OSHKOSH, Wisconsin – You don't have to be nuts about planes to make it worth your time to swing by Wisconsin this summer and check out the annual mega air show that is much more than an air show. EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, the world's largest aviation fly-in and annual convention, runs from July 20-26.
Every summer, hundreds of thousands of people converge on Oshkosh, population 66,000, for a weeklong celebration of all things aviation that attracts everyone from hard-core flight enthusiasts to people just curious about things with wings. Count my family in the latter category.
Surrounded by more than 2,600 show planes of all types — ultralights, homebuilts, vintage planes, warbirds, aerobatic craft, hot air balloons, etc. — and with daily air shows, concerts, movies, forums and more, my husband, children and I quickly caught the fervor during a two-day visit.
We helped build a plane. OK, we each pulled one rivet as part of the "One Week Wonder" project. But by the end of the week, there was a small plane flying around with our rivets in the left wing, which we'd autographed with a black Sharpie.
An AirVenture volunteer took photos of each riveter, and quickly emailed the pictures to participants — free of charge. Hear that, Disney?
This year, volunteers will be able to help build aircraft wings that will be shipped to Experimental Aircraft Association chapters around the country, where planes will be assembled.
On a visit to "Warbird Alley," we clambered through one of the last B-17s built for World War II. Nearby, a living history encampment featured vintage tents, equipment and vehicles.
Eager to get up in the air, my kids took a spin over the convention grounds in a vintage Bell 47G helicopter ($49 each).
In the KidVenture hangar, kids can try flight simulators, and volunteers lead young people through hands-on lessons in assembling engines, building wings and more. Even my teenager got into it.
A shuttle bus takes people the 6 miles to the Experimental Aircraft Association's Seaplane Base on Lake Winnebago, where nearly 100 seaplanes gathered last year.
For hours every afternoon, there is an air show that by itself would be worth a visit. There are also two nighttime air shows during the week, with fireworks. In 2014, the Air Force Thunderbirds were the biggest attraction. This year, the big draws will include the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, the first time the latter fighter jet has been at a civilian airshow.
Also on the schedule: nightly outdoor concerts and aviation-themed movies. This year's entertainment includes concerts by Dierks Bentley (an avid pilot) on opening night, and by Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band as the finale to the July 24 salute to veterans. Both concerts are free with admission to the airshow.
What to do during afternoon popup thunderstorms? No problem. We took refuge under the tail of an imposing C-17 cargo plane parked in the middle of everything. This year, there will be a B-52 bomber on display all week. Or you can check out the hangars filled with exhibitors catering to an aviator's every need. There's also an EAA Museum.
For true aviators, there are all sorts of guest speakers and forums on topics like "rigging your own Cessna," ''aluminum gas welding 101," and "dual engine loss in mountains." That last one was a reminder that flying is serious business.
So was the news that a small plane flying in to last year's convention had crash-landed, killing the pilot.
How does little Oshkosh — perhaps best known as headquarters for the OshKosh B'Gosh clothing company — accommodate the half-million-or-so visitors who make the annual pilgrimage to AirVenture? Thousands fly in and set up housekeeping in tents parked next to their planes. Wittman Regional Airport, adjacent to the EAA grounds, becomes the world's busiest airport for the week, with an estimated 20,000 takeoffs and landings.
The fly-in campers turn the convention scene into a kind of instant village. This is a gathering with morning aerobics, church services, a variety of outdoor restaurants, even a daily newspaper.
One of our favorite memories: Welcoming a planeload of veterans who had taken a one-day "honor flight" to Washington D.C. When the veterans returned at sunset, the crowd that had gathered for the evening concert parted ways and cheered heartily as the veterans walked to seats up front.
If You Go...
EAA AIR VENTURE OSHKOSH: July 20-26, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, http://www.eaa.org/en/airventure . Hotel space is limited; consider camping or local university housing. Nearby attractions include the lakes and forests of Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine region, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kmn/ . Daily tickets: adults, $45; ages 6-18, $24. Consider buying a $40 annual EAA membership, which can pay for itself with discounts in admission and on food and other purchases.