Flying High 

EAA AirVenture celebrates 50 consecutive years in Oshkosh 

By Sarah Wells & Amelia Compton Wolff

Photography by Jordan Ashwood

Every year for one week, Oshkosh’s Wittman Regional Airport becomes the world’s busiest airport. With more than 19,588 takeoffs and landings throughout the week, the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in draws both local and international aviators and enthusiasts. “It’s a gathering of people and airplanes that you’ll find no place else in the world,” says EAA Director of Communications Dick Knapinski. “People are here enjoying flight and it’s really celebrating just that.” 

This fly-in convention brings many unique facets of aviation all to one place. Plane showings come in all shapes and sizes from the smallest ultra lights to 200-pound flying machines to 747’s. Panel discussions and forums are also available for visitors to attend. Companies like Google and Amazon come to present their technologies. Visitors in the past have included the Navy Blue Angels, Apollo astronauts and comic book writer Stan Lee. 

2019 marks a special year for EAA AirVenture, as it is the 50th consecutive year the event has been hosted in Oshkosh. The organization has grown to 220,000 members from around the world and continues to grow. 

“It’s unique because it’s an organization that is strictly dedicated for recreational aviation in all of its sports,” Knapinski says. “Whether you build, fly, restore, or just simply like flying and aviation, your place is here.” 

A Look Back 

The first Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Fly-In Convention began in September 1953, as a small part of the Milwaukee Air Pageant. This fly-in was attended by a mere 21 airplanes, mostly home built and modified, and less than 150 visitors.  

Six years later, EAA’s fly-in had outgrown the area it used at the Milwaukee airport. The event was moved to the Rockford Municipal Airport in Illinois. More visitor opportunities were created during the event’s time at Rockford based off of the popular aviational interests. These included shows about Warbirds, antiques and aerobatic performers. These were all incorporated in the EAA event for the next 10 years.

Then, once again, the convention moved due to its continuing success. The 21airplanes that attended 16 years earlier had grown to hundreds; and the 150 visitors became tens of thousands. In 1969, the research for a new home began. The airport in Oshkosh was suggested by renowned aviator Steve Wittman, who had been an EAA member since the association was founded in 1953. It was a top candidate for many reasons. First, the acreage surrounding the airport was large enough to handle all of the airplanes, vehicles and tents that inhabited during the convention. Second, there were two long runways which didn’t cross. This allowed for greater traffic flow. Lastly, Oshkosh city officials were eager at the prospect for the economic boost the convention would bring in for the community. Late in 1969, the EAA board said yes to the move to Oshkosh.  

The 1970s and ‘80s brought the convention into national attention. Attendance numbers skyrocketed into six figures as the event became one of the most popular gatherings for sport aviation. EAA’s Fly-In Convention would then be renamed EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 1998. 

The largest site improvement upgrade in the event’s history began after the EAA AirVenture 2008. It was just recently completed in 2018 after many phases of construction. Visitor enhancements and exhibitor-area expansion resulted from the extensive project. These have allowed the fly-in to maintain its world-class status.   

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh continues to grow in numbers and worldwide success. In 2018, the event attracted over 600,000 aviator enthusiasts from 87 countries. Also visiting the event was more than 10,000 aircraft that arrived at Wittman and other airports in east central Wisconsin. 

Aviation’s Family Reunion

Even as AirVenture continues to grow in size and scope, the intimate sense of community has remained intact. For diehard AirVenture devotees, this community is as big a draw as the planes themselves. 

Rick Larsen, EAA’s vice president of communities and member programs, began attending the convention as a child when it was held in Rockford and continued making the pilgrimage with his own family after it relocated to Oshkosh. It was at AirVenture that Larsen’s daughter Erica declared her intentions to one day become a pilot. 

“That desire absolutely came from being in Oshkosh. It came from being exposed to this community that just never wavered,” Larsen says. “From that point forward, she was 100-percent focused.”

Erica made good on her promise and is currently a first officer for Delta Airlines based out of John F. Kennedy International Airport. 

“When I think of the impact that [AirVenture] has, it’s so much about inspiring, encouraging and nurturing, both kids and adults, to look at aviation as something you could go do,” Larsen says. 

Community doesn’t end with the event’s attendees. The week-long fly-in is run successfully by 175 full-time EAA staff members with help from more than 5,000 volunteers. These dedicated volunteers include people who leave homes in other countries or their jobs to make up the tremendous core that supports the event. Some come as early as May in mobile homes to begin helping.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the people. It seals the deal in why you want to be involved in this,” Larsen says. “That group of people who you volunteer with becomes a family. They may not see each other but once a year, but it’s really important. There’s something special about being here.”

That is certainly true for Jim Casper, a four-decade volunteer veteran who leads the group in the North 40 aircraft camping area. Casper volunteers in flightline operations, helping to direct the arriving airplanes once they’ve landed on the grounds. 

Casper has attended every single EAA AirVenture fly-in since the event has been held in Oshkosh and his volunteer job even led to a staff position. After retiring from Leach Company in 2005, Casper began working for EAA as manager of Pioneer Airport located behind the AirVenture Museum. The 1930s-era airport stores EAA’s historic aircraft that aren’t displayed in the main museum.

Casper’s love for the technical side of airplanes has helped him forge many personal relationships, one of the main reasons he’s been volunteering for more than 40 years. 

“EAA is such a person-oriented organization that you make friends easily. You start volunteering and get hooked,” Casper says. “[AirVenture] is a week of festivity celebrating planes, but also celebrating your dozens or hundreds of friends here. You come back for that extended family.”

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2019

This year’s fly-in occurs July 22 through 28. Larsen says visitors can expect to see the 50th anniversary theme spread throughout the event the entire week, from airshows to Theater in the Woods programming. 

“Monday night’s Theater in the Woods will be focused on the anniversary with a long lineup of folks who have stories from the past 50 years,” he says. “We’ll have throwback merchandise available. You’ll see that 50th theme integrated into the airshow as well. We are really looking forward to that.”

EAA has invited the current owners of any of the showplanes that were present at the 1970 EAA fly-in back to Oshkosh this summer. They will be featured in exclusive parking areas on the grounds. As a special thanks to the Oshkosh community, Oshkosh residents will receive free admission on Monday of the fly-in.

Other important anniversaries will also be emphasized, one being the 50th anniversary of the Boeing 747. It is also the 75th anniversary of D-Day, so AirVenture will look back on what airplanes were used in that time. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins and fellow Apollo astronaut Joe Engle will be featured during the evening program at Theater in the Woods on Friday.

EAA’s unique place in aviation history has been impacted by technological advances. “The event will evolve as aviation evolves,” Knapinski says. A popular topic this year is drones. Last year, AirVenture welcomed Great Lakes Drone Company who performed a night show of over 100 drones flying in different formations. They will make a reappearance this year with two shows.

Larsen says AirVenture continues to flourish and grow by encouraging innovation and development that has profound impacts on the aviation industry.

“The event grows in numbers, but it also grows in exhibitors and industries,” he says. “You only have to look back 10 to15 years and you didn’t see Airbus and Boeing that now look at Oshkosh as the place they need to be because it represents the center of the aviation universe. I think that’s a milestone, a big one. One that is a strong now as it’s ever been.”

AirVenture’s Impact

Study shows EAA AirVenture benefits the Fox Cities economy

Numbers are based on the UW-Oshkosh Business Success Center study conducted from the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017 which surveyed hundreds of guests and exhibitors about their spending patterns during the weeklong event. 

  • Overall, EAA AirVenture brings in more than $170 million for the five counties that span the Fox Valley (Winnebago, Fond du Lac, Outagamie, Calumet and Brown). In comparison, Packer games bring in $15 million per game.   
  • Of that amount, $121 million was direct spending, and almost $50 million additional spending for area business.
  • Major benefactors of the economic impact include lodging and camping like those staying in hotels, campgrounds, college dorms and private housing, food, entertainment, clothing/retail and fuel. 
  • The event also benefits Wisconsin as “new money” is brought into the state from the nearly 70 percent of attendees who come from outside of Wisconsin. 
  • EAA AirVenture supported more than 2,000 jobs in the region.
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