Get Stoke

There are few bad days in the airplane—and none at Oshkosh.

homebuilt stoke
A stunning lesson in homebuilt stoke.Ben Younger

I learned to surf in 1996. A friend taught me the basics at Pacific Beach in San Diego. Enthralled by the sport, I would go out every moment I got the opportunity. I did not care what the conditions were like. I’d paddle out in 2-foot chop just as eagerly as 5-foot glass. Snow on the beach in February? No problem. Booties and a hood with a side of mild hypothermia. Paddling out was thrill enough. In fact, when you ask a die-hard surfer how his or her session was on an obviously terrible day, they often will reply dryly, “I got wet.” The subtext is: We are doing the thing we love, nothing else matters. In the surfing world, this is known as stoke.

Somewhere along the way, I lost my stoke. I became jaded as I got better. I developed different criteria (personal minimums) regarding what conditions were worth pulling on a wetsuit. Two-foot chop doesn’t cut it anymore. Getting wet is not enough. I want overhead and offshore. This is a problem.

Visiting Oshkosh, Wisconsin, this year for my inaugural AirVenture experience was a lesson in stoke. The original plan was to pick up my newly restored Beech Bonanza in Colorado and fly to Oshkosh, but the airplane was not ready. Secretly, I felt relieved. For my first flight in six months, I did not feel comfortable flying into the busiest airport on Earth. The new plan was to enjoy the week at the show then go get my airplane afterward.

Within five minutes of arriving at AirVenture, I realized that every description about this event comes up wildly short. AirVenture is like Comic-Con meets Burning Man visiting the set of Top Gun. I didn’t see any psychedelic drugs or shirtless beach volleyball, but the level of stoke was off the charts. I spent those first few hours wandering around the grounds with my mouth so wide open and such an intense expression of shock that a friend asked me if I’d been in a car accident.

I stumbled over to a press tent looking for water and a defibrillator. There, I met individuals from Flying magazine whom, until that week, I had never met face-to-face. I was talking to Lisa DeFrees when an F-22 flew 100 feet over our heads then shot straight up 5,000 feet, as vertical as a Saturn rocket. Now, I have never been to an airshow of any kind. They aren’t really a thing in Brooklyn. Lisa was midsentence, but I stopped listening. I couldn’t help it. I was craning my neck to watch the airplane rip a hole in the atmosphere. She didn’t seem to mind. “First time to Oshkosh?” she asked with a knowing look. Um, yeah.

For the rest of the day, I explored the grounds just trying to get a grasp on the sheer size of the thing. Conclusion? It’s massive; 600,000 people attended this year, and 10,000 GA aircraft flew into Wittman Regional and the surrounding airports. AirVenture is so big, it resurrected a feeling I have not accessed since 1986. My dad took me and my brother to Six Flags. I stared at a map of the amusement park, trying to figure out how we were going to hit every ride in one day. It was tense. It felt important. Geneva Conference important. I was deadly serious about the route. No, we can’t stop for a pretzel. Are you insane?

Over years of attending motorcycle-racing weekends, I have seen my fair share of large motor-home and camping turnouts. But not until AirVenture have I seen an area so massive it required naming temporary streets and creating a transportation system. AirVenture is not merely an event; it is a pop-up city with sanitation, police and fire departments.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

Then, of course, there are the airplanes. I saw everything from a UPS 747 to a single-person VTOL. Airbus to Aviat. Modern to historical. This is a weeklong celebration of all things aviation. A place where mechanical meets magical. I grew up fascinated by military aircraft and was able to stand next to, and even lay hands on, the airplanes I had only seen in a favorite—and clearly influential—hardcover book I received for my 10th birthday. For me, looking online at a photo of an A-10 Thunderbolt is not the same as staring for hours at a finite number of glossy photos in a beloved book with a frayed binding, the photographs smeared with partial fingerprints and chocolate-milk stains. At AirVenture, here I was, putting those same smudges on an actual Warthog.

Blind passion aside, these military airplanes mean something very different to me now than they did back then. It is hard to ignore the destruction of which these machines are capable. Regardless of beauty and technological merit, they are meant to take lives—something the 10-year-old me didn’t have the capacity to understand. I watched a P-51 Mustang, an A-10 Thunderbolt, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning fly right over the field in perfect formation. I consider myself patriotic, but in that moment, I felt something approaching fervor. Interestingly, conflicts of increasing ambiguity define each of these airplanes’ theater of operations. Easy to cheer for the Mustang and its takedown of the Third Reich. Harder to cheer, guilt-free, for the F-35.

Military aircraft make up only a small portion of the airplanes at AirVenture. Name an airplane, and it was probably there in numbers—aside from the only flying Twin-Mustang in the world. Airplanes are all separated by vintage and marque. You like Cessna 195s? Great. They have their own area, labeled with a mock “Route 195” state highway sign. DC-3s? Sure thing. Their neighborhood is just down from the Seabees. But unlike an aviation museum, you can have a lengthy conversation with the owner at Oshkosh. Bonanzas? Everywhere. My people.

EAA is, at its core, an organization founded upon the concept of building one’s own airplane. This speaks to an American tradition in manufacturing I think we would do very well to remember at this moment in time. It’s also where you find the stoke. Everyone you meet wants to talk. I could walk up to any stranger at Oshkosh and start a conversation (try that in Manhattan). I saw Burt Rutan talking to a Long-EZ owner. No press, no cameras. Just two guys chewing it up. I met, observed and admired individuals who have managed to stay as excited as the day I caught my first wave. Pilots and homebuilders that have been doing their thing for 50 years and have lost not one bit of wonder.

I met a man named Frank Koinzer who couldn’t find a backcountry airplane that could carry 3,000 pounds of useful load, burn jet-A, stall at 48 kias and cruise at 160 ktas. So, of course he did the only sensible thing and built one. The Explorer is that airplane, and the man flew this incredibly finished homebuilt tailwheel from Germany to Oshkosh. It’s not nice to compare stoke, but some variety are simply on a different level.

In addition to all the flying machines, there are also lectures and workshops on everything from flying to the Bahamas to TIG welding. I made my first weld, aluminum—wasn’t pretty. But now I know the basics and want more. There are many classes in various locations, but if you are game—and adept at planning Six Flags routes—you can get a pretty decent (and free) education out of your week at AirVenture. At times, things moved decidedly from Top Gun to Mad Max, such as when I saw a fire-belching, jet-powered semi do a 300-mph run on the main runway. Something for everybody.

I stayed in a house with the Epic Aircraft folks. More stoke. A company that began in the homebuilt tradition is about to enter the certified world. Everyone at Epic is an avid aviation aficionado. Most are pilots. We never stopped talking about airplanes; it never got old. They introduced me to another pilot named Mark McGuire who runs a Reno Air Race team. He generously offered me a ride to Greeley, Colorado, in his vintage Cessna Citation, so I could pick up my airplane. Guess what we talked about the whole ride home? Not golf.

Like those first few months of surfing, the week in Oshkosh reminded me that sometimes just getting wet is enough. Writing this in a hotel in downtown Greeley, I am a couple of days away from acting as pilot in command once more. Taking off and flying solo from Colorado to New York will repair whatever jaded part of me is left. I am stoked.