Oshkosh Report: EAA AirVenture 2002

 - May 7, 2008, 7:40 AM

There may be some pilots who fly airplanes solely because it’s a soft ride to a bloated paycheck, and they may think EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., is only about little airplanes that “aren’t serious.” But most pilots don’t. Maybe you’re the type who passes time waiting for passengers by peering into obscure hangars looking for airplanes that are a little bit “different;” or strikes up conversations at FBOs with pilots of antiques or warbirds to find out how they fly; or cranes his or her neck to watch a hot-looking kitplane take off. If that sounds like you, stop promising you’ll go to Oshkosh “maybe next year.”

Just do it. You’ll be surprised to find so many pilots you’re used to seeing in ties and epaulets wandering the acres of AirVenture in shorts and baseball caps. If you fly because you love it, but can’t necessarily find the words to explain it, you’ll find more kindred spirits than you could have ever imagined. And you just might turn up some new information that could be relevant to your day job.

Proving that EAA AirVenture is not just about homebuilts, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) expanded its presence at this year’s show. In addition to hosting its traditional forums on member companies’ aircraft, GAMA featured a new exhibit tent this year, highlighting historical innovations by general aviation companies and featuring current technology as well. GAMA also highlighted the industry-sponsored Be A Pilot program at its display and hosted Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for an open discussion on aviation issues. An active general aviation pilot, Sen. Inhofe is considered one of the industry’s strongest advocates in Washington.

Though not yet an eligible GAMA member, Eclipse Aviation had one of the largest presences at EAA AirVenture, complete with a tent display. The pavilion featured a pair of full-size mockups of the in-development Eclipse 500 and regular live demonstrations of friction-stir welding, the new method (to the aviation industry) of joining metal that is expected to be used on production of the airplane. Eclipse chairman and CEO Vern Raburn, an EAA board member and aviation enthusiast from early days, voiced his opinion that EAA and AirVenture represent aviation’s grass roots, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a lack of sophistication.

As evidenced by Eclipse, which got its start at Oshkosh, EAA has become the crucible for new ideas in aviation. Some are wilder and more improbable than others, but the list of aviation firsts that grew out of the homebuilt movement includes composite airframes, cockpit moving-map displays, alternative engines, ballistic recovery parachutes and scores of detailed en- gineering innovations that have slowly found their way into the mainstream. The success of Cirrus Design, with its SR20 and SR22 production aircraft, has come as a direct outgrowth of the homebuilt movement.

Surrounded by enthusiastic Eclipse customers, Raburn was in his element, elaborating on details of the company’s progress toward certification and first deliveries. To date, Eclipse’s challenges still outnumber the accomplishments, but so far, Raburn has a well-thought-out response for nearly every hurdle questioning skeptics can visualize.

Across the display forum from Eclipse, Phil Michel, v-p of marketing for Cessna Aircraft, said he extends Raburn all the best wishes for success. “It’s exciting; and pushing the envelope is good for the whole industry,” he said. Asked what EAA AirVenture meant to Cessna, Michel reflected for a moment and answered, “First, we get to talk to our customers here in a relaxed atmosphere that you just don’t get at more formal events, such as the NBAA Convention. Here at Oshkosh, they’re wearing jeans or shorts and a T-shirt and they’ll stop and talk for half an hour, where at NBAA it’s ‘all business’ and they have limited time.

“Also, of all the shows we attend, Oshkosh is where, by far, we get the most new contacts. New buyers come out of the woodwork. We meet customers here that have never gotten a direct mail contact from us, but walk up and start asking about buying a Citation.”

Fanning the Flame

Former acting FAA Administrator Barry Valentine, now senior v-p of international affairs for GAMA, also reflected on non-pilot attendees who share a latent enthusiasm for aviation that is fanned to a flame at AirVenture. Many of those are in a position to decide to use business aviation for their day-to-day transportation. He said, “Scratch the surface of any company that has a corporate flight department, large or small, and you’re likely to find someone in authority who has taken some flying lessons, or is just turned on by aviation. It’s true that corporate aviation makes sense from a ‘good-business’ dollars-and-cents perspective. But it’s also true that a company is more likely to see that wisdom if someone on the executive board happens to like airplanes. We see them here. Oshkosh helps solidify that connection.”

And EAA hopes to maximize that effect with its proposed “sport pilot certificate.” Under the proposal, a new category of license would be established, aimed at simplifying the process of learning to fly. EAA’s research has shown that most student pilots drop out between first solo and acquiring the private license. According to EAA, the gulf between solo and private pilot certificate has become too wide as the FARs have become more complex to accommodate more complicated aircraft, navigation systems and airspace.

Under the proposed new sport pilot certificate, pilots would be limited to day VFR only, could carry only one passenger and would require an endorsement to fly into controlled airspace or airports. The license is geared toward today’s new generation of simple light airplanes and pilots who choose to fly simply for fun. EAA estimates that the sport pilot certificate would generate thousands of new pilots who don’t currently have the time or money to pursue a private pilot certificate.

By the Numbers
Here’s EAA AirVenture 2001 (aka “Oshkosh”) by the numbers. The show spanned seven days, from July 24 to July 30. More than 750,000 pairs of hips bumped through the turnstiles. Incoming aircraft numbered more than 10,000, including 2,481 registered show airplanes. They were guided by a team of 60 FAA air traffic controllers culled from 160 applicants–all volunteers. They joined a total of more than 4,800 volunteers who worked 250,000 hr (that’s 28-and-a-half person-years) to make it all happen.

The campgrounds saw 40,000 of the Oshkosh faithful sharing shower water and tent space. A total of 740 exhibitors bought booth and/or display space, a standing-room-only sellout. There were 1,819 registered foreign visitors representing 72 countries. Finally, EAA AirVenture 2001 was covered by 780 media representatives, corralled into America’s Dairyland from five continents.

“The statistic I’d really like to see,” said EAA director of communications Dick Knapinski, “is how many cellphone calls were placed this year. But I don’t think there’s any way to get that information.”

It all happens at Wittman Field in Oshkosh, Wis., about equidistant from Milwaukee and Green Bay on the western shore of Lake Winnebago (thought to be the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s fictitious Lake Woebegone). Start walking from the aircraft parking area in the “North Forty” and you’ll wear down roughly 5.5 miles’ worth of shoe leather before you finally get to the Ultralight runway and display area on the airport’s extreme south side (otherwise known as “halfway to Fond du Lac,” the next settlement south along U.S. Route 41).

In between you’ll see areas set aside for regular production aircraft camping (including a Falcon with a tent pitched outside); the Warbird marshalling area; homebuilt showplanes along the main runway display area; the central Aeroshell Square feature-aircraft parking ramp (where you’ll find the only existing Boeing 307 Stratoliner, a replica Vickers Vimy bomber, a pair of B-17s, two ultra-rare North American P-51C “razorback” Mustangs, current military hardware and much more); vintage aircraft area; and finally, the Ultralight/light airplanes.

A little off this well-beaten path  you’ll find the manufacturers’ outdoor marketplace, the Fly-Market, forum tents, merchandise marts, four huge exhibit halls, food vendors and the ubiquitous phalanxes of portable toilets. You can catch a shuttle bus for the short ride to EAA’s Pioneer Airport, a replica of a 1930s grass field, complete with many of the aircraft you would have originally found hangared at such a spot. From there it’s a short walk to the AirVenture Museum, good for a half day’s stroll in air-conditioned comfort.

And what would such a summer camp for junior birdmen be without activities? Besides the annual array of forums on everything from fabric covering to composite repair, there was this year’s “Countdown to Kittyhawk” begun in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in December 1903.

Aviation “Firsts” was the loose theme of this year’s AirVenture, and honorees included the surviving members of the American Volunteer Group “Flying Tigers” from World War II, the pioneering Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of the same period and the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American service pilots to be allowed to fly in combat, also during World War II. They flew single-seat fighters because integrating a 10-man bomber crew was unheard of in 1943. Both P-51C razorback Mustangs on display were painted in the colors of the Tuskegee Airmen’s “Red Tails,” who distinguished themselves by never losing a bomber they escorted into combat over Europe.

Digital Future
The Tuskegee Airmen relied most- ly on sketchy weather forecasts and dead reckoning for their mission preparation. Looking to the future, the hottest buzzwords among avionics providers at Oshkosh this year involved datalinks as integral parts of navigation systems destined to bring real-time weather, traffic and terrain information to the cockpit. AirCell, Blue Sky, Garmin, and Honeywell’s Bendix/King all had new announcements concerning their developing datalink programs.

With communications bandwidth expanding and GPS now an increasingly proven technology for position tracking, the challenge for avionics providers has taken form in four areas. The vital awareness needed in the cockpit involves weather, traffic, terrain and direction of flight. With onboard navigation and terrain databases, GPS can tell the pilot exactly where the airplane is, and then feed that information to the network. Datalink systems, using either ground stations, satellites or both, will soon be able to provide the rest of the picture, and at a cost projected to be affordable to aircraft operators down to the single-engine piston level.

EAA AirVenture 2001 was the venue for another promising first flight. Avidyne Corp., of Lexington, Mass., conducted the first demonstrations of its highway-in-the-sky (HITS) software system. The display format was finalized at AirVenture 2000, and this year saw the first application of the HITS software.

With the Avidyne system, the pilot programs the projected route and then follows an intuitive track presented on the moving-map display in the cockpit. The system is designed to provide easy-to-understand guidance from takeoff to precision landing approach under all conditions–with traffic and significant weather information portrayed on the cockpit display. Avidyne is among the partners defining the avionics package destined for the Eclipse 500 minijet.

All the airplanes at Oshkosh are special (especially the one you came in), although some are more special than others. For instance, there were at least two dozen North American Mustangs flying in the daily aerial displays, but most were the more graceful bubble-canopy P-51D models, which have survived in greater numbers than their earlier, -B/C counterparts (P-51B and -C Mustangs were identical, except that B models were built at North American’s Los Angeles factory and C models were assembled in Dallas.). Kermit Weeks’ polished-aluminum P-51C underwent a painstaking restoration to original condition, including the original mil-spec radio and wooden antenna mast mounted behind the pilot’s armor plating.

The second P-51C, operated by the Confederate Air Force, is painted silver for easier maintenance, and includes a jump seat behind the pilot where the radio and auxiliary fuel tank used to be. Doug Rozendaal flew the CAF Mustang from Minnesota and said, as important as the airplane is, the greatest benefit in restoring it has been drawing attention to the role played by the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. He reported that the -C model flew about 15 kt faster at every power setting than the later-generation bubble-canopy P-51D. But he said the -D’s higher seating position and improved visibility (especially when taxiing)
were well worth the speed penalty.

Devotees of early airliners got a treat at this year’s AirVenture. Besides the usual array of airline-livery DC-3s, this year saw the arrival of the sole surviving Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Ten were built in 1938 and 1939. Based on the B-17 bomber airframe, the Model 307 airliner was the first to offer a pressurized, widebody cabin, the first to use hydraulically boosted controls and the first provisioned for a flight crew of two pilots, a radio operator and an engineer. The Stratoliner on display is owned by the Smithsonian Institution and is destined for the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport.

It sat for years in the Arizona desert, until a group of volunteer Boeing employees lobbied management for the privilege of restoring the aircraft in their spare time. In 1993, the seven-year restoration began in the same building where the Stratoliner was originally built. One of the more difficult challenges involved finding the correct-size tailwheel for the airplane. The antique-memorabilia Internet grapevine finally turned up the scarce 23-in. wheel. It was hanging on a collector’s office wall.

Now painted in Pan American Airways colors, the Stratoliner rolled out of its restoration hangar on June 23 and made its first public appearance at EAA AirVenture 2001.

Other unique aircraft at AirVenture included a rocket-powered Long-Eze, flown at Mojave, Calif., for the first time by ‘round-the-world Voyager pilot Dick Rutan just days before AirVenture and trucked to Oshkosh. Powered by a pair of 400-lb-thrust rocket engines, the EZ-Rocket is meant as a testbed for Xcor Aerospace, a company planning to produce reusable rocket engines. Xcor president Jeff Greason said, “Our long-term goal is to develop commercially operated rocket vehicles. Our primary purpose is to measure and drive down the operating costs of reusable rocket vehicles.” Among Rutan’s goals are to set speed and altitude records once the EZ-Rocket is fully tested and operational.

Another Oshkosh visitor set speed records at the other end of the spectrum–for slow flight. After 37 flying hours and a round of legal wrangling, a replica Vickers Vimy bomber named Silver Queen arrived at Wittman Field from California the day before the official opening of AirVenture 2001. The four-person volunteer crew made the final leg, averaging about 65 ktas, from Topeka, Kan., with a stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to wait out thunderstorms.

Vimy owner Peter McMillen originated the replica project in recognition of the many record flights made in the type, including the first recorded crossing of the Atlantic by British Royal Flying Corps pilots Alcock and Brown. So far, the replica Vimy has recreated record flights from London to Sydney, Australia, in 1994, and London to Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1999. A transatlantic flight is scheduled for June next year, after which the automotive BMW V12-powered Vimy Silver Queen will likely be retired and donated to a museum.

Top Gun Controllers

EAA AirVenture would not be possible without air traffic controllers. At its peak, traffic flies into OSH at the rate of 400 aircraft per hour–more than twice as busy as Chicago O’Hare. To accomplish this, the FAA waives separation rules for single-engine and light-twin traffic, allowing as many as three or even four aircraft to land simultaneously on each of three available runways. For the week of AirVenture, the east taxiway of Runway 18/36 becomes Runway 18L/36R, and can accommodate up to three arrivals at once, with separation of at least 1,500 ft in trail. Vintage taildraggers even use the grass between the runways for takeoffs and landings.

Ninety percent of the traffic funnels into Wittman Field via the VFR arrival procedure. This system has been in practice for many years and works very well. The published FAA notam calls for all aircraft to arrive over the town of Ripon, Wis., some 20 mi to the southwest of Oshkosh. From there, they line up and fly at 90 kt at 1,800 ft (2,300 ft and 120 kt for those who can’t safely maintain 90 kt) along railroad tracks leading to the “Fisk” reporting point, identifiable by flashing strobes. Binocular-equipped controllers in lawn chairs at Fisk call out each successive aircraft by color and/or type and direct it to either of the two arrival runway routes. Those going to Runways 18/36 monitor one frequency; those destined for Runway 9/27 use another. Tower controllers then designate which aircraft should land short, midfield or long. Runway 9/27 has three colored dots representing touchdown aiming points.

After landing, aircraft are instructed to leave the runway onto the grass shoulder and are then directed to parking by a small army of orange-vested flagmen and marshallers riding scooters. Pilots are instructed to display printed signs in the windshield to indicate where they want to park (i.e. antique, classic, homebuilt and so on) or the flagmen hold up signs themselves, such as “Camping?” Under ideal circumstances, pilots should never have to transmit at all, just listen and rock their wings to acknowledge in the air, or give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on the ground.

Throughout the rest of the year, the Wittman Field contract control tower is staffed by five controllers. That number swells to 60 during AirVenture, selected from as many as 160 volunteers from around the Midwest. Besides the tower cab, controllers are also stationed at mobile command centers at strategic spots alongside the runways. The volunteer controllers also staff a temporary tower at Fond du Lac Airport, about 15 mi south of Oshkosh.

Accidents are always a concern, and this year two aircraft crashed on approach to the airport, killing their sole-occupant pilots. News reports of accidents elsewhere in the country involving airplanes en route to AirVenture raise the hackles of EAA management. Responding to questions about such reports, communication director Knapinski asked local television reporters if they questioned management of the Green Bay Packer football team about how many fans died in traffic accidents on their way to a game at Lambeau Field.

Blurring Lines
The line between simple homebuilts and complex kitplanes continues to blur. For instance, Tom Zedaker arrived at AirVenture in his 300-kt, V8-powered Lancair IV-P, an all-composite, pressurized four-place kitplane with a five-blade scimitar propeller. And turbine engines are also making inroads into the kitplane marketplace. Drawing a huge crowd on the flightline this year was the Maverick Air TwinJet, an all-composite four-place, T-tail jet kitplane. Now priced at $695,000 for the deluxe version, the Maverick TwinJet is powered by a pair of military-surplus, converted GE T58 turboshaft engines originally used on CH46 helicopters and rated at 750 lb of thrust each. The prototype has flown some 150 hr and the first customer airplane is expected to fly next month. Five aircraft kits were being built as of AirVenture 2001, and as many as another 10 were sold during the show at a special introductory price of $495,000, not including a deluxe EFIS avionics package and anti-icing (a deal with TKS for its “weeping wing” alcohol system is pending, or the TwinJet may be equipped with conventional boots). The price includes “full builder assistance” at Maverick Air’s Penrose, Colo. factory, according to Bart Bartholomew, the company test pilot. A certified factory-built version of the TwinJet is planned, possibly with Williams or Agilis jet engines. Certification is targeted for 2003.

On the piston-engine developmental front, SMA of France continues to demonstrate that its jet-A-burning SR 305 diesel engine could be the answer to what piston-powered aviation will be like after the demise of 100LL. With 30-percent fewer parts and 30-percent lower operating costs, the SR 305 powered a converted Cessna 182 to AirVenture, burning nine gallons per hour at low altitude. Consumption figures are projected to be 30-percent better at a maximum altitude as high as 25,000 ft, where the turbo-assisted engine is expected to produce 60 percent power. Though the engine is certified in Europe, cooling remains an issue for practical applications. Up to four times the airflow is required compared with a comparable gas engine, leading to concerns over cooling drag. U.S. manufacturers Cirrus and Maule have each ordered 30 of the SMA engines.

Meanwhile, Teledyne Continental Motors announced its Aerosance aftermarket full authority digital engine control (Fadec) system is certified and now available for the 180-hp Lycoming O-360. The retrofittable $6,175 system is said to boost available power by 6 percent and combines electronic fuel injection with optimized ignition for lower pilot workload, as well as greater efficiency. Certification of the system for TCM’s larger six-cylinder engines was expected at press time.

The crowds at EAA AirVenture contain a full range of aviation fans, from those who came to gape during ground-shaking B-1B bomber flybys to seasoned corporate aviation professionals. Stop to chat with someone waiting to buy a bratwurst-and-lemonade lunch and you may find he or she flies a Citation out of St. Louis, or a Hawker out of Houston. Or maybe they just put a deposit on an Eclipse 500 or a King Air. Though you may not have known much of this before you met that person next to you in line, you can be assured of one thing. You both came to AirVenture for the same reason. And you didn’t wait ’til “maybe next year.”