Crowds. Craziness. Music. It’s enough to justify a road trip. I’m not talking Woodstock here, but AirVenture, that surprisingly similar event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. AirVenture’s tunes come not from wailing guitars but from airplane engines – vying like Stratocasters for the crowd’s approval are roaring radials and screaming Merlins. Like Woodstock, there’s a crowd of individualists here, their tents pitched under wings as far as the eye can see. Most people keep their clothes on, but where else can you watch a rocket-powered biplane fly 4,000 feet straight up? No wonder we, the faithful, are drawn each year to this mammoth Oshkosh tent revival, worshipping side-by-side the flying machines that draw us skyward.
The wonder of Oshkosh extends beyond AirVenture itself to the innumerable aerial road trips spawned by the event. ‘Where did you come from? What do you fly?’ For one week a year these questions fuel conversation at Oshkosh and airports all across the country. Devotees from far corners of the continent pile into everything from ultralights to bizjets and migrate toward Mecca.
I myself launch one sweltering morning from amid giant cacti of the Arizona desert. Normally my travels are guided by carefully-structured flight plans, but that seems inappropriate when bound for Oshkosh. This is a spiritual journey, after all, so I make no commitments – just steer toward Wisconsin and wonder where I’ll end up.
Here in the mountains are certain funnels through which light planes must fly. From Phoenix I direct my Flying Carpet eastward toward Glorieta Pass and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Along the way I traverse forests and mountains, cinder cones and lava flows, adobe cities and Albuquerque. Then on my left materializes old Santa Fe, where my buddy Bruce lives. The urge to stop is powerful – I rarely seem him – but the day is young, the skies are clear, and my travelin’ tunes prod me onward. Perhaps on the return trip…
Beyond Las Vegas, mountains become memories and Earth transmutes ever-so-gradually from brown toward green. Featureless barrens stretch unending until perforated by irrigation circles in western Kansas – great lime-hued rings plopped on gingerbread earth. Munching celery from my cooler, I ponder the crops held by those rings, and the lives of the farmers who tend them.
My fuel gauges are bound for empty, plus I’m itchy to get out. I retrieve my sectional chart and… Wow – look at all these airports! To a guy fixated on landing at every Arizona airstrip, this rediscovery is a revelation. Airports are worthy notches on one’s pistol in more isolated country, but here in the Great Plains they lie at every crossroad. Hmmm, there’s a nice one ahead – Garden City, Kansas. What’s there? I’ll stop.
‘Goin’ to Oshkosh?’ queries the tower controller when I report in.
‘Sure am,’ I reply.
Lots of traffic headed that way earlier,’ she says, ‘some unusual planes including a squadron of Chinese Yaks from Arizona.’
‘Those are from my own airport!’ I reply, surprised.
‘I’ve been taking pictures,’ she continues, ‘brought my camera to work with me this morning.’ Under me the huge airfield is empty when I turn downwind, except for one solitary Piper parked on the ramp. (Never did see the pilot.) It’s nearly as hot here as Arizona – disembarking into blistering sunlight, I’m greeted by an older man wearing a seed corn hat.
‘Welcome to Garden City,’ he says with purpose, extending his hand toward mine. ‘My name is Phil.’ I introduce myself, too, and before long find my tanks filled with fuel, my pocket full of candy, and a new friend in this high school science teacher who teaches aviation and works summers at the airport.
I’m making good time – better than planned. But where to, next? I retrieve my cell phone. ‘Dave? It’s Greg. You gonna be around tonight? Thought I might drop in at Ames and meet you for dinner. You’ll be there?’ I’ve never met Dave in person, though we’ve shared many hours on the phone – he’s my former book acquisition editor from Iowa State Press. Rejuvenated by Dave’s welcome, I remount the Flying Carpet and call for clearance.
‘I’ve never been to Oshkosh,’ says the tower controller as I taxi out. ‘What’s it like?’ Briefly I recount past visits before departing her airspace. ‘Have fun,’ she says before handing me off. ‘And stop by Garden City on your way home!’
‘Might just do that,’ I say, meaning it. How can such a quiet place offer such a warm welcome in so few minutes? I trek across Kansas, then southeastern Nebraska near Lincoln. I’ve never been to Lincoln and consider stopping. But Dave’s expecting me.
Crossing the Missouri River into Iowa, I ponder the few bridges for ground-bound travelers and reenter my hazy Midwestern youth. The earth is emerald here, smothered by thick air and a cool blanket of clouds. I’d forgotten the richly manicured creeks and riverbanks marking this part of the country. Have I changed, too? It all seems so different than the untamed landscape of my adopted West. There, civilization is veneer; here it’s one with the earth.
Lower and lower I drift, savoring the friendly ground beneath me. One can’t cruise at 2,000 feet in the West; that’s mostly underground. So many trees! Ames appears ahead in twilight. I land in clammy mist and breathe the dense air. Everything is sticky here – when flying East I always wonder for the first day or two if I’m sick.
Dave greets me at the line shack. ‘Let’s eat light,’ I suggest. ‘Sushi, maybe?’
‘In Ames? You’ve got to be kidding,’ says Dave. ‘For that matter, we’ll be lucky to find anything other than fast food at this time of night.’ We settle for a place at least having ‘cafe’ in its name, and spice the remaining evening with cold beer and warm conversation.
Vapor shrouds Iowa and Wisconsin next morning, slowing progress for VFR pilgrims. But to me as an instrument pilot, the low clouds offer new hope that tiedowns might remain open at my destination. A young Iowa State University engineering student tops my tanks and I’m on my way. Some aviators consider instrument flying unnatural, but for me it’s salt o’ the Earth. Climbing through stratus, I relearn the song sung by Cessna struts in the soup – reassured by such music, I soon cruise on top at 5,000 feet while my VFR friends scurry for openings underneath. En route I peep through a hole at my aviator’s birthplace in Madison, Wisconsin.
Yesterday’s eight-hour marathon makes this final two-hour hop seem short. Hotdogs await me when I touch down at Dodge County Airport in the little town of Juneau, and friendly faces. But a lump fills my throat. Grandpa Buschkopf used to greet me at this airport after I married his granddaughter. We often drove together to Oshkosh, where biplanes kindled tales of barnstormers from his youth. Where’s Grandpa and his old Pontiac? Time has failed to shelter me from the pain of his absence. One can fly most anywhere, I suppose, but not from the past.
Renting a car, I meander between memories and great red barns toward Oshkosh. Though warm friends and fellow pilots await me up the road, there’s also loneliness at such huge gatherings – not like the rich company of sky and clouds escorting my Flying Carpet on this solo pilgrimage across the country. Those happy companions will rejoin me Friday morning, when I depart sunburned and fulfilled on the long journey home.