Flying Into AirVenture: A Carefully Orchestrated Cacophony of Chaos

An already magical event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, can become even more epic when one attends in their very own airplane.

After the chaos of preparation and arrival, settling into your campsite at EAA AirVenture and reflecting on the week ahead is a particularly enjoyable part of the experience. [Courtesy: Jason McDowell]

When it comes to the EAA AirVenture fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I’m a pretty seasoned visitor.

I first attended as a passenger in my flying club’s Cessna 182 in the late 1990s and spent the following several years mooching rides from other club members in various aircraft types. After moving to Wisconsin, I spent many years driving up and camping with friends next to their airplanes. 

I was entirely satisfied with the event regardless of how I got there. I was convinced it couldn’t possibly become any more enjoyable to submerge oneself in aviation history and culture for an entire week in the company of good friends. But in the past few years, I’ve experienced how an already magical event can become even more epic when one attends in their very own airplane.

My very favorite part of flying my plane into AirVenture is a segment of the experience nobody ever seems to talk about.

Understandably, the most notable part of the adventure tends to be the unique arrival procedure in which thousands upon thousands of airplanes funnel their way into the event in a mostly neat and orderly fashion. By referring to landmarks on the ground, practicing good, old-fashioned pilotage, and keeping our eyes outside to spot traffic, we slot into sequence and proceed single file into the world’s greatest aviation celebration. This is the part of the event that everybody documents and shares—but my favorite part is the part that occurs immediately after landing.

After touchdown, specific procedures, frequencies, landmarks, and sequencing immediately become obsolete. In their place, we shift mental gears and begin a set of steps that are primitive yet effective in nature. After the controller instructs us to immediately depart the runway, we obediently lumber off into the lumpy grass and begin scanning for the nearest marshaller. When we spot one, we scramble for a previously prepared handmade sign and hold it high in the window to communicate our desired parking or camping area without speaking a word over the radio.

The marshaller, upon recognizing our desired destination, points and ushers us into the direction that will take us there. We repeat this process with each subsequent marshaller, all while attempting to ignore the sublime distraction of Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engines at takeoff power just a few wingspans away, and we try not to fixate on the magnificent Staggerwing or T-6 breathing down our rudder just behind.

Sometimes, serendipity delivers us from the active runway almost directly to our parking spot with a minimum of taxi time. In other years, the opposite occurs, and we spend the better part of an hour lumbering from one marshaller to the next, working our way toward our unknown parking spot in a distant part of the airfield as the event unfolds around us.

Eventually, we are directed into a quickly filling line of neatly parked airplanes and carefully urge the airplane through more thick grass, slotting into position next to our new neighbors who themselves completed the process only moments before.

Immediately after shutdown, our final marshaller provides a hearty “Welcome to Oshkosh!” and instructs us to tie down our airplane securely without delay. The urgency to do so spills over into our subsequent duties of setting up our campsites, and we madly fling gear and equipment out of their carefully planned organization and out onto the grass that will serve as our home for the following week. 

Surrounded by the sound of tent stakes being pounded into the Wisconsin soil, warbirds flying overhead, and newcomers using 2,400 rpm to power their way into nearby parking spots, we rush to set up our tents, organize our campsites, and monitor the wingtips of yet more newcomers as they taxi past our airplanes with inches to spare. Being the good citizens we are, we then rush to help our new neighbors secure their own airplanes, excitedly exchange friendly greetings, and invite each other over for evening refreshments. 

After this carefully orchestrated cacophony of chaos, my favorite moment of all occurs.

A dawning comprehension takes place in our harried, sleep-deprived, and overtaxed brains, and we realize that all the work—the planning, preparation, flying, and meticulous attention to detail—has all come to an abrupt end. And for the next week, the one and only remaining duty is to kick back and relax beneath the wing of our airplane. No expectations. No responsibilities. Just seven or eight days of beautiful airplanes and legendary friends.

It’s at this moment that I like to grab an icy drink, plop into my comfy camp chair, reflect upon the successful execution of so many individual tasks, and simply take it all in. The energy in the days leading up to the official beginning of the event is palpable. The twinkling landing lights in the distance could be anything from a Ford Trimotor to a Boeing 777 to a C-5 Galaxy to a sleek F-35 fighter. And whatever it is, it’s about to land directly in front of us. We might take note of some dark clouds in the distance and silently bid our incoming friends good luck, hoping everyone makes it in safely.

A bit later, a second realization occurs. We have a decision to make, after all—but it has nothing to do with the monotony of normal life. It’s unrelated to budgets, or home repairs, or expense reports, or annual reviews, or any of the thousands of bland, repetitive tasks that form our never ending pile of typical adult responsibilities.

Instead, we need to decide whether we’ll have a bratwurst or a burger for lunch. And perhaps which direction we should walk first to begin taking in the magic of the greatest aviation celebration in the world. And which beloved knucklehead buddy we should seek out first. For the next week, these sorts of decisions are all that’s expected of us as the weight of everyday life takes flight and contacts departure.

With our troubles behind us and nothing but happiness ahead, we smile to ourselves and wrestle with these pleasant, simple decisions. And more likely than not, we nod off for a bit in the warm Wisconsin sun and soft summer breeze as the scent of jet exhaust and the drone of endlessly approaching airplanes lazily waft over us.

After a long, cold winter, AirVenture is finally here…and so are we.

Jason McDowell is a private pilot and Cessna 170 owner based in Madison, Wisconsin. He enjoys researching obscure aviation history and serves as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. He can be found on Instagram as @cessnateur.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter