Oshkosh: The Greatest Show on Air

<i> Florman is a Santa Ana free-lance writer</i>

P-51 Mustangs, B-25 Bombers and P-40 Flying Tigers assaulted the runway with bombs exploding into billowing clouds of crimson. As the smoke cleared, the bird-like supersonic Concorde, taxiing along the flight line, waved its beak up and down in greeting to an enthusiastic audience applauding in a standing ovation.

This is not a time warp or science fiction drama, but a slice of air show smack in the middle of farm country, proving there’s more to Oshkosh than B’Gosh jeans.

For one week each summer, Aug. 1 to 8 this year, this Midwestern town hosts the largest convention in the world, the annual Experimental Aircraft Assn. International Fly-In and Sport Aviation Exhibition.

Hundreds of thousands of aerodynamic flight enthusiasts--as many as 200,000 on opening day--set their sights into the wild blue as they pour onto Whittman Air Field (80 miles north of Milwaukee) to watch international aerobatic experts roar into dizzying flips and spirals at the grandest air show this side of Orly, France.

Dazzling Acrobatic Maneuvers

By late afternoon as show time nears, spectators ready themselves in beach chairs or on blankets along the flight line, anticipating the dazzling aerobatic maneuvers of aviation pioneers and champions.

You can see aviators in biplanes dating as early as 1929 skim the runway in double-snap rolls on takeoff, culminating in hammerhead turns and Cuban 8s; planes high overhead falling tail over nose in streams of spiral smoke, pulling out at the last second to soar upward into vertical rolls.

Watch a super-cub land on top of a truck, an upside-down plane cut ribbons stretched across the runway, wing walkers fly upside down, ultra-lights flip and loop, and precision parachutists land on a ribbon target, all epitomizing the freedom of flight.

For gasping, heart-pounding excitement there’s the Christen Eagles, the U.S. award-winning aerobatic team, who shoot across the horizon in apparent head-on collision courses, suddenly rolling 90 degrees, flipping belly to belly then canopy to canopy to pass each other and soar overhead into fleur-de-lis formation.

But the highlight of the daily air shows are the World War II war birds, restored P-51 Mustangs, Grumman Hell Cats, B-29 Flying Superfortresses, Japanese Zeros, Spitfires, P-38 Lightnings, B-25 bombers, B-17 Flying Fortresses, P-40 Flying Tigers with their fear-instilling shark’s teeth nose. They “strafe” the runway in mock combat, re-enacting battles of Europe and the Pacific.

Their performance begins with a thunderous roar as they line up in formation for takeoff. The planes seem to come in waves in D-Day fashion, leading into a crescendo of excitement as they soar upward, raring for combat.

Vicarious Experience

As these historic classic planes zoom by you can vicariously experience narrated battles of Midway, the Coral Sea, Tokyo, Corregidor or the Battle of Britain, replete with an occasional simulation over loudspeaker of the voices of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. The presentation traditionally culminates in the Lost Man formation, honoring the nation’s war dead.

And there are always surprises. Last year the Concorde was the star of the show, strutting its maneuvers at air time, offering 45-minute flights over Canada for $400, and appearing on the field for viewing.

Alongside the Concorde were displayed the experimental home-built planes, the ultra-lights, the war birds and the pride of the Confederate Air Force, Fifi, the massive silver and blue B-29 super fortress.

If you’re a people watcher, there are always astronauts, flight pioneers such as Chuck Yeager, award-winning aerobatic flyers, whimsical strollers in windsock hats and the serious experimental aircraft aficionados.

Not the usual Blue Angel/Thunderbird groupies out for an entertaining Sunday picnic, these flight-line jockeys sit along the runway in beach chairs, watching the sky action with radios pressed against their ears, not unlike baseball fans listening to the sportscaster’s narration. Only they are following the squawks of the control tower directing sky traffic.

And they have plenty to monitor. More than 18,000 planes, in addition to about 1,800 display planes fly in for this “Woodstock of aviators.” According to Paul Poberezny, president and founder of EAA, last year Whittman tower reported 64,416 aircraft movements during this one week, making the tiny field the busiest airport in the world.

There’s even an International Visitors Parade honoring the 1,400 visitors from 80 nations who march onto the grounds with native flags waving in Olympic style.

Lots of Activities

Though show time is slated for 4 p.m. most days, there are lots of activities for “flight widows” and the rest of the family offered on site and in town at this combination “Blue Angel” show, county fair and swap meet.

You can stay at the field and watch the noon “Homebuilt Showcase,” aviators “modeling” their tiny Space Age birds just above the flight line in fly-bys demonstrating the maneuverability of their own creations.

Or you can attend one of the 300 free tent forums and workshops from “How to Win Air Races” and “Cockpit Goodies for Cross-Country Flying” to “Keeping the Flutter Shakes Away,” “Muscle Therapy for Long Flights,” “How to Be a Flight Companion,” “Aerial Photography” and “How to Foster Creativity.”

Browse through the colorful “Fly Market” offering a wide range of buys from aircraft parts and instrumentation to T-shirts, bags of nuts and bolts, kinetic metal dirigible sculptures, windsock hats, propellered peaked hats, jewelry, leather belts, B’Gosh overalls and earplugs.

Nearby is the EAA Aviation Center and Air Museum featuring rare and unusual aircraft tracing the development of aviation from man’s first brief moments in the air to the modern high-tech planes of today. You can experience the thrill of flight through video briefing stations, movies and hands-on exhibits. Admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for seniors, $2 for students 8 to 17, $9 for families. Children under 7 are free. Hours are Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p..

Outside you can wander through the refurbished 1920 airport hangar transported from Cherry Grove, Minn., replete with authentic antique planes.

Oshkosh Transit System runs shuttle buses into town at regular intervals for convention visitors heading for other highlights such as the Oshkosh zoo with its miniature train and Rainbow Park fishing pier, and Menominee Park along Lake Winnebago featuring swimming beaches and a nautical theme park where children can skipper boats.

Visitors can also relive the spirit of the steamboat era aboard the Valley Queen II, the 100-foot paddle-wheel excursion boat that cruises Lake Winnebago and the Fox River.

Activities for Children

Parents with children can participate unencumbered. The EAA runs free supervised activities for children of parents attending the forums and workshops. The YMCA buses youth at no cost to its gym for sports and swimming and also provides a day-care program for children six weeks and over.

At night on the convention site there are talks by astronauts at he Theater-in-the-Woods, campfire sing-alongs and movies.

You can join the ranks of the dedicated and view the pageantry from the grass along the flight line for a $30 yearly membership in EAA, plus an $8 daily admission, $3 for each addition family member over 14. Or you can view from behind the flight line fence (all airborne presentations can easily be seen from there) for $6 for adults, $3 for students 8-17, children free, seniors $3. All admissions include forums, workshops and markets.

Oshkosh is 170 miles north of Chicago, 80 miles north of Milwaukee, 50 miles south of Green Bay on U.S. 41 at the U.S. 44 exit.

If you arrive by seaplane, the EAA is prepared. You can dock at the EAA Seaplane Base south of Oshkosh at Brennand’s Bay on Lake Winnebago.

The city runs a housing hot line for information about sleeping facilities available in private homes. Call (414) 235-3007 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Central time.

Accommodations are offered in dormitories at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, Ripon College (19 miles east), Lawrence University (in Appleton 25 minutes north) and Marian College in Fond du Lac (20 minutes south), starting at $9.50 per person double occupancy. Reservation by mail is required:

U of W-Oshkosh, Gruenhagen Conference Center, Attn: 1986 EAA Housing Reservations, Oshkosh, Wis. 54901; Ripon College, Director of Summer Conferences, Ripon, Wis. 54971; Lawrence University, Jason Downer Commons, 724 E. Alton St., Appleton, Wis. 54911; Marian College, EAA Housing Dept., 45 S. National Ave., Fond du Lac, Wis. 54935.