Record Number of Aircraft Swarm EAA AirVenture

 - July 26, 2021, 11:15 PM
A record number of visitors attend EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. (Photo: Mark Huber)

First the pandemic. Now the swarm—of aluminum. As of Monday, it looked like EAA AirVenture this year would benefit from a week-long forecast of mostly ideal weather and record attendance of people—and airplanes. In the three days leading up to the show,  an astonishing 7,928 aircraft had flown into Oshkosh for the organization’s 68th fly-in, more than double the 3,500 during the same period in 2019—the last year AirVenture was held due to the worldwide pandemic—and more than 50 percent greater than the record for the three-day period of nearly 5,000 aircraft, Jack Pelton, EAA chairman and CEO, reported. Pelton also said that both airplane and automobile campers were similarly up by dramatic numbers and that exhibitors were at their pre-pandemic level, with more than 800 in attendance. He also said that EAA membership had returned to its pre-pandemic roster of more than 240,000 members. 

“It’s pent-up demand,” Pelton joked, before theorizing that EAA members and AirVenture attendees had used the Covid pandemic to complete kit aircraft or modify existing aircraft, and were eager to show them off at the world’s largest gathering of aircraft and aircraft enthusiasts. Automobile traffic backed up far earlier than usual for the show’s Monday morning opening, a function of the increased attendance and a new traffic and parking layout that Pelton admitted still had a few “kinks” that were being worked out. He said the new parking scheme as well as electronic prepayment and attendee registration were designed to move attendees through the ground’s admission gates faster. Similarly, a new Notam for arriving air traffic was designed with more waypoints to spread out arrivals and lessen the probability of aircraft being put in VFR holds. While all the moves were inspired by the pandemic, in an effort to ameliorate congestion, Pelton said they would become permanent features of the gathering going forward. 

Pelton said the decision to “double down” and hold a largely traditional AirVenture open to the public evolved over the winter and early spring as more Americans were vaccinated and in conjunction with discussions with public officials and health experts. Nevertheless, EAA is still taking a series of covid precautions at this year’s show including spreading out event seating, canceling certain after-hours events, and hiring the firm Jani-King to frequently sanitize pavilions and other facilities on the grounds. 

The 2020 AirVenture—along with many other aviation events—was canceled due to the pandemic. Although a major funding source for EAA, Pelton said the organization remained financially sound via a combination of cost-cutting measures, reserves, and the generosity of its membership. Pelton said EAA in effect had tabletop planning for the cancellation years before in the event of natural disaster or terrorism but had not planned on a pandemic. 

EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski also told AIN that the pandemic closed the EAA museum for four months, that the organization had applied for and received two pandemic payroll protection loans from the federal government, and had seen an uptick in the number of $1,295 lifetime memberships purchased during the pandemic. “Our membership stepped up,” he said. 

Similarly, Pelton said EAA members and other private donors generously funded a major $6.2 million, 30,000-sq-ft expansion of the EAA museum that recently began undergoing construction and will accommodate educational and flight training programs designed to further foster youth interest in aviation. This effort is a natural extension of the EAA’s wildly popular Young Eagles program that has provided airplane rides to more than 2.2 million children. 

Pelton said an issue overhanging this year’s AirVenture is the new FAA policy of requiring aircraft owners or flight instructors to receive an agency letter of deviation authority (LODA) or exemption to give or receive flight instruction for compensation in experimental, primary, or limited category aircraft. EAA opposes the directive, calling it overly burdensome, and Pelton previously criticized it as “a paperwork exercise that does nothing to advance safety.” 

Mark Bury, the FAA’s acting general counsel, was intractable on the issue, Pelton said, adding that the EAA was working with a bipartisan group of members of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to remove the requirement. In a July 21 letter to Pelton and other industry leaders, Bury defended the new policy, writing in part, “It is our position that the LODA process will enhance safety by precisely defining which flight training operations may be conducted legally. Equally important, it will prevent operators from broadly offering their aircraft for joyrides and other similar experiences under the guise of ‘flight training.’”