he other day, I received an email from a new owner who had just purchased his first airplane, a 1964 Cessna 172E. He planned to fly with his 9-year-old son to EAA AirVenture 2023 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It would be their first voyage to the big fly-in, and he had several questions about the ins and outs of experiencing Oshkosh as a new airplane owner.
Presented with such a noble mission, I dropped the time-critical project I had been focusing on and neglected my responsibilities entirely in favor of helping him out by sharing some tips I’ve learned in my own first trips as a new owner. This adventure would likely create lifelong memories for father and son alike, and I wanted to make sure they were great ones. But rather than simply covering tie-downs, sleeping comfort, and personal electronic charging solutions as I did in the past, I focused on some of the less-obvious lessons I learned and observations I made more recently at last year’s AirVenture.
1. Use Your Airplane as Home Base
In all the years I attended Oshkosh prior to airplane ownership, I’d usually hike into the showgrounds with everything I’d need for a full day of fun. Resembling an out-of-shape and badly sunburned Sherpa, I lashed together dozens of pounds of camera equipment, rain gear, water, snacks, and other supplies. My car was parked 2 miles away, after all, and it didn’t make sense to walk back and forth just to stash or retrieve some gear.
Last year, having arrived early with a Cessna 170 that was built in 1953, I managed to weasel my way into an amazingly good spot in the Vintage area. I was in the meadow where you can find the Beech Staggerwings, approximately 50 feet from food and showers and a very short walk to the show center. Accordingly, it was ridiculously easy to pop by the airplane to grab a quick bite to eat, a rain shell, or a fresh change of clothes. It was like having my very own little apartment at the show.
Even with a less exclusive spot in the North or South 40, remember that it’s not necessary to carry everything you expect to need throughout the day. Simply grab the things you anticipate needing for the first part of the day and plan to take a shuttle back to your airplane for a break (and maybe a short nap) later.
2. Bring and Label Extra Airplane Keys
On the final day of the show last year, my heart skipped a beat while packing my things for departure. My airplane key wasn’t hanging on the altimeter knob like usual. A brief search around the cabin was fruitless, and as I gazed out over the thousands of acres of showgrounds, I wondered how long I’d be stranded while I hired a mechanic to install a new mag switch.
Fortunately, I soon discovered that my keys were in the pocket of some shorts that had been tossed into a duffel bag. Because I had been using my airplane as a locker, I tended to walk around with the key in my pocket during the day. All was well, but the incident taught me a valuable lesson.
For little money, you could have an extra key or two made just in case the primary one goes missing, and disaster would be averted. If, like me, you prefer to lock valuables up in the airplane when you’re gone, you could give one to a neighboring camper for safekeeping in case you lose yours.
Additionally, I reflected upon the impossibility of finding a key dropped somewhere on the showgrounds. I grabbed a Sharpie marker and quickly wrote my tail number on my keychain. This way, should the key go missing, it would be far more likely to be identified in lost and found and returned.
3. Turn Your Airplane into a Gathering Spot
Anyone who has attended Oshkosh for more than a few years is familiar with a certain phenomenon. While your first trips tend to be primarily about the airplanes, subsequent ones are increasingly about the people. As I had invited several friends to come and see my 170 and catch up, I knew I’d be hosting some pretty enjoyable sessions of hanging out. And having picked up some ideas from previous years, I decided to make a few changes that would improve the space immensely.
First on the list was a set of solar-powered patio lights strung beneath the wing for some ambiance. I brought a few extra folding chairs and set them up around a lightweight, weatherproof area rug. Finally, I brought along a nice Pelican cooler and a few cases of bottled water that I kept on ice, so my friends could always help themselves to a cold drink, whether I was there or not.
It was a great success, and my airplane became something of a front porch. Friends old and new stopped by regularly to take a load off and catch up. Neighboring airplane owners often strolled by to chat, as well. Anyone could kick back, relax, and visit. It was a great experience.
4. Take Advantage of Storm Shelters
Inevitably, most years at Oshkosh feature at least one night (or day) of strong thunderstorms. As the storm cells approach, they become the talk of the show. Fearing hail damage, airplane owners run out, ravage the city’s inventory of bubble wrap, cardboard, and packing tape, and fortify their airplanes against the approaching meteorological onslaught.
While the concern for our airplanes is entirely understandable, there seems to be little corresponding regard for our own well-being. Faced with the possibility of lightning, potentially lethal wind gusts, and Ercoupes happily cartwheeling across the grounds, many opt to remain in their tents or under their wings, vulnerable to danger.
The more prudent course of action would be to heed the warnings from the EAA and take shelter in its more solid facilities. In the past, it has opened the museum to campers, providing shelter from the storm and doubling as an enjoyable way to spend an hour or two.
5. Pizza Can Save the Day
During AirVenture, fantastic food options abound. Many vendors are local restaurants that specialize in delicious Wisconsin cuisine so thoroughly laden with cholesterol it could likely power large diesel engines. Cheese curds, bratwurst burritos, fish frys…authentic regional fare are well represented, and it’s a good thing EMS is stationed throughout the event.
But what happens if you arrive early before the food vendors are open for business? Or if you become hungry late at night after they all close for the day? If you’re camped out anywhere near an airport perimeter gate, you can simply order a pizza and have it delivered there.
In my case, I spotted a residence directly across from one of the access gates and noted the address. I requested the delivery driver to use that address for reference but to walk the pizza over to the gate across the street, where I’d be waiting. Shortly thereafter, passing the pizza beneath the fence felt satisfyingly sneaky and covert, and the ensuing pizza party beneath my wing with good friends was truly epic.
If you do this, please make a point to tip well. If the pizzerias institute a policy against AirVenture delivery, we all lose.