Unusual Attitudes: My AirVenture Adventure

Large crowds gather at air shows like AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Jim Koepnick

Once upon a time I went to Disney World … well, sort of. A man I knew owned a Piper Cherokee and wanted to fly to Pensacola, Florida, to see the Naval Air Museum. He asked me to go because he didn’t have an instrument rating and I guess he was a little sweet on me. I was otherwise romantically “embroiled,” but I had no plans over that Thanksgiving holiday and said OK if he was cool with a separate-rooms/just-friends relationship.

The flight was fun (well, as fun as flying 700 miles in a Piper Cherokee can be), and the Naval Air Museum was a treasure. The next day we hopped to Cedar Key, a (then) low-key, charming Key West-ish island on the Gulf Coast of northern Florida. My friend was getting a little gnarly about the separate-rooms thing, but after a day or two we were in Orlando, where we rented a car, toured Cape Canaveral and — because he insisted — went to Disney World.

I’m not big on crowds and thought the $25 entrance fee (which has since nearly quadrupled) was outrageous, but there we were. More distressing was the terrifying number of persons under the age of 12. On this sticky hot morning, I found myself in a long line for some “scenic” ride because — OK, because I’m terrified of roller coasters. The slow-moving queue snaked back and forth, embedding us in a sea of large, sweating people with smaller versions cavorting, stepping on my toes, shoving and whining, and alternately being yelled at or ignored by the parents. Two mothers were congratulating themselves on having secured lunch reservations because the park restaurants were full; I was entertaining wicked thoughts about how these ample ladies in shorts would benefit by skipping a few lunches. To put it mildly, I was not having a good time. I took deep breaths, reminding myself, “Chill out, Martha, there are just some things in life you have to endure.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t one of them. I’m outta here.”

Turning to my friend, I demanded the car keys and said, “I’ll pick you up at the front entrance at — you name it — 5 o’clock?”

He spluttered and whined (like those obnoxious kids), but I was adamant and had soon wrested the keys from this rather meek soul. There was an office at the park entrance where I told a nice young man what I thought of Disney World. He said he was sorry and offered to refund the $25. “But I’ll have to escort you out through the entrance gate.” I took him up on the offer but felt like a disgraced guest being ejected for pinching little kids or stealing their snow cones.

So that was my one and only trip to Disney World. I had a splendid afternoon shopping, spent far more than $25, and picked up my friend on cue at 5 o’clock.

The tour was kind of downhill from there, culminating on Thanksgiving Day in St. Augustine when the separate-rooms issue resurfaced. I announced I was going home … via PA28-160 or a Delta jet. He chose the Piper.

But here’s a dreadful truth: I feel the same way about Oshkosh as I do about Disney World. So if you love AirVenture, have faithfully attended for the past 50 years, and spend 12 months in anticipation of the annual migration to Wisconsin in July … maybe you better not read any further.

I’ve made the trip sporadically since the Rockford era with one constant: After arriving in a Pietenpol Air Camper, a Cessna 180, an automobile, motor home, somebody’s DC-3 or riding in a TBM; bunking with four guys in a mobile home, having a motel room or enjoying really plush digs in a rented house (no, I’ve never camped); and working an FAA booth all week, staying over one or two nights or making same-day round trips … I’ve never come back without fervently promising God I won’t do it again.

Yes, I realize this is like preaching gun control at a convention of the NRA (of which I am a proud member).

Each year, as Oshkosh approaches, I have excuses prepared but, mysteriously, every three or four years my brain disengages and I make the trip … like this year.

I flew the 180 from Cincinnati with a friend on Monday morning — a nice flight with a fuel stop at Joliet, Illinois, the Ripon arrival, and instructions to land on 27 at the Wittman Regional Airport. There wasn’t much traffic and we were cleared to land on final, but then the tower waved us off for a B-17 coming in behind. We re-entered the downwind (politely refusing to go back to Ripon) and landed uneventfully. It was there that the fun began. For a half-hour we taxied all over the airport with volunteer flag persons (those not lounging on the ground) waving their arms — some using mysterious, meaningless signals, and many out of my line of sight. The guys on the runway were pros, but others needed a refresher in Marshalling 101. At one point, totally frustrated, I beckoned one to the open door of my airplane and yelled, “If you f------ can't see me, lady, I f------ can’t see you.” (That from a Catholic schoolgirl!)

Although we displayed a “vintage” sign for my 1956 Cessna 180, we ended up in a grass area about as far from civilization as you can get. The wind was strong, and as we tied ’72B in the grass, a big-bellied, orange-vested person in a golf cart drove up and announced, “This grass is a taxiway, so understand you won’t be permitted to return to your airplane without an escort.”

By now my usual, abnormally low blood pressure had risen to record heights and I said, “You wanna bet? If I need to get to my airplane, fella, I damned well will.”

Getting fuel at Oshkosh has always been a challenge, so I was relieved to see a Basler truck cruising nearby, but, despite my pleas, they refused to fuel the 180.

Disgustedly, we gave up and began a long trek to a concession near the ultralight area where we’d meet friends. My friend bought a small plastic container of something advertised as chicken salad (with no visible chicken), and I had a Diet Coke. The tab was $14.

Our friends said we could stay in their suite at the college dorm, another had a spare bed in his motel room, or I could bunk with wives in the Garden Inn. But first we’d have to get ourselves to registration to pay for wristbands, then sign in at the fuel place for a tag to hang on the prop (which I knew from experience doesn’t work), and then I could pick up media credentials somewhere. Next, they launched into a detailed description of red, green and yellow shuttle buses we could take around the grounds and where to meet them for the dorm bus that evening.

To my friend, “Whaddya thinking?”

“That we should get out of here.”

“Me too. Let’s go.”

Time was short with the airshow beginning in a half-hour, so leaving our friends rather glassy-eyed, we took off for the 180. We made it only because I managed to flag down a golf cart, tearfully explaining that we had a family emergency. I just learned that my husband had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.

OK, on the flight home I admit feeling both relief at having escaped and guilt at bailing out on an event as sacrosanct to pilots as an audience with Pope Francis is to Catholics. But before you cancel your subscription or compose a scathing letter to the editor, understand this is “pure Martha” and not the opinion of Flying magazine.

I guess I understand if you have friends you hook up with every year, if you like the forums and seeing all the “new” stuff, if you love fly-bys and airshows, or if you’re part of the rarified warbird or aerobatics crowd. But for me, the necessary organization, regimentation and cost of a huge Oshkosh event simply doesn’t work.

I’m not much of a hero worshiper. For me, flying is about freedom — my freedom and yours flying an old Cessna 172 or a new Cirrus. However, Antiques and Classics gussied up like painted ladies; the newest personal or corporate jets; restored airliners and (albeit iconic) military machines; weird sport pilot designs; 50-ship RV formations; bumps and grinds in Pitts or Sukhois; hairy-chested (real or transplanted), flight-suited guys in P-51s, Corsairs, B-25s and (God help us) Yaks; even the “real” military teams … they’re just not my thing.

So there’s my shortest and last Oshkosh venture. A doctor friend promises that if I mention going next year he’ll kick me firmly in the butt and/or administer some mind-altering drug!

Just remember, I’ve never claimed to be “normal.”

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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