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O'Hare's Got Nothing on Oshkosh These Days

Wisconsin town has the nation's busiest airport as thousands of fliers flock to annual air show.

August 03, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

OSHKOSH, Wis. — The tents parked next to airplanes and the laundry hanging from propellers and wings tell you one thing right away: This ain't the Paris air show.

But even though it may not have the cachet of Paris or the seriousness of Farnborough, England, the annual Oshkosh fly-in is by far the world's largest aviation expo. About 800,000 people are expected to attend the event, which began last week and ends Monday.

"It's like a pilgrimage for us," said Gene Ryan, a World War II veteran who, with his wife, Francis, flew from Macdoel, Calif., to Oshkosh in their Cessna 172. "This is the place to be if you are an aviation buff. It's the granddaddy of them all."

Like most of the pilgrims, the Ryans are camping next to their flying machine. The row of planes parked at the airport stretches longer than five miles, and, for a few days this month, Oshkosh will be busiest airport in the nation, surpassing Chicago's O'Hare International. In all, more than 12,000 airplanes are expected to fly in for the gathering, some from as far away as South Africa and Argentina.

Organizers expect the biggest crowd this year, the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first powered flight. The event -- almost equal parts air show, convention and country fair -- will include such attractions as vintage biplanes doing barrel rolls to lectures on the latest Federal Aviation Administration rules.

Nearly 1,000 vendors line the "fly market," where pilots and aviation enthusiasts can pick up CD recordings of aircraft engine noises and hard-to-find aircraft parts, like nose gears and cockpit seats.

The show began as a gathering of about 20 experimental aircraft makers in 1951. Sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Assn., its AirVenture Oshkosh now attracts so many pilots and aircraft that the FAA sets aside its usual air traffic control protocols and rigs an elaborate -- albeit low-tech -- scheme to land planes, many of which lack sophisticated navigation gear.

With hundreds of aircraft approaching the airport at a time, a staging area is set up about five miles from Oshkosh over the tiny town of Fisk. There are too many planes in the pattern for FAA controllers to use radar or normal radio call signals. So instead, four controllers park themselves in lawn chairs atop a hill, look through their binoculars and take turns giving instructions to pilots via hand-held radios.

"Red Cessna, follow the yellow Mooney, and rock your wings. Thanks, red Cessna. Piper Cherokee, follow the Cessna ahead and rock your wings," a controller says, in a rapid succession of instructions that doesn't seem to end.

The controllers sometimes juggle nearly 3,000 takeoffs and landings a day. O'Hare, by comparison, averages 2,600 takeoffs and landings daily. On the busiest days, the line of planes headed for Oshkosh can stretch 40 miles, with as many as nine aircraft landing on three runways simultaneously.

"I've been flying for 30 years and I still get white knuckles landing here," Cleatus E. Welch, 67, said, watching fellow pilots descend from the comfort of his lawn chair under the wing of his Cessna 172.

Adding to the challenge is the sheer variety of airships -- slow-moving Piper Cubs, lumbering cargo planes like the Airbus Beluga and lightning-fast F-18 fighter jets. Controllers try to maximize runway capacity by landing jets that need a lot of landing room at the beginning of the airstrips, and smaller planes toward the middle.

"Cessna, go around," a controller in Oshkosh barked over the radio to a pilot who was about to get overrun by a Learjet only about a hundred yards behind it.

Upon landing, pilots are directed to their parking spots by dozens of tarmac attendants who line the runway, reminiscent of what one might find at a concert or a football game. Last week, one pilot whose homebuilt aircraft conked out after landing bolted out of the cockpit and pulled his plane by the propeller to get it out of the way.

Controllers call Oshkosh the "Super Bowl" of air traffic control and vie intensely to be selected.

Those skilled enough to be selected are given highly coveted fluorescent pink polo shirts. Some controllers say the shirt is more like a badge of courage. One recalled trying to help an elderly couple land their tiny Piper Cub at Oshkosh last year.

The aircraft would start to land, then abruptly take off again -- forcing controllers to put the brakes on other planes stacked up in the landing pattern.

After the third time, the controller asked the woman piloting the plane if there was anything he could do help her land.

"Yes.... Tell the [expletive deleted] next to me to shut up," she said over the radio, before making a perfect landing.

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