Oshkosh AirVenture

Photography by Russell Munson Click here to see more photos

All types of aircraft that fly, and the people who fly them, gathered in Wisconsin for the world's greatest aviation event.

For most of the year, it's just a field. Oh, a few airplanes come and go, and a few visitors stop and visit. But for 51 weeks a year, the grass fields surrounding the Oshkosh runways are filled only with memories and expectations-place holders for the people, laughter, life and dreams that, come the last week in July, will materialize out of the haze again like the fabled town of Brigadoon for the brief but boisterous EAA party known as AirVenture.

It is, perhaps, the only gathering where every possible kind of aviation, from the lowest-tech Trike to the highest-tech jet, is welcomed with open arms, like a great big old block party open to any and all casseroles and guests. What's required for entry here, aside from a tolerance for weather, crowds, and non-flush toilets, is simply a passion for living and a willingness to feel young again.

Each year brings different aircraft, developments, and surprises, but Oshkosh is always a place where fantasies run wild and dreams become real. There are so many kinds of eye candy and fantasy dream vehicles overflowing the exhibit halls and display tents, in fact, that the imagination and eyes glaze over after a few sensory-overloaded days. But fantasies sometimes give birth to dreams. And if AirVenture seems a never-ending celebration of childhood, perhaps it's because it offers such joyous, loud and colorful confirmation that anything is possible and that fantasy-dreams really can come true.

At the 1992 show, for example, a few forward-looking entrepreneurs and a NASA engineer named Bruce Holmes began advocating for computerized, glass cockpit displays in small, GA aircraft. At the time, the idea seemed a little far-fetched. But this year, that dream became not just a reality, but the standard for almost every kind of new aircraft being sold. At the same time, the new Sport Pilot certification and Light Sport Aircraft categories took flight, opening the door to simpler airplanes and simpler flying opportunities. Two Australians who dreamed of building a mid-sized, piston utility plane saw their GA-8 Airvan granted FAA certification. Diamond Aircraft Industries introduced a new twin-engine diesel design. Mike Melvill, pilot of Burt Rutan's Ansari X-Prize candidate SpaceShipOne, was honored as the first non-military, non-governmental pilot to win astronaut's wings.

All of those accomplishments were once simply the dreams of men and women who scribbled on notepads and bar napkins in late-night sessions and then poured their time, money, sweat and tears into uncertain ventures in the hopes of turning those imagined ideas into something more tangible.

But AirVenture isn't just about commercial ventures. It also celebrates all the quiet dreams that drive individual pilots to design, build, restore, and fly the vast array of colorful and beloved airplanes that adorn the fields and flight line each year. The planes themselves are beautiful, of course. But it's the stories behind them that contain the real magic.

A retired aeronautical engineer finally got his 1918 Curtiss JN-4H "Jenny" to Oshkosh this year after a 31-year restoration effort. A father and son arrived in a Cessna 152 that the son learned to fly so that the father, whose poor vision had kept him from being a pilot, could finally know the sky. A talented 15-year-old traded his painting of a pilot's plane for a ride in it to Oshkosh-and then spent the show sketching planes along the flight line to help pay for flying lessons. Two 17-year olds, the ink still wet on their private tickets, brought their Luscombes from Colorado, giving Young Eagle rides all along the way in the hopes of getting more young people interested in aviation.

Talk to the people who sit so proudly beside their new or battered sets of wings and you find parents who've brought children, children who've brought parents, couples, lovers, families and friends. And for almost all of them, flying here was both a realization of some kind of dream and a celebration of all the things in life-laughter, adventure, friends, families, dreams, beauty, wonder and flight-that give the journey its meaning and joy.

For most of the year, the fields of Oshkosh may sport only grass and clover. But their enduring magic lies in the fact that for one jubilant week every year, they become something far more than that. They become a place where the dreams of yesterday come true, the dreams of tomorrow are born and, somewhere in the middle, all of us suddenly remember again just how much fun this thing called flying can be. -By Lane Wallace

Homebuilts: Extremely high performance kit planes dominate the show

Photography by Russell Munson Click here to see more photos

The odd thing here at Oshkosh is that no matter how many times you think you've made the round of every single pavilion, booth, alley and stand, someone always comes up to you exclaiming, Did you see the Testosteropter behind Building C? and you have to set out again.

This year saw the continuation of a trend that has been boiling up like some particularly energetic cumulonimbus over the last few years: the trend toward kit airplanes of extremely high performance and correspondingly high price. Short of a short-haul airliner kit-which, to be sure, would not be permitted to carry passengers for hire-I don't see how this trend can be carried much beyond the Epic, a six-seat, 350-knot, carbon-composite machine propelled by one of 78 1,200-hp P&W turboprops rescued from defunct Beech Starships. The kit-quick-build, I trust-sells for 1.2 million dollars; get in line now.

If you have just bought a racing yacht or a ranch in Montana and are momentarily cash-strapped, a more economical alternative may be the Innova 341, a kit that allows you to convert a Cessna 340 twin-preferably a Trade-a-Plane hard case with runout engines and frazzled upholstery-into a single propelled by a 740-hp Walter turbine. I was hard pressed to understand how this conversion, which sounded to me like an STC, could qualify as amateur-built (which would allow it to perform any of the non-commercial operations allowed to "standard aircraft" while freeing it from many of the burdensome obligations); but apparently the categories have undergone a gradual shift in the direction of utter laissez-faire.

Various models from Van's Aircraft have now become such overwhelming favorites among what I think of as "normal" homebuilders that they virtually define the category. A huge amount of Wittman Field's ample acreage is set aside for them. Below their level, however, a thousand flowers are blooming in the new Light Sport Aircraft category, which must be the crowning achievement of EAA lobbying. Defined by various weight, landing speed, configuration and equipment restrictions, these airplanes operate under extremely liberal rules, and I must say that their pilots, flying round and round a grass patch south of the main exhibition area, seemed to be having, and giving, more pleasure than anyone else at the show.

A little single-seat German import, the Twister, stands just outside the LSA category. With the wing planform of a Spitfire, ingenious electrically-retractable landing gear, a Kevlar cockpit and an 80-hp Jabiru (pron. JABeroo, not haBEEroo) engine, it is both beautifully engineered and, among a large number of offerings in and around its class, particularly attractive to look at.

Speaking of names, a promising-looking Swiss rotary calls itself Mistral (meeSTRAHL) after the hot, persistent Mediterranean wind that is said to drive men mad; it flew up from Florida, neatly installed in a Cherokee Arrow by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute. But the Moniker Prize goes to the aero adaptation of the new two-cylinder Harley-Davidson twin-cam engine: Hog-Air. -By Peter Garrison

Photography by Russell Munson

Grumman Wildcat C-5A Galaxy North American P-51D Mustang A Waco with a jet engine mounted under the belly The X-Team Masters of Disaster Super Shockwave jet truck Harrier


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