Gear Up: Oshkosh Magic

Taking an airliner to an airshow.

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Dick Karl

Minimums," says Bob Owsley. The view isn't encouraging. We can see the ground, or more accurately the water, but that's about it. There is no sparkle to the gray surface of Lake Winnebago; it is a mirror of the dark clouds just 100 feet over our heads. Still, this is the most spectacular way to see Oshkosh. You see, I am in the jumpseat of Southwest Airlines' newest 737-700. It is barely a month old and, since this is a Part 91 flight, I can sit just behind Capt. Rob Amsler, the airline's chief pilot in Orlando, Florida.

Southwest was taking a 737 to AirVenture to show off its RNP (required navigation performance) capabilities. AirTran and American had had airplanes there earlier in the week, so most airlines know the value of spending the day at the show. Our flight had 87 passengers, including employees who had won contests, two women from the south side of Chicago who had won the trip on Twitter, and several pilots who had signed up to stand guard over the airplane while on the ground and to conduct tours of the cockpit for what turned out to be a steady stream of curious show goers.

In typical Southwest fashion, the experience started out with a dinner party the night before. We waited in vain for Amsler to show up. He was coming down from Oshkosh to Chicago by Stearman when rain forced a diversion to Kenosha, Wisconsin; he would finish the trip in a rental car. Dinner was an exuberant affair. I met pilots from chief pilots to check airmen and first officers from Dallas, Oakland, Orlando and Chicago bases. There was great expectation about the plan for the next morning: Midway (MDW) to Oshkosh (OSH).

Not to throw cold water on the trip, but the next morning it was raining steadily. MDW was showing 1 sm visibility, 1,300 broken, rain and mist. Capts. Jeff Dickenson, John McPherson, Tony Dorsch (Chicago chief pilot and mastermind of this caper) and I loaded a van with boxes of T-shirts, pins, hats and a tent for display and give-away in Wisconsin. By the time we were finished we were soaked, but it was still exhilarating for me to be down at ramp level at 6 a.m. as Midway came to life and a bevy of airliners fired up, taxied out and lifted off into the murk on revenue flights.

On the jetway there was a party going on. We pushed back on time, and I got to watch a couple of pros at work as they prepared to fly an airliner into an airshow. As the tow bar was disconnected, the airport turned around, causing Bob Owsley to start touching my knee in a reflex motion to retrieve the OPC (onboard performance computer) from its holster under the jumpseat. All our speeds would have to be recomputed for the new runway and wind component. After some furious scratching on the screen, our speeds remained the same: V1 108 knots; Vr 118; V2 125. At least we made the effort.

An airline takeoff at MDW is a thing to behold when you are looking out the front window. Eighty knots comes up quickly, but V1 is a long way off and the airport fence is clearly, very clearly, in view when the rotation begins. All that fades, though, with the deck angle and climb rate that seem outrageous to a small-airplane pilot.

We break out on top into bright sunlight, but there is little time to enjoy the view. Oshkosh is only 136 miles from Midway and we're already computing the landing speeds and entering the ILS 18 into the box. Owsley stows the OPC only to hear that we're now going to get the VOR 27. Prudently, I have learned to pull the OPC out and hand it to him to cut down on the knee fondling.

Gradually, the landmass of Wisconsin comes into view and Owsley spots the airport. It seems that we'll be making a 90-degree left-hand turn and landing on 18R after all. More computer banging ensues, and soon we're banking left at 500 feet - a truly arresting sight from an airliner's cockpit. We have the runway to ourselves; there is no "land short behind the Cherokee" in our landing instructions. A soft landing and a short back-taxi and we are heading right into AeroShell Square, pulling up toward the open belly of a C-5A. You can see right through the airplane. The expert air boss and his crew tow us in, barely clearing the shiny aluminum nose of a B-17 to our left and the snub snout of a yellow DC-3 to our right. For a moment it looks like we'll be hauled right up the ramp into the C-5. We have arrived one minute after our scheduled ETA. Dorsch comes forward and says to the crew, "You are late."

We tumble out into the gray morning. After helping set up the Southwest tent, I wander off to speed-visit AirVenture. First stop is to meet Flying's new editor, Michael Maya Charles. He's a busy guy. Next I stop to talk with Alan Klapmeyer, the famed Cirrus co-founder who has moved on to join Kestrel, a single-engine turboprop manufacturer that is setting up shop in Maine. He says, "Look, I just got here. I can't give you any specs on the airplane, any timetable or any price."

We talk about a redesigned wing; I wish him well and head for the Piper exhibit. I've been thinking about a Meridian.

I meet Isaac Capua of Canada. He lets me crawl into the cockpit of the Meridian all decked out with the Garmin 1000. It is a tight fit, I've got to admit, but once in the saddle, it feels a lot like the Cheyenne I own. I give the TBMs a wide berth. That is the airplane I really lust over, and I can't afford one, and so I keep my distance. It is an aching experience to be close to one and feel so bereft - like driving by an old girlfriend's house.

The sky threatens but doesn't pounce. The overcast keeps the temperature down, making the day just about perfect. I take a Flying magazine golf cart for a tour of the campgrounds with two friends. Though soggy, the campgrounds are not muddy. We pull up to one couple sitting on lawn chairs next to their Commander 114. A cooler sits between them. As we trundle up, I ask, "Are you the folks who ordered two martinis?" The husband wordlessly opens the cooler, hoists two beers in the air with one hand and says, "No, thanks, got 'em right here; we're all set." We lurch off.

Rob Amsler and I star in a Flying video tour of the 737. He is a pro and I am not. You'll have to see for yourself on the website ("Southwest Airlines' Latest Visits Oshkosh," flyingmag.com/videos). At one point we snare a 13-year-old from the crowd and treat him to a special tour. Jeremy is nonplused. He tells us he has arrived from Oklahoma in his Dad's Cessna 172 XP.

"Make sure you say it is an XP," he remonstrates.

I am gifted a jumpseat again for the ride back to Midway. Next to me is an aviation reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Julie Johnsson. C. David Newton will be the captain on this leg. Of course he is known as "Fig." There is a spirited discussion with dispatch. We have 9,300 pounds of jet-A in the tanks and dispatch wants us to have 10,200 pounds. I wonder about the difficulty attendant to getting less than 200 gallons into a 737 at Oshkosh at 5 p.m. It turns out that we can be pushed back on Alpha 2 taxiway, start up, back-taxi and take off on 18. This agreement allows us to recalculate the taxi fuel. Dispatch and the pilots agree that we are good to go. As we are marshaled backward across the runway by big men on little scooters, the captain says, "You look cute on that thing." Over the radio I hear, "You tell anybody that and I will have to kill you."

Only later do I get a glimpse of what's involved in taking an airliner to an airshow. In the paper pack provided for the pilots, I find the complete set of approach charts, the notams package and a special waiver conferred by Wittman Regional Field for an airplane with a gross landing weight of 154,000 pounds to land there. The waiver letter dryly notes: "We had a C-5, an Airbus 380 … "

As we rocket into the air, I do my naïve best to explain what's going on to Johnsson. She is awestruck by the communication between the crew. "How does this work on different airlines where English is a second language?" she asks. Remembering the cockpit tapes of the Swiss Air MD-11 crash at Peggy's Cove, I suggest that in emergencies crews revert to their native language, but Johnsson's question is more subtle. "I mean, what happens when half the crew is American, say, and the other half is Ethiopian?" Good question.

We're cleared down to 4,000 feet and glide down Lake Michigan. Chicago looms out of the mist as if in an Ayn Rand novel. We tool around for the ILS. Vref is 124 knots. If you have ever landed in a commercial carrier at Midway, you know how close to the houses the airplane appears to be. I can tell that the view out the windshield is much more reassuring because you can see the PAPI lights and can feel that this is a standard three-degree glideslope. We are stopped with what appears to be at least 2,000 feet to spare.

A short taxi to a Southwest hangar is next. Since we are arriving from an unsecure TSA environment, the airplane must be inspected before returning to service at a gate. A bus carries us around to the terminal and most of us just stand there, not wanting to say goodbye or have the day end. The two women from the south side of Chicago are almost apoplectic. "I have never been to Wisconsin; it was amazing," says one. "I want to learn to fly," says the other.

Oshkosh magic again.