Impressions of Oshkosh
By Peter Conant - I’m sure many readers are old enough to remember Hunter Thompson and his “gonzo journalism”, best exemplified in his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, where coverage of the Democratic Convention devolved into his own personal experiences of the trip and his difficulties with the minutiae of getting to the convention floor. By way of contrast, my own trip this week to AirVenture 2012 was a truly relaxing and satisfying experience. I drove twenty hours over two days each way from Boston, stopping to see family, cousins, aunts and their growing generations of children. The reason I mention Hunter Thompson though is my realizing that I was driving through my mental sectional chart of what I would have seen had I been flying low and slow along the Erie Canal, around the Great Lakes, over Chicago and on into America’s heartland.
Arriving on Sunday the 22nd, I got to see an Oshkosh in progress. I had no credentials but was successful in sweet-talking my way past the security guards into a parking lot at the base of the tower (“the world’s busiest control tower”) where I picked up my badge and parking pass, after which I had the whole airport to myself. The crowds had not yet arrived and it was fun getting a behind-the-scenes look at how this huge aviation conglomeration gets put together. Most of the static aircraft displays were in place and the sales people more than happy to chat at great length without the interruption of the crowds that would arrive the next day. Cessna Caravans and twins were slowly being trailered into position, the World War II warbirds snarled overhead practicing their formation flights, the afternoon weather turned cool and overcast, and I felt that I’d run away and joined the circus.
This was my third Oshkosh adventure, and the first time I had a four-wheeled vehicle take me there instead of something on three wheels. Walking five miles a day for a month in preparation for spending a great deal of time on my feet was paying off in spades. Food services were assembling their watering holes and I marveled at the sign “bikini bartenders only”: definitely worth checking out in detail later. The IMC Club techno-wizards were putting together and trouble-shooting the electronics in the Welcome Center seminar tent while I took every opportunity to climb inside new airplanes, marvel at the amount of peripheral gear being displayed in the hangars, and talked to everyone who I could find. When you speak aviation and are at Oshkosh, there is nothing you can’t discuss with like-minded addicts that is beneath consideration.
My wife’s cousin Bill and his wife Toni were gracious about putting my up for the night in West Bend, an hour south of Wittman Field. Leaving early Monday morning to drive back up to the show, I was impressed by the signage and orderly flow of traffic five miles out and soon was being directed to Parking Area B, where a roving guide in a golf cart kept up a steady patter: “Remember now, you’re parked in a row of cars directly under the only overhead power line on the field.” My kind of guy.
Manning the IMC Club tent for the morning, I quickly met the young men and women from the Build-a-Plane school in Kentucky, which was sharing our tent provided by GAMA, IMC Clubs’s newest sponsor. The director of GAMA’s department of engineering and manufacturing, (GAMA is the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association) was telling me about a recent study to determine if glass cockpit technology was significantly improving overall pilot safety. A private paint and coatings company from California was looking to expand its market from military aircraft into the general aviation market and wanted an introduction to GAMA. A fascinating discussion with a stockholder in the Moller AirCar led me to believe that personal hover transportation at 35 feet above the pavement was just around the corner. I had an absolutely tremendous time being the dispenser of IMC Club information while listening to exhibitors and pilots from all over the country.
Kestrel Aircraft has recently relocated from the old Brunswick Naval Air Station on the coast of Maine back to Duluth, and we New Englanders are sorry to see it go. But the airplane is such a work of art, filling a niche market which will compete with the TBM Socata 850 and the Pilatus PC-12, that one can’t help but wish this new company well. And across the field was the kit-built Epic, whose design clearly showed the genesis of the Kestrel without the inconvenience of meeting FAA aircraft certification standards. Cirrus was there along with Piper, Beechcraft, Cessna, Aviat and Maule. Mooney was not in evidence this year, nor was Partenavia, now known as Vulcan Air. The Cirrus salespeople spent a half-hour with me, going over built-in oxygen systems for the turbo model, TKS weeping wing and FIKI certification for dealing with ice in the clouds. I was getting my own personal tour.
And then there was the Cub Crafters display out of Yakima, Washington. A cute little Carbon Cub stood on 26 inch tires with a Lycoming 180 horsepower IO-360 and a fixed-pitch propeller. I mentioned to the salespeople that I always had trouble hoisting myself into a Cub or a Husky. But when I approach the Carbon Cub, I saw immediately that someone had solved the problem of access for someone with my freakish height. Settling behind the stick, I was baffled to learn that the engine only drank four to five gallons per hour in cruise. What? My Piper Archer with the identical engine cruised at double that fuel burn for only a thirty percent increase in speed. I now have to find out if the engine is de-rated. The Carbon Cub is sold as an LSA, but I think I remember that there are limits to horsepower, speed and weight to qualify. How does this plane make the cut? “Well, it depends” said the salesman, pointing out that even loaded beyond the regulation 1,320 pounds the Cub will still climb at 1,800 feet per minute. Say again? I have zero time in taildraggers and suddenly wanted to know more. And as if by magic, the New England distributor from Connecticut appeared at my elbow and promised a demo ride later this summer back in Boston.
Faster, more efficient, able to do more with glass navigation, combining flight instrument displays in a single window: this is clearly the wave of the future. However, the siren song of that Carbon Cub kept playing in my mind, seducing me with its simplicity and efficiency. And driving back around Chicago and onto the Indiana and Ohio toll roads, I was somewhere above it all in that rag and tube creation with the side doors open, listening to the purr of the Lycoming, performing wingovers along the lake shore. I love flying fast and high for long distance trips, but now I also find myself wanting the experience of simplicity. Basic attitude flying in a basic airframe has not been part of my resume and I’m not in the market for another airplane, unfortunately. But if I were, it would be in a simple single-engine ragwing taildragger, flying back east over the Catskills of upstate New York, watching from just above the treetops the long shadows of afternoon growing toward the Hudson River. And I did not even know that I was missing this until on the long drive home I started thinking: “You know, you could be flying this route.”