July 31, 2016

When Lerner and Loewe created the 1954 MGM musical, Brigadoon, they could have been describing the wonderful aviation event called AirVenture that happens every July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

You see, Brigadoon is a story of romance and magic that happens in the Scottish highlands.  You will not find Brigadoon on any map.  It is about a mythical village that appears for one day every 100 years and then vanishes just as quickly into the fog laden valleys and heather laced rolling hills of this enchanted land.  It is a village populated by wonderful townsfolk dressed in their traditional Scottish tartan.  The village and its people possess dreamy qualities.

The Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture is a modern day Brigadoon.  For one week every year, this miraculous event manifests itself in a rural Wisconsin valley and brings together people, excitement, and airplanes in a surreal world for the aviation aficionado.   Like Brigadoon, AirVenture’s populace is adorned in the colours of general aviation, vintage and antique machines, aircraft from commercial, army, navy, air force, national guard, coast guard, and every walk of life with ties to man’s passion to slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.  And yes, it is a world leading camping experience too.

AirVenture is a glorious happening.  For one week every year, quaint little Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world.  It is busier than Chicago, Toronto, Paris, Tokyo, and New York.  And not just by a wee bit, but by a very large margin.  AirVenture 2016 happened from July 25th to July 31st this year.  It drew over 563,000 participants through its gates.  More than 10,000 airplanes arrived at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh and other nearby airports in the east-central Wisconsin area.  This year, it included some 2,855 showplanes, a 7 percent increase over last year.  In addition, 1,124 of those aircraft were homebuilt (up 11 percent), 1,032 were vintage aircraft (up 7 percent), 371 were warbirds (up 6 percent), 135 were ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 101 were seaplanes (including one turbine powered Super Seawind), 41 were aerobatic aircraft, 31 were rotorcraft, and 20 were non-categorized.  If you want to see every type of aircraft imaginable, then Oshkosh is the place to be once a year.  A record 2,369 visitors from 80 nations outside of the USA attended the show.  The top international countries represented were Canada (578 visitors), Australia (340 visitors) and Argentina (167 visitors).  More than 5,000 volunteers came together to make this event a reality.

So where do all of these people stay in tiny Oshkosh during AirVenture?  Literally every bed is occupied.  Hotels and motels as far away as Green Bay and Milwaukee are booked.  The university dorm rooms are full, homes are rented out, but the smartest option of all, is camping.  And do they ever camp.  Nearly 5,000 campsites are temporarily created on the airport property.  Almost 9,000 more tents are set up under the wings of tied down airplanes, resulting in over 40,000 people sleeping on the airport property every night during the event.

North 40 photo

Figure 2 – Pilots tent under the wings of their airplanes

Forget the RV shows, if you want to see every camping option available, then AirVenture is the place to walk around and say hello to folks.  It is a friendly place.  You will see every camping option that you can image and many things that you cannot comprehend that are all still called camping.  Yes, you will see Class A, B, C, and every variant in between.  For example, I had three Prevost coaches with matching trailers, hauling cars, Harleys, and golf carts, parked next to my older Class A motorhome.  I estimated that there was over $5 million invested in these three RVs alone!  They were heading to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally next.

Vintage Motorhome

Figure 3 – Vintage restored travel trailer

Not all RVs at AirVenture are million dollar beauties.  There were vintage RVs fully restored to better than new standards from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  I expected to see Lucy and Desi jump out of one very long 1950s era travel trailer.

School bus with two VW vans

Figure 4 – Homemade school bus conversions

There are home built RVs of every description and some that are very difficult to describe.  Of course there are numerous requisite school bus conversions and one irregular stand out was a flaming red fire engine conversion with three stories topped off with an observation deck complete with oversized sun umbrellas to watch the seven daytime and two night-time airshows.

OSH-Camp Scholler

Figure 5 – A small view of the thousands of campers at AirVenture

The campgrounds are sectioned for everyone’s tastes.  There are several large sections for general camping for tents, tent trailers, hard tops, hybrids, truck campers, pop-ups, and travel trailers for the classic and more robust adventurers.  Some areas are restricted for 24 hour generator operations that forbid tents due to the risks from harmful low lying engine exhaust.  You will find toy haulers, conversions, and the larger class A and C models there.  There are 450 enhanced sites with 50 amp power and fresh water for the giant fifth wheels, big toy haulers, premium class A, and larger travel trailers.  A big section is reserved for those who travel with pets with nearby dog walking areas.

Bringing together this many people for one magical week means that they have strategically placed shower buildings, washrooms, laundry facilities with available detergent and dryer sheets, free Wi-Fi, and an abundance of temporary cellular sites from all of the carriers to permit connections.  Onsite, there are stores for supplies and food items, ice blocks and cubes are available for $3.50 per bag, and a $30.00 sewage pump out service is readily available to visit your site.  However, a donation based, drive-in, pump out service on the property costs just $2 or $3 depending on the number of tanks emptied.

Steve Miller Band performance

Figure 6 – The Steve Miller Band performing at AirVenture

AirVenture is famous for entertainment too.  It is not all just about airplanes… no wait, yes it is!  But, in addition to the airplanes this year, there is entertainment for everyone of all ages.  The band called, Third Eye Blind was the featured act at the Monday evening concert.  In the past, we have seen bands such as Chicago, Survivor, REO Speedwagon, The Doobie Brothers, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, The Steve Miller Band, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Loggins, and many more.  Are they catering to the baby boomer generation, maybe?

Make-A-Wish at AirVenture 2014-1

Figure 7 – The Make-a-Wish Foundation at AirVenture

There is entertainment for kids and grandkids too, in the popular KidsVenture activity areas loaded with safe climbing, hanging, sliding, and swinging apparatus.  They even have a drone training area for the teens that is caged in to prevent errant drones from flying away causing havoc.  For adults, they have more than 1,000 forums, lectures, tutorials, and workshops.  There is more to AirVenture than just seeing unique and cutting-edge aircraft.  We talk about them.  We learn about them.  We even find out how we can build them.   AirVenture is the epicenter of aviation knowledge.  You can complete your Oshkosh experience by interacting and getting hands-on at the forums, workshops, and special presentations included with your admission.

Fly-In Theater 2012 CMM_20110729204859

Figure 8 – George Lucas discussing his movie, Red Tails at AirVenture

One of the entertainment favourites is the outdoor Theater-in-the-Woods, which runs feature films every night during AirVenture.  The open-air pavilion has seating for 3,500 people under its spacious roof, while many more have traditionally brought lawn chairs and blankets and enjoyed the evening’s programs from spots adjacent to the seating area.  One year, famed filmmaker George Lucas spoke for over an hour prior to the showing of his movie, Red Tails.  Last year, we all enjoyed a talk commemorating the 45th anniversary Apollo 13 with Flight Director Gene Kranz, astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, and other team members from the famed “successful failure” of the aborted moon mission.  The Ron Howard film, Apollo 13 followed the talk.  This year, it was EAA member and accomplished pilot Harrison Ford taking the stage.  He hosted a discussion prior to a showing of the latest installment, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

As quickly as it appeared, AirVenture ended and everything and everyone simply disappeared, just like in the fabled Brigadoon.

Fire Truck

Figure 9 – Fire Truck conversion with observation deck

If you are interested in enjoying a grand camping experience, meeting new friends, seeing amazing aircraft, watching daily airshows, having wholesome fun for all ages, then plan to visit AirVenture 2017 next year.  It is scheduled for July 24th to July 30th, 2017.

Next year, for instance, is the 80th anniversary of the iconic Piper Cub airplane and the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force and both of these anniversaries will be featured. AirVenture wants to continue to be the place where new aviation technology and innovations are unveiled to the world.  So, you will be amongst the first to see the next generation aircraft.  You can kick the tires too by getting up close and personal.  They have already lined up Canadian alt-rock group Barenaked Ladies for an opening night concert, and they will be busily organizing an unparalleled lineup of unmatched features, attractions, and aircraft.

AirVenture is a camping experience like no other; it is filled with the magic of flight and the romance with aviation.  Will I see you there in 2017?


“Photo provided by EAA.”

About the Author

Michael J Martin is a licenced pilot and passionate aviation buff.  He lives in Toronto with his wife Candy and their four dogs.  They own a 36’ Holiday Rambler diesel pusher and the entire family loves time together in the motorhome.  This was his eighth year attending AirVenture.