to recover with Germanic precision. The crowd is captivated and I am torn between all these parked exotic aircraft and the stunts in the sky. I do my best to operate my eyeballs independently of each other. The homebuilts have a few vintage members, and I come across two 1920’s era replicas of some type, their wheels resembling something off a pram of similar antique.
A Pitts Special has joined the Extra 300 and they are flying a double knife edge maneuver together down the runway about three meters off the ground. I am vaguely aware that I am in danger of being impaled by a pitot tube or standing on a child, and that perhaps I should stop walking while I watch these two climb in a wild spiral, culminating in a dual hammerhead stall turn with engines roaring deliciously.
I lie down on the soft grass to watch the Warbird display. A reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor is underway with all relevant participants, wheeling, diving and roaring amongst the white smoke trails. Time moves on and a silvery Mustang arrives to beat up the circuit. The Rolls Royce engine produces the sweetest engine sound known to man and the Mustang pleases us all with its unique zooming shriek at the bottom of each dive. A flight of two dozen T-6 Harvards and Yak-52’s take over and it is a virtuoso concert of piston radial engines – a sound that I find quite captivating, as I reflect how advances in engine technology have not necessarily produced bigger and better things.
All this is rudely interrupted by a Sea Harrier – the only remaining flying example in the world. It is privately owned and flown by an ex-military pilot. I can only wonder how he creates his income, as this beast burns over 500 gallons of fuel an hour and it would be enlightening to hear how he pays for it. The jet enters a hover in front of the crowd and the roar is deafening. I reminisce for a nice big radial engine.
The Harrier lands and I wonder off to discover the parking area of the Commemorative Air Force where a silvery B-17G stands in silent majesty, flanked incongruously by a shark-like Czech L-39 jet trainer that has become a favorite toy of correct minded playboys in the US of recent. On the other side is my ultimate favorite. A Hawker Sea Fury. This aircraft just breathes thoroughbred from its shiny metallic skin. It was a shade too late to see action in World War Two, and is the pinnacle of piston engine aircraft development in the UK.
It was so good that it later saw off a MiG or three in Korea. Its tall undercarriage keeps the massive propeller from the ground, its nose pointing purposefully angled at a climb attitude, so that even when parked and chocked, it looks as if it were flying.
Piloting one of these was just something too fantastic to contemplate, and for a moment I considered how God had touched the individual who called this beauty his own.
The sun was slipping below the horizon and the flying display was drawing to a conclusion. Tomorrow it would continue with a breathtaking exhibition of night formation aerobatics, but that is another story in itself. The show grounds emptied as people headed for hotels and camp sites. I was still quietly ecstatic and wasn’t quite ready to leave, so I wondered alone in the darkness, between the parked and silent Mustangs, Hellcats and other assorted Warbirds, gently touching a wingtip or propeller blade.
How lucky I was to have seen this!