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Oshkosh, my gosh!

Andrew Bates reports on the EAA AirVenture's 2006 airshow, held over 24-30 July

It's an event that is dubbed 'The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration' and every July, for one week only, the hard-working Air Traffic Control staff at this venue can boast that they are housed within the World's busiest control tower. With an estimated ten thousand-plus aircraft movements over seven days, this is certainly not an idle boast. It is an event like no other, remaining unsurpassed in magnitude when compared to any of the multitude of airshows, fly-ins and other aviation exhibitions held annually around the globe. It probably needs no introduction to most enthusiasts; it is, of course, the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture event, held since 1970 at Oshkosh-Wittman Regional Airport in Wisconsin.

After many years of talking about it, during early 2006 your scribe finally convinced the missus that a trip to Oshkosh could easily be combined with a very pleasant touring holiday of Wisconsin and the surrounding areas. In double-quick time, an itinerary was created, taking in a variety of other locations such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis and Des Moines. With the 'boss' now firmly sold on the idea, flights, car hire and accommodation were duly booked and, at last, a burning ambition was soon to be realised.

Single-engined oldies
Multi-engined oldies
Single-engined not-so-oldies
Multi-engined not-so-oldies
A few choppers

As a first time visitor walking through the entrance gate at about 07:00 on a bright, sunny morning, the vista that awaits you is quite daunting. Wittman Airport obviously covers a vast area and to get the full potential from your day, advanced planning is essential. Fortunately, there was a very handy map available, detailing the different themes to be found around the site. For example, home-built aircraft naturally dominated one part of the airfield on the eastern arena adjacent to runway 18/36, whilst warbirds were to be found all parked over on the north side. Utilising this information to the full may save the average visitor a lot of shoe leather.

For the hardened aircraft enthusiast with a passion for anything and everything that flies, a whole week spent at the show would probably be a worthwhile and necessary undertaking, especially if number-crunching is involved! However, from a personal point of view, warbirds and military visitors were the primary interest, so I had allowed a maximum of three days. As it transpired, thanks to the gorgeous weather, two were sufficient on what are usually the busiest show days, Friday and Saturday.

As with most North American shows, there's a distinct lack of barriers around all the static aircraft, so an early start is essential when photography is being considered. At crowd centre is the main public static arena, 'Aeroshell Square', where the majority of modern frontline types could be found. Whilst Oshkosh is indeed famous for the massed ranks of classic and warbird aircraft to be found in attendance, it was a most pleasant surprise to see how well supported the event was by the USAF, along with smaller contributions from the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

Dominating the main arena and greeting all the incoming visitors was a 729th AS AFRC C-17A from March ARB. Nestling just behind this, and most popular with many enthusiasts, the welcome sight of a QF-4E Phantom from the 82nd ATRS, proving that there's still life left in 'Old Smokey'. Equally as attractive were a pair of all black T-38A Talons from the 1st RS/9th RW at Beale AFB, which with both airframes at forty-plus years old, could almost qualify as classics themselves. Another pairing to be found came in the unmistakable shape of two A-10 Thunderbolts from the 131st FS Massachusetts ANG, with a third example from the 118th FS Connecticut ANG.

The roll-call of other USAF types on show was equally as impressive: a 28th BW B-1B Lancer from Ellsworth AFB, an F-15A Eagle from 101st FS Massachusetts ANG, an F-16C Fighting Falcon from 176th FS Wisconsin ANG, and two examples of that diminutive trainer, the T-37B Tweet, one coming from the 89th FTS/80th FTW at Sheppard AFB and the other from the 37th FTS/14th FTW at Columbus AFB. Continuing the training theme, there was a T-6A Texan II on show from the 85th FTS/47th FTW all the way from Laughlin AFB and a T-1A Jayhawk from the 48th FTS/14th FTW, another Columbus resident, whilst a real rarity could be found courtesy of the California ANG with their RC-26B from the 194th FS/144th FW visiting from Fresno-Yosemite IAP.

There was a trio of US Army types on offer and naturally all had been provided by the Wisconsin ARNG. These comprised of a UH-60A Blackhawk from 1-147th AVN, a OH-58A Kiowa from the WI RAID (Reconnaissance and Interdiction Detachment) and a UH-1V Iroquois from 832nd Medical Helicopter Company, demonstrating that there's a still a useful role for the venerable Huey, even after all these years. In stark contrast to the drab olive of the UH-60A there was also a USCG HH-60J Jayhawk from Cape Cod, in customary hi-viz red and white colour scheme. And just to complete the nautical theme, from the US Navy there was a T-6A Texan II from TW-6 along with an F/A-18E Super Hornet from VFA-115.

Whilst the miscellany of modern types was especially welcome, the potential lure of vast quantities of warbirds was the real draw. This was certainly one area that did not disappoint. There were a few dispersed around the main arena in Aeroshell Square with such types as the B-17, B-24, P-51 and F4U rubbing shoulders with some of the 'heavy metal'. However, to get the full effect, a visit to the warbird park on the north side was an absolute must. It's here that the magnitude of Oshkosh really hits home and the realisation that the cameras are about to be worked harder than ever before. It's basically one of those jaw-dropping moments that's hard to avoid as you try to decide where exactly to start.

The prize for the most prolific warbird in attendance at the show would undoubtedly have been awarded to the T-6 Texan/Harvard/SNJ family, with no less than thirty-five examples to be found. Training types are quite popular in the USA, so there were almost just as many T-28 Trojans and T-34 Mentors, all of which, along with all the T-6s, were sporting a variety of (mainly) authentic colour schemes, so it was virtually impossible to get bored of the multiple quantities of each type. Also, it was no surprise to see that the most numerous piston-engined fighter type was the P-51 Mustang, with a very healthy turnout of twenty examples to peruse.

Other famous piston-engined types, ranging in all shapes and sizes, from trainers to bombers to observation aircraft, included one or (usually) multiple examples of the BT-13 Valiant, PT-17 Kaydet, PT-22 Recruit, P-38 Lightning, P-40 Warhawk, F8F Bearcat, TBM-3 Avenger, F4U Corsair, B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, C-45 Expeditor, C-47 Skytrain, C-54 Skymaster, L-4 Grasshopper and L-5 Sentinel, to name but a few. The more 'modern' warbirds were represented by aircraft such as the L-17 Navion, O-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Super Skymaster, HU-16 Albatross, U-3 Blue Canoe, T-41 Mescalero, OV-1 Mohawk and even the AH-1 Huey Cobra.

Not to be outdone by all the props, there was also a very nice selection of civilian-owned and operated ex-military jets on display. Easily the most popular jet was the Aero L39 Albatross, with many examples from various pedigrees (specifically ex Russian/Czech/Romanian/East German machines). This is clearly a popular choice with the jet warbird movement in the US - whilst some wore entirely appropriate Russian style camouflage schemes, others were painted in more flamboyant and, frankly, highly inappropriate colour schemes. However, one common theme was evident, they were all immaculately turned out and clearly well looked after by their respective owners. All the other jets were equally as immaculate and included examples of the Mig-15, Mig-17, Mig-21, G-2A Galeb, F-86 Sabre, CT-133 Silver Star, HA-200 Saeta, FJ-4 Fury and, just to make me feel at home, even a Vampire and a Hunter.

There were further examples of British aircraft design in the shape of two Bulldogs (actually ex-Swedish AF), a Spitfire XVIII, the beautifully restored and maintained Lancaster BX from the Canadian Warplane Heritage (more of which later) and the fabulous sight of no less than three Sea Furies. For me, the Sea Fury was the ultimate in piston-engined technology, so all three airframes were a most welcome sight, none more so than one particular machine; ex-RN T20S WG655 and now on the FAA register as NX20MD.

For all you eagle-eyed Air-Scene UK readers out there the serial number WG655 may well ring a bell from the dim and distant past. This machine was a regular UK airshow participant, flying with the RNHF during the eighties until a disastrous crash landing on 14 July 1990 curtailed its UK flying career. On that fateful day it had just taken off from Yeovilton to perform a flying display at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Unfortunately the engine failed shortly after take-off and the pilot, Lt Cmdr John Beattie, had no choice but to make a wheels-up forced landing in a field near Castle Carey. As it transpired, it would have been a text-book emergency belly-landing had it not been for a clump of trees at the end of the landing run. The aircraft was subsequently torn into three sections but there was no post-crash fire and thankfully the crew of two were able to walk away from the wreckage with just minor injuries. With its flying days effectively over at that time, the last I remember was a rumour that the wreck had been sold for spares in New Zealand so I was absolutely delighted to see it again in such fine form, gleaming in the Wisconsin sunshine.

Kenosha clip

In actual fact, I was privileged to have a sneak preview of this magnificent machine prior to the show at Oshkosh. During our road trip from Chicago to Milwaukee I'd convinced the missus that a quick visit to Kenosha Regional Airport would be necessary so that I could 'bag' the F-84F that had been preserved there for many years. Like many enthusiasts, I can never resist a quick nose around any airfield, as you never know what else might be lurking out on the apron. As we drove past some of the hangars I noticed the unmistakable shape of a P-51 nose poking out from behind one of the airport buildings. After quickly parking the car, I ventured into the adjacent hangar where, to my surprise, I found a full blown hangar party in full swing. Hosted by the Greenhill family, this is an annual ritual whereby they invite family and friends to a pre-Oshkosh get together. The hosts were most charming and friendly and were extremely generous in immediately inviting one very surprised enthusiast and his wife to come and join the party. Better still, full ramp access was granted to allow me to peruse and photograph a small but fascinating selection of classic aircraft, all immaculately restored and maintained.

Apart from the aforementioned P-51D Mustang, there was a Cessna 195, Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3, Grumman JRF-5 Goose and, another Grumman amphibian, a J2F-4 Duck. This particular Duck is famous in the US as it's a genuine Pearl Harbor survivor. It was actually sitting on the ramp on that fateful day in December 1941, but miraculously survived the Japanese onslaught and continues to fly to this day. After gratefully indulging in a very exclusive photo opportunity with these historic machines all eyes turned skyward as the familiar sound of a Bristol Centaurus entered the circuit.

Obviously getting to see a Sea Fury during our visit to Kenosha was the icing on the cake as far as I was concerned. I happily clicked away as this immaculate machine taxied towards the hangar party. It was then that the penny dropped as I caught sight of the serial number for the very first time. WG.6.55? WG655! I could hardly believe my eyes. As far as I knew, it only existed as a box of bits and pieces somewhere in the world, providing spare parts for other airframes and now here it was again, in all its glory, basking in the sun. It was like turning the clock back to July 1989 and the last time I ever saw it at Yeovilton. Like the proverbial Phoenix from the flames, it had risen once more, and after a seventeen-year gap it was really good to see it again.

After an extensive rebuild involving thousands of man-hours and much TLC, both at Kenosha and down at Sanders Aviation at Ione in California, the aircraft returned to the skies on 24 May 2005. Just one year later it was ferried up to the renowned Sky Harbor paint workshop at Goderich in Ontario, Canada to be fully re-painted in its previous RNHF markings. This was duly completed with the final product being rolled out of the hangar on 21 July 2006, a mere two days before we got to see it back at Kenosha. No wonder it looked so pristine! Owner and pilot Chuck Greenhill was a clearly delighted man when he stepped down from the cockpit; "A real thrill to fly, with a lot more power than my Mustang!" He was quite rightly rewarded later that week over at Oshkosh when his Sea Fury was the judges' choice for the 'Preservation Award' for the best preserved fighter. This is not the first time Chuck has attracted the attention of the Oshkosh judges, his P-51 'Geraldine' won the same award at Oshkosh in 2004, just one year after winning 'Reserve Grand Champion' with the same aircraft in 2003. After my own close-up inspection of both aircraft I can certainly say that the awards were most definitely well deserved.

Back at Oshkosh I continued to be astounded by the variety and pedigree of some of the other non-US designs to be found in attendance. For example, there was an ex-French AF Nord 3202, an ex-Romanian AF IAR-323, an ex-Polish AF PZL-104 Wilga, an ex-Italian Army SM.1019 and even a trio of ex-Swiss AF Pilatus P-3s. And naturally the Yak-52 seemed a popular choice with many aviators, just as it also seems to be in the UK.

Taking a break from the warbirds, I took some time to peruse the vast acreage of display space dedicated to the homebuilds and general aviation types. This included an abundance of one of the most prolific and famous light aircraft in the world, the iconic Cessna 172, which was being honoured by the EAA in its fiftieth anniversary year. The first one flew in 1956 and production still continues to this day. From a personal point of view this side of aviation is not of primary interest but I still wanted to experience the impressive sight of so many aircraft, parked row after row, as far as the eye could see. No visitor could fail to be impressed by such a spectacle, which is the very epitome of what Oshkosh is all about.

Just about every aspect of aviation is covered at Oshkosh, from modern to classic, from military to warbird, and there's even scope for float and seaplane owners to attend. Just a short bus ride away from the airfield, nestled in a picturesque cove on the west shore of Lake Winnebago is the EAA AirVenture Seaplane Base. This is where anyone with an interest in water-based aviation is encouraged to take part in the EAA 'Splash-In'. Naturally this is on a much smaller scale than the main EAA event but it has grown in popularity over the years and 2006 saw approximately 130 aircraft splash down to take part. A regular shuttle bus from the airfield enables visitors the opportunity to get over to the lake to take a boat tour around all the moored aircraft. As I wasn't entirely sure that there would be any specific aircraft of interest for me, I sent out Mrs Bates on her first Air-Scene UK assignment. Armed with one of my cameras (with strict instructions not to drop it in the lake) she duly set off and returned some time later to report that the lake was indeed full of 'Cessna and Piper looking thingies'. So although I didn't get to experience this most tranquil of settings for myself, I did at least save some valuable photography time, so thank you my dear!

One other attraction is the EAA AirVenture Museum located over by the western entrance to Wittman RAP. Based around a small airstrip of its own, known as Pioneer Airport, the museum is naturally dominated by a number of general aviation types, as well as quite a few aerobatic and homebuild types. However, there were quite a few gems to be found on display which included an early XP-51 Mustang, a P-38L Lightning, a Spitfire IX, a rare North American P-64 and, much to my surprise, even a Mosquito. The museum is open all year round but with a free shuttle service from the main showground there's no real excuse not to take in a quick visit during the show.

In relation to the size of this event, the actual flying display in the afternoon is quite modest in comparison. Because of all the aircraft movements throughout each day (it is a fly-in after all) there is no scope for any specific displays as such until mid afternoon. At approximately 15:30 each day the fly-in is temporarily halted to allow for a flying programme of approximately two-and-a-half hours duration. For the most part, this was dominated by a succession of dynamic aerobatic displays from a number of renowned pilots whose chosen mount was either the Pitts Special, Extra 300 or Sukhoi 26. However, two specific routines stood out from all the others. Firstly, an exciting formation display from the four T-6 Texans of the AeroShell Team, then came the remarkable aerobatic antics of Gene Soucy in his Grumman G-164. I'd already had the pleasure of seeing his display one year previously up over the border in Saskatoon, so it was a real delight to see him in action again. Basically a noisy big biplane with attitude - great stuff!

After an impressive Navy Heritage flypast of FJ-4 Fury and F4U Corsair flanked by a pair of Super Hornets, the later half of the flying was reserved for the warbirds. With the help of some spectacular pyrotechnics and some forties era vehicles, complete with suitably attired personnel, the audience was taken back to the dark days of the Second World War. One after another, P-51s came in fast and low to strafe the airfield as the ground troops moved in. After a long period marvelling at all the cavorting Mustangs it was time for the heavy bombers to move into the arena - this was the climax to the flying, the heavy bomber salute. A pair of B-25 Mitchells were soon joined in the sky by a pair of B-17s. Shortly afterwards the CAF B-24 'Diamond Lil' took off to join them leaving one more bomber to get airborne. Last but not least, up went the magnificent Lancaster from the CWH. From a personal point of view this was the absolute pinnacle of the display. To be able to see another example of a fully operational Lanc in the air other than our own beloved BBMF machine was a truly magical moment and one that I savoured for as long as possible.

Once the last bomber had landed and the flying display had been concluded, it was back to business as usual as the fly-in then re-commenced. With the gorgeous weather and the last shuttle bus to downtown Oshkosh not due until about 22:30, there was still plenty of time to soak in the evening sun, carry on wandering and take those last photographic opportunities as they arose. Better still, I had it all to come again the following day.

And so, that was Oshkosh and another personal ambition realised. It's fair to say that it far exceeded my expectations and was certainly worthy of its oft-quoted accolade, 'The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration'. It was an experience I certainly won't forget in a hurry and would have no hesitation in recommending to anyone with an interest in aviation. So if you ever get the chance to go, please take heed of the EAA advertising slogan: 'You've just gotta be there!'

With grateful thanks to the Greenhill family and friends for their warm and friendly welcome over at Kenosha Airport and also to Marianne & Rick for their generous hospitality and for making us feel so much at home during our stay in Oshkosh. Also special thanks to my wife Mandy for her small contribution to this article and for all her navigational skills in helping track down all those A-7s, F-86s, T-33s etc, etc, during our three-week tour!

 

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