As anyone who knows me, knows already, I have many passions in life, perhaps too many? Two at the top of my list are aviation and photography. Followed closely by camping and enjoying the outdoors. Since I get to combine these primary interests at airshows, I decided back in the springtime (in 2019) to create an adventure this year by attending several of the best airshows in North America. As it happens, the three that I picked are all effectively back to back to back. Perfect.
So, I selected the following airshows to attend in my 2005 37’ Holiday Rambler motorhome:
- Geneseo Airshow in New York State from July 12th to 14th
- AirVenture 2019 Airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin from July 22nd to 28th
- Thunder over Michigan Airshow in Ypsilanti, Michigan from August 2nd to 3rd
Since many airports have huge properties, it is not unusual to camp right on the airport site adjacent to the runways. The proximity to the action brings and maintains the excitement level throughout the event. In most cases, I am dry camping. So, there are no typical camping resources like water, power, or sewers. You must be self sufficient. At best, you might have resources like port-a-potties or shower trailers. The experience is very similar to what you might expect at a car racing venue, which I have done several times as well. So, it can be called, “rustic” camping.
An airshow is a rather magical event. It is great fun for all ages and is a true family-oriented affair. There is noise, excitement, visual stimulation, and often some interesting things to buy. Food of all kind is available in abundance. The requisite good weather often seems to be available for me, I have rarely missed an airshow due to poor weather. Even when the weather is less than perfect, they provide a limited show so as not to disappoint the crowds whenever possible.
To begin my adventure, I had to drive eastward even though most of my trip was towards the west. I set off from Toronto to the border at Fort Erie.
Anyone who drives a motorhome knows how difficult it is to fit a large Class A diesel pusher through the Customs and Border Protection gates. I got through the giant I-beam frame that I conclude serves absolutely no functional purpose other than to intimated folks with large motorhomes and big fifth wheel rigs. My mirrors fit through with perhaps 1” to spare on either side. I was delighted to get passed this first challenge phase.
Next, I accelerated slowly towards the second challenge phase, towards the agent’s booth, with a newfound positive enthusiasm. It turned out to be short lived as I impacted the agent’s booth to my right-hand side and promptly removed my mirror on that side. With my large chrome mirror head assembly dangling upside-down by the control wires from the mirror arm, the agent jumped from the impacted booth and laughed at me and my nightmare. I am pleased to report that no weapons were drawn as a result of my one-man attack on the USA border. I will tell you that the US Border agents treated me very well and were most kind, but all highly amused by my predicament. With a damaged mirror and ego, and after four hours of delay while parked in the secondary inspection lot to drill bolts into place and apply substantial yards of duct tape, I continued to the Finger Lake region of upstate New York. The importance of a roll of duct tape in every camper cannot be understated. Of course, bungee cords are a given too.
The drive to the first airport is through lush and meandering carved country roads with old growth overhanging tree canopies and rich foliage. It is well worth the drive. Friends and family have told me many times over the years how gorgeous this part of New York State was and they are all right. The roadways roll endlessly through valleys surrounded by rising hills; however, the steep road grades can be very intimidating. I elected to keep the transmission in manual and used the engine brake and third gear to slowly climb and descend these long twisting grades of 5°, 10°, and more.
The Geneseo Airshow is put on by the National Warplane Museum located in the town of Geneseo adjacent to the meandering Genesee River. The National Warplane Museum is a warbird and military history museum located on the grounds of the Geneseo Airport in Geneseo, New York. Founded in 1994, the museum restores, flies, and displays vintage military aircraft from the Second World War and Korean War eras. If you enjoy history, then this is the place for you.
I had to dry camp at Geneseo, so having a trusted generator and a battery / inverter system is critical. Running air conditioning or a microwave oven can be difficult when dry camping. So, a BBQ and lawn chairs are the preferred strategy here. Besides, the folks are all so friendly you will absolutely enjoy the social scene. Everyone comes from all over the region. I met so many nice people from all the nearby states and from Canada too. This is a smaller airshow so it is more friendly compared to bigger shows.
One of the advantages of this airshow is how up-close and personal you can get to these vintage airplanes.
There are a few famous airplanes housed at Geneseo that you may know. For example, they have the B-17 – “The Movie Memphis Belle”. You can take a ride and experience first-hand what it may have been like to be a bombardier, waist gunner, or flight engineer on a mission over Germany during WWII. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of a WWII Heavy Bomber made famous by the aircraft’s starring role in the movie, Memphis Belle.
Another famous airplane is a Douglas C-47 named, “Whiskey 7”. This aircraft that took part in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. She flew as the lead ship for the second wave troop carrier airborne invasion force and dropped troops from the 3rd Battalion, 505th Para Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Descending on Drop Zone “O” near the village of St. Mere Eglise, they were one of only a few units that were actually dropped on their assigned drop-zone, liberating the French village of St. Mere Eglise. Whiskey 7 flew throughout the war and also participated in the famous “Market Garden” operation towing gliders.
AirVenture 2019 Airshow
EAA AirVenture Oshkosh is an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts held each summer at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, United States. The show is so large that the southern part of the show grounds as well as Camp Scholler are located in the town of Nekimi. The airshow is sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an international organization based in Oshkosh, and is the largest of its kind in the world. The show lasts a week, usually beginning on the last Monday in July. During the gathering, the airport’s control tower is the busiest in the world.
The EAA estimated the attendance in 2019 at over 642,000 – 6.8 percent above 2018’s record total – with 2,714 visitors registered from 87 nations. There were approximately 10,000+ aircraft parked on the airport property, 2,758 show planes including 1,057 home-built aircraft (including a record 592 home-built aircraft campsites), 939 vintage airplanes, 400 warbirds (6 percent increase), 188 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 105 seaplanes (40 percent increase), 62 aerobatic aircraft, and 7 in other categories.
At Wittman alone, there were 16,807 aircraft operations in the 11-day period from July 19-29, which is an average of approximately 127 takeoffs/landings per hour. With many surrounding airports bursting with visiting aircraft as well, the exact number of airplanes arriving for the show is hard to estimate but well over 20,000 is a fair guess.
For 2019, the camping registration was up by double figures as is the general audience attendance.
The campground is on the airport property. There are 5,000 campsites for every kind of camping apparatus imaginable, and many that are well beyond imagination. Another 7,500 tents are set up under the wings of the arriving general aviation airplanes. Some 40,000 to 50,000 people sleep on the airport property every night. This is said to be the largest campgrounds in the world, but just for one week per year.
This was my tenth year attending the AirVenture events. It is the highlight of the year for any aviation fanboy so you enjoy a rich week of fun and fantastic sights, sounds, and sensations. With more than a 1,000 Canadians attending this event, it is easy to run into people or meet up with friends at this event. In fact, I hosted about 35 aviation friends to my motorhome for a beer and ice cream social on the Wednesday of this week-long event. It was a real pleasure to gather and share stories and point out the ‘must see’ displays at the event. It is impossible to see it all in just one week, so sharing tips is a great way to ensure that the highlights are seen.
You need to be prepared to walk at AirVenture. As you can imagine, it is a large property. Buses, trams, and bicycles move people all over the site. But even with the buses it is easy to do 20,000 steps in a day. One friend reported that she did 120,000 steps in just five days and other friend said he completed 250,000 steps over his ten-day adventure at the event. Buses take campers to the local food stores and outlet mall off the property too. So, you are not trapped on the campsite if you do not have a vehicle. I rode my bicycle every day for about 100 km over the five days of the event, and I never left the airport with the bike. With perfect weather in 2019, bicycling was a great form of exercise to add to the walking.
To complement the excitement of aviation, the Rock USA concert was underway during the opening weekend of AirVenture. It is a major hard rock concert event with three stages, over 40 bands, and another 2,500 campsites. The music drifted across the highway during the three nights of the concert for the aviation enthusiasts to hear as well.
If hard rock is not your thing, then the Country USA is an annual five-day festival held in Oshkosh in June that features entertainment from dozens of country music acts. With more that 140,000 in attendance, and perhaps 2,500 campsites, the star-studded country lineup featuring current stars and legends like: Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Alabama, Cole Swindell, Justin Moore, Jon Pardi, Trace Adkins, and so many more!
So, the little town of Oshkosh, is a very happening place in June and July and is definitely a bucket list destination for any campers looking for an experience of a lifetime.
Thunder over Michigan Airshow
This third airshow is a very special event. While larger than the first airshow, but tiny compared to the second show, it is the uniquely themed focus of this event that makes it special.
The Thunder over Michigan (ToM) Airshow, is considered one of America’s leading air shows, was held on August 3rd & 4th, 2019. Held every summer at Willow Run Airport near Detroit, the show features world-class entertainment, unique static displays, and fun for the whole family. The Thunder Over Michigan Air Show has long been regarded as the best “warbird” show in America and was recently selected to join the Grunt Style Air Show Majors, the air show industry’s premier tour showcasing a collection of America’s most prestigious air shows.
What are warbirds? A warbird is any vintage military aircraft now operated by civilian organizations and individuals or, in some instances, by historic arms of military forces. Restored warbirds are a frequent attraction at airshows. Highly modified as well as “stock” warbirds can also frequently be seen at air races, since World War II-era fighters are among the fastest propeller-driven airplanes ever built. Some of the most popular warbirds are the North American P-51 Mustang, the Hawker Sea Fury, the Grumman F8F Bearcat and the North American T-6 Texan.
Depending upon the weather, the ToM show draws about 5,000 to 20,000 per day. So, it is manageable to walk around. However, traffic after the show can be challenging.
These smaller shows offer special seating locations at the flight-line with food and drinks for a reasonable price. As well, ToM has a special deal for early and exclusive access for amateur photographers to walk the flight-line and get unobstructed views of the airplanes before the crowds arrive for the morning and afternoon displays. You can get up close and personal with the airplanes. Some of the larger military airplanes are open for visitors to walk through. Canada is so physically close to this show that it is perhaps 25% to 40% Canadians in attendance. Much to my delight, the Royal Canadian Armed Forces had a Hercules airplane and a military helicopter on display. You can even buy a hot cup of Tim Hortons coffee there. So, it is a quasi Canadian event.
Thunder Over Michigan is home to the world’s largest air and ground battle re-enactment. More than 250 reenactors in authentic military uniforms bring to life the sights, sounds and smells of warfare. With restored vintage aircraft, tanks, half-tracks and other equipment, the performance truly makes history come to life.
What the aviation enthusiasts love about this show in the gathering of important and very rare airplanes. This year, there were eleven (11) F4U Corsairs there and seven (7) P-51 Mustangs in attendance. They all flew in the show. The chance to see these amazing airplanes with their powerful engines roaring to life as they take flight is a spectacle and is truly special. This is one of the largest gatherings of these types of airplanes flying together since WWII.
The Thunder over Michigan Airshow is not too far away from Toronto. A fast 4-hour drive down Highway 401 to Windsor, through the border at the Ambassador Bridge, and then a quick 30-minute drive along Highway I-94 to Ypsilanti and you are there. The Willow Run Airport is the destination. Most people will not have ever heard of the Town of Ypsilanti, but it is a suburb of the Greater Detroit area and is far enough away from the big city to be safe, friendly, and relaxing with many redeeming attributes to warrant a visit. I like this area and with an abundance of nearby restaurants it makes for a great weekend adventure.
Unlike many urban settings that lack campgrounds, Ypsilanti is different. There are many nearby quality campgrounds that are a short drive from the airport. The preferred site is the Wayne County Fairgrounds & RV Park. It is an easy walk or bicycle ride from the entrance to the airshow. Most fairground camping can be pretty rustic, and this one is somewhat better than the average, but it is not a resort. It has 50-amp power and water hook-ups which is great. However, I suggest that you avoid the fairground washrooms. It is for the carnies when the fair is underway, but open to the public when no fair is operating. For me, it is ideal for a one or two nights when I am self sufficient in my motorhome. It is safe and easy to access with side by side camping in drive through sites. Everything that you need is within one mile of the site, restaurants, Walmart, airport, and more.
It is always my habit to pursue adventures in the motorhome and use the journey and the destinations as combined aspects to create something unique and special. I am not one to sit by the pool or bath in the sun. I need to be active and engaged. My passion for camping, aviation, and photography come together to construct an ideal adventure that distracts from a hectic work life and fills the need for a vacation. If you add in music and concerts, it is perfect.
Now that the 2019 adventure is done, I must start dreaming about something exciting for 2020. Where shall I go? What shall I do? What sort of adventure can I conjure up for next summer?
Many photos are graciously provided by fellow photographer, Mr. Ken Mist. All Rights are Reserved by the Photographer,
This trip was undertaken in July and August of 2019. The 2020 airshow season is all but wiped out due to the COVID-19 virus. So, I share this story now so we can live vicariously through our memories of past seasons. Let us all hope for better times ahead in 2021.
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.