As they do every year in the days leading up to EAA AirVenture 2019, show organizers were keeping a close eye on the prog charts. After all, “Oshkosh,” the world’s largest aviation celebration, is an almost exclusively VFR event, and weather can be fickle. The forecast for this year looked encouraging, with a frontal system swinging down from the northwest a few days ahead of show opening, promising cool air and clear skies for the week. But Wisconsin weather can deliver a nasty curveball.
The Saturday before opening day—traditionally one of the busiest for early arrivals—lines of much-stronger-than-expected storms associated with the front brought violent winds (a tornado touched down in Appleton, 15 miles north) and heavy downpours. In all, some six inches of rain fell on Saturday, flooding grass aircraft parking areas and campgrounds. Even after the storms passed, arrivals were restricted to aircraft with reservations for hard-surface parking areas and—among the more unusual restrictions for a “lower-48” airport—those equipped with oversize tundra tires.
Despite the resulting slow start to the show, the follow-up weather arrived on schedule and attendance broke records, with approximately 645,000 clicks of the turnstiles—up by 6.8 percent from last year’s record showing. Other pertinent numbers: more than 10,000 aircraft arrived at Wittman Regional Airport and overflow airports in the area. Wittman saw 16,807 operations between July 19-29—an average of approximately 127 takeoffs/landings per hour. Of the visiting aircraft, 2,758 showplanes were on display, including 1,057 homebuilts, 939 vintage aircraft, 400 warbirds, 188 ultralight/light-sport airplanes; 105 seaplanes; 62 aerobatic aircraft; and seven that apparently did not fit into any particular category. That’s Oshkosh for you.
A Resilient Industry
In his show-opening remarks, EAA president and CEO Jack Pelton recounted how EAA took the floods in stride. “We all remember ‘Sloshkosh’ in 2010,” he said, recalling another year of heavy rains. “Just as we did back then, EAA and all the volunteers have responded with that ‘how do we get it done’ attitude.”
Pelton recalled a visit to the camping area, where accommodations typically range from under-wing pup tents to massive luxury motor homes. He said he watched as one of the volunteers “literally dove underneath” one of the swamped megabuck land-yachts to attach a chain to pull it out. Pelton said, “I went to shake the guy’s hand. All he said was, ‘It’s our job to make sure everyone has a good time.’”
Pelton went on to review the lineup of the week’s themes starting with the 50th Anniversary of EAA’s tenure in Oshkosh. Paul Poberezny founded EAA in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, in 1954, but the fly-in now known as AirVenture settled at Wittman Field in Oshkosh in 1970. This year, EAA reached out to aircraft owners who flew in that year and invited them to bring their airplanes back for special recognition. A handful complied. Pelton also said the organization would be honoring Oshkosh’s 50-year volunteers. AirVenture 2019 also paid tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, with astronaut Michael Collins in attendance.
Moving back to more current events, Pelton noted the strong presence of urban mobility technology on the show grounds this year. “Innovation and development in this area will generate advanced technology—a piece that will come very quickly,” he said, adding that even if aspirations for swarms of urban air vehicles ultimately fall short, the technology that the movement generates will nevertheless advance the utility and performance of current light aircraft.
The EAA leader further cited the organization’s contributions toward stoking the supply of future aviation professionals, with scholarships and mentoring programs at the local chapter level. Looking ahead, he suggested that EAA could also help by showing students that there are exciting and rewarding careers in aircraft maintenance and other professions related to things that fly.
And as a Kansas City Chiefs fan living in the midst of Packer-land, he couldn’t resist making a comparison while pointing out that the EAA AirVenture event generates $170 million in positive economic impact for the region. “That’s more than a full season for the Packers,” he said.
Prominent among the milestones being celebrated was the recent 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944--D-day. Three pilots from the famed Tuskegee Airmen, triple-ace Bud Anderson, and some special aircraft were on hand to highlight the event, including one of the prototype P-51 Mustangs tested by the U.S. Army during World War II and the world’s only flying P-82 twin-Mustang.
Arguably most noteworthy was a Douglas C-47 transport named “That’s All Brother,” serial number 42-92847, the very airplane that led the first wave of jump planes carrying American paratroopers on D-day. In an amazing story, C-47 s/n 42-92847 was discovered in storage right at Wittman Airport in 2015.
U.S. Air Force historian Matt Scales was researching Lt. Col. John Donalson, the D-day lead pilot who flew That’s All Brother that morning (the Alabama pilot selected the name to paint on the C-47’s nose as a message to Hitler that the end of the Third Reich was at hand). Scales contacted Basler Turbo Conversions in Oshkosh, a company that retrofits the old transports with turboprop engines, and asked if they might know of the whereabouts of the plane Donalson flew that day. Lo and behold, the derelict airframe was sitting engineless right there on the Basler lot, waiting to be converted.
A veritable army of volunteers from of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), coordinated by the Centex Wing in San Marcos, Texas, and including many from EAA, the staff and management of Basler Turbo Conversion, and multiple other chapters, stepped in to begin a crowdfunded restoration project to return That’s All Brother to the configuration it was in when it flew over Normandy for the 87th Troop Carrier Squadron in 1944, complete with rough brush-painted black and white invasion stripes. The ambitious goal was to complete the restoration in time for the airplane to join 14 other C-47/DC-3s that crossed the Atlantic to join several Europe-based transports for the 75th Anniversary D-day commemorative fly-over in Europe last June 6.
Veteran CAF pilot Doug Rozendaal, who also regularly flies the CAF’s “Red Tail” P-51B to commemorate the Tuskegee Airmen, was at the controls of the painstakingly restored C-47 not only for the D-day commemoration flight, but also for much of the transatlantic ferry flight to get there. Even with all the flying he has done in so many historic aircraft, Rozendaal told AIN that retracing That’s All Brother’s flight path over the beaches at Normandy was the most moving experience of his flying career.
Still freshly processing the memory of his unforgettable trip to Europe, Rozendaal was flying That’s All Brother at AirVenture, one a dozen C-47/DC-3s at the show to help commemorate the bravery of so many young soldiers from three quarters of a century ago.
Industry Looks Ahead
While history plays a giant role in AirVenture every year, innovation is the engine that drives EAA. It’s named the Experimental Aircraft Association for a reason. The annual show is an incubator for new ideas and products that make flying safer, more practical, and yes, more fun.
The show is also the financial epicenter for many of the companies, large and small, that cater to aircraft enthusiasts, owners, pilots, homebuilders, and restorers. As the singular place where so many like-minded aviation enthusiasts gather all at once, AirVenture is one huge candy store, with everything on sale from hard-to-find AN nuts and bolts to complete aircraft—albeit often with “some assembly required.” A number of vendors told AIN that not only were the crowds larger than those of years past, but they had brought their credit cards and weren’t afraid to use them. One speculated that perhaps fears of an impending economic slowdown were motivating people to “buy now, while they have the money.”
To stoke sales, many companies choose AirVenture to launch new products, or to offer “show special” pricing. For example, Aspen Avionics, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, offered an upgrade to synthetic vision to AirVenture customers who bought its newest 2000Max system or MFD1000Max—and $100 cash back on its entry-level E5 unit. A former Boeing engineer, Aspen president and CEO John Uczekaj told AIN this year’s show was one of the busiest he could recall. “And it’s not just foot traffic,” he said.
Uczekaj also discussed how the avionics industry is changing, noting the differences from the consumer electronics industry, where a product life cycle can sometimes be measured in months. Aspen places priority on what he calls “worry-free obsolescence protection,” a growing industry trend, he said. “We focus on providing cost-effective, upgradable avionics that can grow with a pilot’s needs.”
To that end, pilots can “blow off some steam” (a reference to replacing old-style “steam gauges”) by starting with the sub-$5,000 E5 display, which is designed to easily fit in the space left by removing the mechanical gauges. As with all Aspen primary flight displays and multi-function displays, the E5 can be upgraded with more features and performance with software, not requiring removal and re-installation.
Uczekaj noted that Aspen’s new products are better than the original displays, and less expensive. “The new system is $1,000 less than the legacy system,” he said. “Technology is cheaper, and the price should come down.” He also noted that the new systems generate far less heat. Uczekaj said, “One of our customers joked, ‘Are you telling me I can no longer warm my hands on my panel?’”
At EAA AirVenture’s Breakfast with Innovators, Dan Schwinn, founder and CEO of Avidyne, discussed how his company is helping explore autonomous flight. “AI [artificial intelligence], and a full-time, mission-critical data connection between ground and the vehicle; the whole model for how they’re operated depends on full-time access to connectivity.”
Schwinn said Avidyne recently began working with Daedalean AI, a Swiss company developing autonomous flight controls for “electric personal aircraft of the near future.” Daedalean recently mounted sophisticated cameras on an Avidyne Cessna 180, and Schwinn flew multiple approaches to gather data the company will use to create algorithms for teaching an AI system how to pilot an aircraft.
Short of piloting an aircraft, such AI systems “might be useful for the aftermarket as a safety-increasing retrofit” as a pilot’s assistant, for example, recognizing airports in difficult visual conditions. “Autonomy is not black and white,” Schwinn said. “There are all kinds of autonomy functions.”
Garmin announced its latest product, the GNC 355 GPS/comm, described as the navigator portion of its GPS 175 GPS, with a “modern” comm radio added. The new product, which was scheduled to begin shipping last month, is aimed at the sub-6,000-pound aircraft class and provides localizer performance with vertical guidance (LPV) approach capability, wireless connectivity, and voice communications in a standard 6.25-inch by 2-inch size. The GNC 355 sells for $6,995--$7,695 for the European version with additional frequency spacing.
Garmin also announced its GSB 15 USB charging hub, a high-speed charging connection for electronic devices that is available in two sizes, and can be mounted with optional installation kits on the flight deck or in the cabin for passengers. The price is $395.
Garmin also provided updates on several of its other products, including new approvals for its G1000NXi in Cessna 172 and 182 models, as well as the Beech G58 Baron. Garmin also outlined upgrades to its Garmin Pilot mobile app, driven in part by coordination the features from FlightPlan.com, which Garmin recently acquired.
Now part of the Boeing family, ForeFlight was a popular destination for AirVenture visitors wanting to explore its 3D preview feature. Driven in part with imagery from Boeing sibling Jeppesen, the 3D preview enables pilots to call up a destination runway ahead of arrival time and get a detailed view of what the approach will look like from the cockpit. Released earlier in the year, the latest version of ForeFlight Performance Plus also enables detailed fuel load planning and takeoff performance calculations, similar to how a business jet’s flight management system sets limits.
At AirVenture, ForeFlight also announced the latest version of its Sentry ADS-B In receiver. Priced at $299, the Sentry Mini was available for sale at the ForeFlight booth. Important features include a Dual-band ADS-B receiver that displays weather and traffic through the ForeFlight Mobile app; Built-in WAAS GPS that displays GPS position; and Weather Replay, which records an animated radar replay. The Sentry Mini can connect with as many as five devices, and over-the-air firmware updates are available via the ForeFlight Mobile app.
Tyson Weihs, ForeFlight co-founder and CEO, said, “Every pilot should fly with the benefits ADS-B has to offer. With Sentry Mini, ForeFlight customers have access to essential inflight weather, traffic and GPS information in a surprisingly compact device.”
Piper Aircraft CEO Simon Caldecott discussed the advantages of producing training aircraft at a time of great demand. “Boeing forecasts there will be a need for 800,000 new pilots over the next 20 years,” he said, adding that Piper’s “build-to-order” production strategy “is working well.” He said that within the previous two months, the Florida OEM had signed contracts for more than 100 aircraft, including 50 of its Pilot 100 and Pilot 100i (instrument) single-engine trainers.
He noted that Piper has invested $3.5 million in upgrading its production facilities, including adding a new additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) center. Caldecott is clearly enthusiastic about the prospects for improving production through additive manufacturing. “We started in 2009, largely identifying aircraft parts that could be manufactured using AM [additive manufacturing], then working on getting FAA approval.” Holding up a part, he said, “This environmental duct element for the M600 made with AM represents a 94 percent cost saving.” To date, Caldecott said, Piper has identified more than 200 parts that could be manufactured with AM.
The AirVenture clan breeds some of the more interesting niche projects. One example is RDD Enterprises, which came to the show with its LX7 aircraft. The airplane is a conversion of an existing Lancair IVP—a pressurized kit-built four-place airplane. RDD’s David McCrae told AIN, “We had heard from a lot of IV-P owners that they loved their airplane, but would love it a lot more if they could fly approaches at 63 knots instead of 75 knots.”
So the RDD business plan calls for “modifying” already-built and certified Lancair IV-P kitplanes (of which there are about 250 on the FAA register). The goal is less about greater speed and more about refining the design for better efficiency and low-speed handling.
So RDD seeks out “donor” airframes, from which it will then remove both wings and the entire empennage aft of the rear fuselage. It replaces them with a much more sophisticated single-piece wing and redesigned empennage. The wing is a good example of how RDD incorporates “best practices from multiple disciplines” to improve the airplane. The new wing has dual-slotted flaps, a dual-redundant spar, and carries 180 gallons of fuel with an automatic fuel leveling system. Rather than the weeping wing de-icing system on the original IV-P, the LX7 uses a leading edge cuff de-icing system, which retains much greater consistency in the leading edge for improved aerodynamics, particularly at the low-speed end.
“Using precision tooling, our tolerances for the leading edge are within 30 thousandths of an inch, said McCrae, “compared to the plus or minus half an inch for the IV-P.” Multiple other refinements are made to the exterior, systems, and the cabin.
But the big question for any ambitious project like this is always the business plan. RDD’s is modest, calculating that it can subsist on as few as three conversions per year of the 250 existing IV-P airframes, and already has commitments for more than a dozen. Current production capacity is about 10 per year, but that could double without major changes to the facilities, according to McCrae. The cost of the conversion (depending on the condition of the donor airframe) is pegged at $980,000 for the PT-A-powered version; and $830,000 for a 350-hp TSIO-550-powered piston model.
For something completely different, consider the project just completed by Michael Maniatis of Milton, New York. His De Havilland Gipsy Moth was built in England in 1928, serial number 910 for the company that was to go on to build tens of thousands of Tiger Moths, Rapides, Mosquito bombers, and on up Canadian bushplanes and regional turboprops.
The airplane was originally owned by Englishman Gar Wood, a famous high-speed boat racer. “Gar Wood was an innovator and a sportsman,” Maniatis told AIN. “He also invented the garbage truck.” In its lifetime, the airplane found its way to Canada, where it was involved in a fatal accident and sat in storage until Maniatis acquired it from the estate of well-known De Havilland collector Watt Martin in 2014. As it sat on the grounds at AirVenture, NC431 had about six hours logged since restoration.
While there are plenty of later Tiger Moths flying, the early version is much more rare, and for an odd reason. Maniatis explained, “At the beginning of World War II, England conscripted all civilian airplanes for the military. But the Moths weren’t of much use, so one of the things they did was to soak them in gasoline and park them on the perimeters of airfields during the Battle of Britain. German fighter pilots would shoot at the Moths, and leave the camouflaged Spitfires and Hurricanes alone. The Moth is made of wood, and they burned very satisfyingly when hit by machine gun fire.” One wonders how many Luftwaffe strafers flew home thinking they had inflicted much greater carnage than they had, in reality.
Among the innumerable other niche products at AirVenture, consider Wipline, the float manufacturer, which also reported booming sales. Its model 1300 floats are sold out through next year’s production capacity, and its 800-gallon-capacity Fireboss water bomber, based on the Air Tractor agricultural aircraft, has been so busy fighting forest fires, it couldn’t appear at AirVenture.
As this year’s show closed, the famous “airplane ghosts” were left to dot the parking areas—airplane-shaped patches of green grass protected from the shoe traffic that browned all the surrounding turf. With the slow start from the heavy storms, it might have seemed unlikely that the show could best 2018’s record crowds. But like the can-do volunteer spirit that drives the organization, AirVenture attendees did not disappoint.
En Route to OSH
Flying to Oshkosh is on a lot of pilots’ bucket lists, and I’ve flown the VFR arrival procedure many times, but this year I was riding along with AIN contributor James Wynbrandt in his turbocharged Mooney 252 on an IFR flight plan. Our agenda was to leave New Jersey early Saturday morning, hoping to arrive at Wittman Field before some afternoon storms that were expected. We would depart from Caldwell Airport (KCDW), which involved following the strict procedures for exiting the 30-mile outer ring of a Presidential Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR). But with a flight plan on file, it shouldn’t be any problem. We’d just need to be sure not to bust the inner 10-mile zone over Bedminster, or we could expect a fighter escort to the nearest airport.
We saddled up early and were taxiing by 8:30 a.m. Wynbrandt requested a takeoff from the longer Runway 22 rather than the recommended Runway 28 to be extra sure the Mooney would have plenty of pavement. It could be my imagination, but I thought I sensed a bit of unease in the tower controller’s voice, since Runway 22 pointed us directly at the forbidden airspace. But with plenty of mileage to spare, we were westbound and on our way.
All was routine for the next few hours, as we kept an eye on the incoming weather with ForeFlight’s ADS-B display. The red and purple splotches were conveniently standing pat near the western border of Wisconsin and Minnesota, so we kept on at 8,000 feet, crossing Pennsylvania and then Ohio, edging into Canadian airspace for a short while, and into Michigan.
Somewhere over Ohio, ForeFlight’s traffic display showed another target almost directly below us at 6,000 feet. Eavesdropping on the ATC communications and checking the ADS-B data, we could see that the airplane was matching our course and speed almost exactly. It was a good bet he was also headed for Oshkosh, and sure enough, he was. As we got closer to Lake Michigan we started to get a little more concerned about the weather. The frontal storms had started moving eastward, and they were picking up speed.
Now with a few other aircraft on the frequency, we were looking for another plan. The controller was saying the heavy storms had overrun Oshkosh. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just inland from the eastern shore of the lake, was looking like the safe haven of choice, and that’s where we headed. The gust front was visible as Wynbrandt turned onto final, and we were overtaken by the deluge before we could even taxi to the ramp.
After waiting out the heaviest of the weather for about an hour and a half, and talking things over with a weather briefer, it looked like we had a window to get into Oshkosh, a mere 44 nm away. We took off on an IFR flight plan, hoping to get in ahead of the next wave. ATC vectored us for the VOR approach to Runway 27, and between our position and Wittman Regional Airport, we could see an ugly, low-hanging cloud.
As we descended, it was clear that the airport was in sunlight on the other side of the cloud, and at our assigned altitude, we were slipping in just underneath. The ATIS was reporting winds at 21 knots, gusting to 41, but right down the runway. Wynbrandt kept the airspeed up to avoid windshear, and his landing was smooth. Not wanting to park the Mooney on grass, he had already reserved a hard-surface parking spot days before, so we followed the flagmen’s directions and taxied to Basler Flight Service.
After shutdown, the lineman quickly inserted the wheel chocks and when we cracked open the door to a howling breeze, he greeted us with a warm, “Welcome to Oshkosh!”