Gear Up: Oshkosh Through the Eyes of a 4-Year-Old

Through the eyes of the young.

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Out of the mouths of babes, seen through the eyes of a child; you've heard the clichés that describe the cut-to-the-heart-of-the-matter thought process of children. What, I wondered, would Oshkosh be like this year with a youngster in tow? Would a child's needs slow me down or would a child's view take me somewhere I'd never been before? This year I ran the experiment. It turned out that my grandson, Clemens, gave me an entirely new look at AirVenture. He's a happy, cheerful companion and an airplane nut, as you will see.

Getting Ready
Clemens prepared for this outing by watching and rewatching his Oshkosh movie, The Big Airshow. He was particularly impressed with the Concorde, and was disappointed that the supersonic passenger transport wouldn't be in attendance this year. To him the notion of "retirement" is still a foreign concept. Clemens had also been made aware of the Airbus 380's appearance and stated that he was looking forward to reviewing its charms, only to be told that the huge airliner wouldn't be appearing until after he had departed.

Getting There
First he had to get there, so my wife, Cathy, and I flew our Cheyenne to Georgetown, Delaware, to pick up Clemens and his mother. (You didn't think I was going to take a 4-year-old to Oshkosh without his handler, did you?) Armed with a sandwich, a juice carton, his pilot hat and an iPod with Sid the Science Kid videos, Clemens sat patiently in the backseat while his grandfather negotiated with various departure controls and then Washington and, finally, Cleveland Center to get us up to Flight Level 220. This took almost an hour, as Baltimore, Dulles, Philadelphia and other arrivals and departures kept us down low, burning jet-A like there was no tomorrow. The silver lining was that the headwinds only increased as our altitude did, so staying low all that time did speed things up a little. Still, we had at least 35- and up to 45-knot headwinds once ensconced high enough to over-fly much of the summer rain showers that continually popped up along the route.

Clemens came forward to fly right seat for a while. He's a patient and curious aviator, interested in where we were and our flight route. He's a cautious one too, with a strong predisposition to avoid cumulus clouds. The fact I had mistakenly thought Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, was exempt from the STMP (Special Traffic Management Programs) requirements for an IFR reservation was out of his comprehension but not far out of Chicago Center's mind. They announced I had to descend and cancel IFR by the time we were 100 miles out. There was to be no flight following, either. This error on my part ultimately found us whistling along at 230 knots just 4,500 feet above Lake Michigan with our traffic alert system constantly screaming "traffic!" in my ears.

After all the excitement and in the face of a 10-knot crosswind, I dropped the airplane unceremoniously on KFLD's Runway 36. After we shut down, Clemens shouted his customary (and learned from his mother) "Nice landing, Pop," which just made me laugh because we all knew it wasn't.

So What?
Who cares about my grandson with the unusual name and his trip to Oshkosh?

Without sounding too solipsistic, I think we all do. In these moments of economic hardship in general and in commercial aviation, it is centrally important to each of us that the next generation of pilots be learning to trust the sky and their place in it. The EAA's Young Eagles program is built around the concept that those who love and fly airplanes can inspire the young to take their place by giving them a ride.

At the Young Eagles dinner on Thursday night, as a guest of Jim Cooling, I was treated to chatting with a gaggle of wealthy doctors who somehow can afford much more expensive airplanes than I can, seeing Harrison Ford and hearing directly from Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles of US Airways Flight 1549. It was a moving evening, and I came away assured that there are many of us who are interested in passing the throttle to the next generation.

These thoughts generated a special interest in me as I watched this undeniably cute, bright 4-year-old take in his first Oshkosh. Besides, we're related. After a magnificent dinner at the Sunset Supper Club in Fond du Lac, where Clemens enjoyed a Shirley Temple while I enjoyed an adult beverage, we set about planning the next day. These supper clubs, once common in the upper Midwest, are throwbacks to the old days of destination dining, and they are of a piece. The fried cheese curds are good (really).

At the Show
The next morning we drove north to Oshkosh. Clemens shouted, "Hey!" when he spotted a 172 descending to land. His mother told him that if he were to shout every time he saw an airplane, it was going to be a noisy and long day. We parked easily and then waited in line to buy our tickets, donned our wristbands and headed for the airplanes. Cathy had declared that she was springing for a ride in the Ford Tri-Motor, which both pleased and surprised me. Pleased because I'd always wanted a ride, but had been too cheap to go on one; surprised because I hadn't known she had come into money (it cost $55 a head). While we waited for our flight (number 18), we cruised the campgrounds in a golf cart kindly provided by this magazine. There we found a Northwest Airbus pilot from Gig Harbor, Washington, with his strapping son camping under the wing of their Cessna 210 of a certain age (it had wing struts). The weather was cool and a high overcast was developing, just a hint of the gully washers to come. As the week wore on, I wondered again and again about the Washingtonians under the wing. I told Clemens that the first day of the show is a good time to visit the campgrounds, since most folks still have lots of dry, clean clothing left in their baggage compartments. He claims I said the campers get stinky with their bananas, but I think I said that it is hard to stay clean for a week while living under a Bonanza. Lost in translation.

We happened upon an elegant German contingent in a beautiful 2002 King Air C 90 with elaborate high-end tents scattered about the noble fuselage. They had burned who knows how much jet-A to cross the Atlantic with stops in Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Canada, only to find themselves in the Oshkosh grass, drying towels on the props.

A flight of L-39 Albatrosses landed and taxied right in front of us. One pilot responded to Clemens' salute with an exuberant wave. Later, when asked about his favorite part of the whole experience, this gesture from a jet pilot just feet away from us came up tops on Clemens' list. Note to all aviators: Be sure to wave at the little boy holding his ears to ward off the noise of your engines; he will be you someday.

The Ride
The Ford Tri-Motor was a thing to behold. The airplane has lots of movies to its credit; the latest is Public Enemies. Flights consisted of an extended trip around the pattern, out over Lake Winnebago and back to land on 18. That doesn't sound like much, but it was worth every penny. We watched in anticipation as the airplane landed and taxied back to our gathering place, where among the next nine passengers we had been briefed prior to boarding. A succession of air traffic controllers resplendent in their pink shirts were guests in the right seat. After we clamored onto the airplane, Clemens sat across from me with earplugs firmly in place. A tremendous roar and matching vibration signaled our departure. As the runway dropped away I could see a trance overtake the young man's countenance. With his lips slightly parted and an earnest expression on his face, he held onto the window frame with both hands. His expression didn't change as we leveled off. It was immutable as we flew over the seaplane base. It remained constant as we made a tight turn to final, and it registered no alteration as we hit the ground. He was transfixed somewhere else in the sky.

Later, Clemens told me that he liked the Tri-Motor ride because "you could see the seaplanes and you could see everything and there were no clouds."

I don't know how long his memory of those 15 minutes will hold but mine will last until the end.

And so it went. We saw Mustangs and Lightnings, Migs and F-16s, Porta-Johns and funnel cakes. The Canadian 1909 Silver Dart replica was a big hit because it featured so many bicycle parts, like pedals and bicycle tires. Bicycles loom large in Clemens' life.

The Debrief The next day we drove in a rental car to O'Hare, where Cathy boarded United to Boston, Clemens and his mom boarded US Airways to Philadelphia and I headed to Houston on Continental (sadly, my Oskosh trip was interrupted by work). It was aggreed that we all had a great time. Top vote getter among us was touring the campers, but many other sights and sounds were recounted. We saw it all. What I saw was a beginning. A very young man with a professed interest in airplanes, heavy machinery (we saw a cement mixer!) and boats came away with undiminished ardor for things that fly. Are these interests to please his father? His grandfather (me)? I don't know. Are they sustainable? I don't know that, either. We'll see how long it lasts, but I have high hopes that we'll go back to Oshkosh lots of times. As the young sage said about the air show, "They take off to show off."