Airwork: "It Ain't Just Planes"

It's not just about planes.

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Doug Rozendaal, leader of the Red Tail Project, and pilot Brad Lang, son of a Tuskegee Airman.Lane Wallace

There used to be this guy on late-night television who would promote a home decorating store and would yell, "It ain't just paint!" Wandering around Wittman Field at Oshkosh during AirVenture, I was reminded once again that, for me, the annual gathering "ain't just planes!"

Sure, on display there were more than 2,500 airplanes of all kinds -- homebuilts, vintage aircraft, warbirds, seaplanes, rotorcraft, ultralights and aerobatic airplanes -- and some 10,000 more whose pilots flew in to sample the wares, but, for me, it's the people who make AirVenture the incredible experience that it is. With aviation in common, they're all friends, even though many of them see each other only once a year.

When I stopped to marvel at the restored Red Tail P-51C Mustang, dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen, I was pleased to see Brad Lang beaming proudly as he showed off the airplane in which he had recently been checked out. The airplane serves as a flying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots who performed heroically when they flew bomber escort during World War II. Brad, the son of a Tuskegee Airman, is a pilot for Delta Air Lines when he's not performing aerobatics. Although both Brad and I are alums of Beloit College, it's our passion for aviation that has forged our friendship. The Mustang on display suffered a catastrophic engine failure in 2004 that resulted in the death of Don Hinz, a leader of the Red Tail Project. The wrecked airplane was trucked to Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where a group of volunteers began the five-year, $1 million restoration. The volunteers dedicated themselves to restoring the P-51 to honor Hinz's memory and his dream of using the Mustang to "carry the lessons and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen into every classroom in America." With the restoration of the Mustang complete, the Red Tail Project is focusing on developing a trailer-mounted traveling educational exhibit.

I've known Dr. Brent Blue, a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based board certified physician in family practice and emergency medicine, as the host of the Rubber Chicken Party, a fundraiser for the Young Eagles. The event takes place every year at the North Forty campground. (At this year's gathering, Patty Wagstaff served as a "celebrity" bartender.) But it wasn't until I saw Brent carrying a stuffed dog wearing a transparent contraption over its head that I learned that Brent and Mike Busch, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of AVweb, had founded Aeromedix.com back in 1998. At the time they formed Aeromedix, medical and safety technology (pulse oximeters, CO2 detectors, smoke hoods and anti-motion-sickness devices) were not readily available to pilots and their passengers. With the online Aeromedix and AeromedixRX.com, they are now. The contraption on the dog? Seems Aeromedix.com now has oxygen masks for the family pet.

Looking through the list of aerobatic performers in the daily schedule, I was excited to see that Jim Peitz was performing in the air show. I've known Jim as the owner of Pierre, South Dakota's Capital City Air Carrier, an FBO, air charter and aircraft sales company. Over the years, I've probably stopped at his fixed-base operation more than 50 times, and every time Jim and Brett Hansen, his chief mechanic, took excellent care of me and my Cardinal. In the past I'd seen Jim perform in his Extra 300 but not in the aerobatic Bonanza F-33C he flew at AirVenture this year. He made the Bonanza dance and twirl through his routine, and in its own way it was equally as exciting to watch as the 300. Word is that his wife, Cathy, his critical support manager who keeps things running smoothly, prefers the Bonanza to the Extra 300 when traveling to air shows.

Whenever I see Dr. Ian Blair Fries, a senior aviation medical examiner, I take the opportunity to update him on the AIDS vaccine trial my twin is involved with in Thailand and the latest about my niece at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. When I asked what he was enjoying at AirVenture, he was noncommittal. Later, when I walked by the Daher-Socata display, I discovered that the single-engine turboprop TBM 850 emblazoned with "500th" on its nose and an N-number that ended in MD belonged to Ian and his wife, Susan. The 850, the 500th in the TBM series, replaced a TBM 700 that Ian and Susan previously owned. The new 850 is fitted with Garmin's G1000 all-glass integrated flight deck, including the optional Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT).

A friend gave me a heads-up that there was a painting project under way in the warbird area that she thought would be of interest. It wasn't hard to find Jenna and Allyse Barnowski from Round Lake, Illinois, decorating a tapped-out twin Beech owned by Taigh Ramey of Vintage Aircraft in Stockton, California. A table with paints enticed young people - and not so young people - to express themselves on the aluminum canvas.

In some ways, the most interesting person at AirVenture for me was a distant cousin with whom I share my name. Since he's marginally younger, we call him "Tommy" to try, unsuccessfully, to avoid confusion. Tommy earned a pilot's license nearly 50 years ago in a Piper Cherokee 140 and was making his first pilgrimage to AirVenture with his son, Thomas (called "Toby" in order not to get him confused with the other two Toms), who works for CitationShares. Tommy hitched a ride and camped out for the full AirVenture experience. By the middle of the week, he was circling classifieds in Trade-A-Plane and making phone calls. Next year, he and Toby are hoping to fly their own Cherokee 140 to AirVenture. On second thought, maybe AirVenture is about people and planes.