I Joined 650,000 People At The Humongous Oshkosh Air Show. Here Are The Wildest Airplanes I Saw

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Over the weekend I finally achieved a dream that I’ve had for years: I attended EAA AirVenture. This year was the biggest yet for the festival, and it’s easy to see why. The event is so infectious that you’ll walk until your feet are sore just to see another plane. It’s so fun you don’t even need to like planes to enjoy it, either. 

I’m going to highlight specific planes in future posts. This one is about how awesome the event itself is.

On Friday morning, my fiancée, Sheryl, and I departed our tiny apartment bound for Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Waiting for us was the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 69th annual fly-in, AirVenture. But this isn’t just a bunch of pilots meeting up, it’s more than a week of some of the coolest planes in the world converging onto a little patch of Wisconsin for an absolutely massive festival. AirVenture is one of the largest plane gatherings in the world, and for the week of the event the air traffic control tower at Wittman Regional Airport claims the title of the World’s Busiest Control Tower.

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EAA

The people in that tower have a ton on their plate. Throughout the event there are constant arrivals and departures (sometimes flights of a couple of dozen or more planes together), helicopters buzzing the grounds, ultralights circling camp, air show performers, and more. And keep in mind that these controllers are working with everyone from brand new pilots to pilots with decades of experience.

This year was the biggest yet, with record attendance of 650,446 people. The totals on the planes aren’t fully out yet, but there were 3,200 show planes, including 1,400 vintage, 1,156 homebuilts, and 369 warbirds. Mind you, those are just the show planes, not attendees or those camping. In the past, AirVenture pulled in over 10,000 planes in total. That number hasn’t come out yet for this year, but EAA says that some 17,000 landings and take offs had occurred by Sunday morning, and Sunday itself was chock-full of departures.

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Mercedes Streeter

On the way to the event we had no idea what to expect. We paid for the Weekend Camping Package. For $214 we got camping for the weekend plus two-day tickets for two adults to attend the show. And as a bonus, one adult gets an EAA membership, which is something that I needed, anyway!

We knew that the convention would be huge, but I’m not even sure what compares to the experience of just camping there. Camp Scholler is next to the AirVenture grounds and I’d best describe it as an organized but chaotic city.

Camp Scholler is so huge that there are markets throughout the park for camping supplies and food. People get around on golf carts, motorcycles, and even baby Model T carts. I even saw someone using an old airport tug as a golf cart.

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Mercedes Streeter

Camping here was just about as wild as camping at King of the Hammers, but with a wider variety of people and camping rigs. The camping experience on its own will be a post on its own. I’ve never had a camping experience like it!

When we arrived at one of the convention’s gates Sheryl and I still didn’t quite grasp the scale of the AirVenture convention. If you went through the main gate you were immediately surrounded by the latest aircraft from a variety of brands. If you came in through the gate near the campground like us then you’re immediately flanked by exhibit hangars. And the airplanes just don’t stop.

The very first planes that we saw were eye-catching. One was this Rimowa F 13.

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Mercedes Streeter

It’s a replica of the Junkers F 13, an aircraft designed by German engineer Hugo Junkers in 1919. It’s credited as being the first cantilever aircraft of an all-metal construction consisting of an aluminum alloy.

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This replica is a reconstruction of an original F 13 that was disassembled and laser-scanned. These new planes come equipped with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Junior R-985 nine cylinder radial making 450 HP and cost a pretty $2.8 million. From the sounds of it, this is the closest you’ll get to flying the real deal.

Another was this Icon A5, a pretty versatile vehicle.

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Mercedes Streeter

It could take off from tarmac, grass, sand, water, or seemingly any surface you could get it to roll or float on. It even has a ballistic parachute and wings that fold up to allow it to travel inside of a trailer. Yes, that means that it could park in a regular garage, too. Most striking to me is the position of its Rotax 912 iS 100 HP flat four and the slim design of the empennage.

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Sadly, with a tight cockpit and a usable load of 430 pounds you’ll have to be somewhat careful with the kind of recreation that you do with an A5.

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Mercedes Streeter

Once I stopped being amazed by the tiny Icon we found ourselves inside of one of the hangar exhibits, where Sheryl attempted to land a Cessna 172 in a X-Plane-based simulator with me as her instructor. I got her to about 100 feet from the runway threshold, then things went all sideways and fiery.

[Sheryl’s Note: I can probably fly a plane straight forever, just don’t make me go up, down, or turn.]

Exiting back out into the sun, it was hard to miss the largest aircraft at AirVenture.

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Mercedes Streeter

The United States Air Force brought a Lockheed C-5M Super Galaxy from Travis Air Force Base in California. I’ve always known that the C-5 was a massive plane, but seeing it in person was something else. The sheer size of absolutely everything on this aircraft is a sight to behold in person.

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Mercedes Streeter

It’s an aircraft that demands your attention. And its auxiliary power unit (a small turbine engine that serves as a power source on the ground) has a deafening scream.

A crewmember from this aircraft spoke on a loudspeaker and said that measuring from the top of the tail to the ground, this thing is about as tall as a 7-story condo complex. Which, in person it’s easy to believe!

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Mercedes Streeter

This year’s AirVenture celebrated 75 years of the United States Air Force, and military aircraft had a huge showing. In addition to the massive C-5M there were multiple Boeing C-17 Globemasters, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, and a Boeing KC-767.

But that’s not all, as more military aircraft flew in AirVenture’s air shows including a Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey, variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a number of North American P-51 Mustangs, a Vought F4U Corsair, a North American F-100 Super Sabre, and even a couple of MiG fighter jets.

The famous B-29 Superfortress named DOC made an appearance:

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Mercedes Streeter
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Mercedes Streeter

And really, that’s barely cracking the surface. Over in the warbirds area I fell in love with a flock of Douglas DC-3s. All of these planes were wonderful and each had a story to tell. There was the Yukon Sourdough, a DC-3 that started life as a C-47 Skytrain serving in World War II.

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Mercedes Streeter

It then became an airliner for Canada’s Air North. It served in that role until EAA purchased it with the goal of making it a support plane. The association ended up going with a different DC-3 and selling this one. Somewhere along the way it stopped being airworthy. Then it was rescued by a pair of plane-loving brothers.

This C-47, Placid Lassie, is a veteran of D-day and other WWII campaigns. It, like the last DC-3, then began to serve as an airliner for decades. Eventually, it ended up abandoned at the end of a runway.

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Mercedes Streeter

Thankfully, it was not only restored to what it looked like in military service, but it was even able to fly back to Normandy in 2014 for the 70th D-Day anniversary.

Near the DC-3s was a Ford Tri-Motor. This plane offered the experience of being able to take a ride in it, and you bet that I did and you’ll get to read all about it. Soon.

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Mercedes Streeter

And that’s perhaps the coolest part about the planes at AirVenture. You can see things like a DC-3 at a museum, but chances are it hasn’t flown in a long time and could not fly without a restoration. Most of the planes at AirVenture flew in and will fly out. Many of them are based in places far away. And the vintage aircraft that provided rides for patrons were flying almost all day.

There was never a shortage of things to do at the event. You could pitch a chair next to the runways and watch planes take off and land. You could go to KidVenture, where your kids can learn about aviation and learn to wrench. There are endless exhibitor booths, food vendors, merch stores, and row after row after row of airplanes.

Opener wasn’t on the list, but it wowed the crowd on Saturday with a demonstration of its ultralight Blackfly eVTOL.

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Mercedes Streeter

You could even start your own journey to becoming a pilot at AirVenture. And of course, there are scheduled air show demonstrations that last for hours. Perhaps all of these activities is why we often saw people who didn’t know a thing about planes, but they were smiling the same as we were.

To give you a sense of scale, check out this map:

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EAA

Runway 18/36 is 8,002 feet long while 9/27 is 6,179 feet long. The event runs the entire length of 18/36, most of 9/27 and deep into the grounds. If you don’t take AirVenture’s trams and buses to get around you will be putting a number of miles on your shoes.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to see everything at AirVenture. Honestly, I learned that the only way that you’re seeing everything in two days is if you don’t ever stop to really take in the beauty or history of a plane. And even then, you’re going to be run ragged trying to do everything so quickly. I sure was.

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Mercedes Streeter

I also learned that the weekend is when people begin departing. There were a lot of planes there on Saturday, but AirVenture volunteers and tram conductors told me that the middle of the week is when the most planes and the most people are there. Sure enough, there were lots of open spaces between planes where other planes left long before I arrived. So there are tons of planes that I just never got to see.

And Sunday was pretty barren, as lots of pilots took off in the early morning hours to beat the afternoon heat and air shows. Still, Sunday did offer the unique experience of being able to watch various planes leave, including the big Air Force aircraft and lots of vintage planes. The C-5M probably made the grandest departure, in part for its sheer size.

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Mercedes Streeter

As I further write about this experience in the coming days you’ll see a lack of ultralights and only some flying boats. We didn’t even get near the museum, completely missed the fly-in theater, and never got close to the model planes. Two days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything.

Check out this Grumman G-73. It was next to one of many running and flying DC-3s. In the picture below, spot the Bally’s Bomber, a one-third scale B-17 that actually flies!

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Mercedes Streeter

And this last one here is a Rutan Long-EZ, and yes, that’s a homebuilt!

Either way, I had the time of my life. This was more fun than taking a beat-up Dodge Grand Caravan off-road. It was more fun than off-roading a side-by-side in the desert. Heck, it was more fun than buying a car. If you’re thinking about going to an AirVenture, do it. I recommend giving yourself a few days out there, if not staying the whole week. That’s certainly my plan for next time.

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51 Responses

  1. That last picture is of a Rutan Varieze, not a Long-Ez. The Long-Ez debuted a couple years later at Airventure, they look very similar but the Vari is smaller, lighter, better handling, and less expensive to build. The Long carries more fuel and has a bit more room in the rear seat. Both types were well represented this year, and there was even a Rutan Vari-Viggen which has just completed its first flight 6/22/2022 and flew to Airventure! Details here. https://www.rutanaircraftflyingexperience.org/post/rafe-variviggen-lady-vi-launches-for-oshkosh

  2. The silver Grumman Tigercat up there is gorgeous. It just looks fast- narrow fuselage and two giant radials. I saw one fly years and years ago as part of a Grumman Cat Flight, with a Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat and Tigercat.

      1. I mean, unless Iran decides to partake in an air show, seeing a Tomcat fly is unlikely lol. It kills me that I’ll never see my favorite plane fly. I’m local to Calverton, NY too, so the F-14 is a local legend too.

        1. I’ve seen a few F-14 demonstrations at the old Wings of Eagles air show in Batavia NY. As a former Air Force guy, I can say the F-14 put on the single most impressive solo plane demonstration I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen every other U.S. 4th gen fighter and even our 5th gens and nothing was as viscerally impressive as the Tomcat.

  3. “I’ve always known that the C-5 was a massive plane, but seeing it in person was something else. ”

    Circa 1986, I flew in one from Delaware to Spain. My reaction was similar to yours, I knew it was large, but could not appreciate its size until I walked up to it.That thing looked to be much too large to fly.

    1. I’ve been either in the Air Force or working on an air base since 97 and C5’s still amaze me. When I see one flying, I can’t help thinking there’s no way in hell it’s moving fast enough to fly. For anyone who hasn’t seen one in the air, they look like they’re moving at about a walking pace

    2. I remember as a child, flying out to Rota from Okinawa on one of these things and vice versa. They had the pallets with seats and a porta potty as facilities inside. There was a sign not to go towards the back because of the lack of oxygen. And of course, the plane broke down on the return trip, so we were stuck in Rota for a few days. I remember getting to go in the cockpit and even got a badge (my sister took it away because it reminded her of her ex :/). Those were the days.

  4. I haven’t seen a static display in decades, but they did have one years ago at Toronto International Airport. There was a C5 Galaxy there, too. We walked all the way through it and that thing is massive. There was also an R.A.F. Nimrod, which was interesting because the Nimrod was based on the de Havilland Comet and my Dad was a test engineer on the Comet 3. He knew as much about the aircraft as the crew did!
    The last thing I remember was an R.A.F. Harrier II doing a vertical take-off and hover before flying off to the airshow. I got right up against the boundary rope and filmed the entire thing. I put it up on my YouTube channel and it’s still getting views. There aren’t many videos of a Harrier doing VTOL.

  5. Sounds like it has grown since I was there last (1992? 93?). It was too much to see in a weekend even then, I can only imagine what it’s like now. Last time I was there, they had a Harrier do a vertical landing and takeoff in front of the crowd. I think some of my hearing damage might still be from that…

  6. Love that you did a story on this. I’ve been multiple times, flying in myself and camping in the North 40 as well as driving in and camping in Schoeller. I have to say, if you can find a way to fly in and experience the Fisk approach with an experienced pilot, it is unlike anything else in the world. One of the most hectic but exhilarating experiences you will ever have. A line of airplanes all in a Conga Line following train tracks to the airport, only to culminate in a tightly spaced landing with 1,000’s of people watching you (sweaty palms indeed!). The atmosphere of camping by your plane on the field is phenomenal as well. Really a great experience. Can’t wait to hear about the tri-motor.

  7. Did the C5 use the rocket boosters to get off the ground? I would assume so.
    I am 99% sure I saw one take off during a Blue Angels show back in the 80’s.
    I am also 99.5% sure you see them used in Chuck Norris action classic The Delta Force.
    Now I have that synth classic Delta Force theme stuck in my head.
    Hard to believe Alan Silvestri scored The Delta Force and Forrest Gump. So very different.
    Then there’s James Horner who kept plagiarizing himself between Star Trek II, Krull and even Battle Beyond the Stars, as I recall. I love 2 of those 3 movies and the theme, though.

      1. Bring it on! I’ve been curious about Airventure ever since I first heard about it many years ago. I know there is a LOT to it, and I am glad you didn’t just try to cram it all into a single article and call it a day. I am here for the Aerotopian!

      2. I was there from Tuesday through Friday. It was great seeing the warbirds, and even watching some flying! My personal favorite non-warbird is the Beech Staggerwing. There were were several there to drool over. NASA had the drone they fly on Mars, and an engineer to talk with about it. Just so much to see and do there. Sadly, Mercedes and I missed crossing paths, although I kept my eyes peeled.
        It’s a really unique experience. I stayed with friends in Ripon, so it was very comfy. LOL!

  8. I first went to the Fly-In a few years ago, not knowing what to expect. You hit the nail on the head pretty well, the show is MASSIVE. Anyone with an interest in motorized machinery should go at least once.

    Interesting sidenote, the Fly-In is where I actually saw the Terrafugia Transition fly and drive with my own eyes. I don’t know whatever happened to it once Geely took it over; it seems to be a dead project now. The MIT founders should have just continued to soldier on themselves, because as ungainly as the thing was, I think that’s the closest to an actual flying car (“roadable aircraft”) we were ever going to get.

  9. I went to EAA once, and loved it. Well, the warbird demonstrations with simulated strafing and bombing (gasoline cans on the ground rigged to blow up when the planes flew over) were gross, but most everything else was cool. We spent the vast majority of our time among the amateur and ultralight planes – real weirdos! The more unusual, the more interesting.

    1. Oh, I forgot to say: the C-17 demonstration was amazing. The main feature was trick flying – short takeoff, maximum climb angle, maximum descent, low speed/low altitude pass, low-speed maneuvering. A very impressive jet.

      1. The crew of the C-17 in these demonstrations put on a good show. Over loudspeakers an announcer said that they could stop the plane practically on a dime. I thought that was an exaggeration…until the crew landed the plane.

        Sure enough, they threw on the reversers and the thing came to a stop almost as fast as a car. A moment later, they opened up a couple of doors and the cockpit hatch to give the crowd a wave. That was a fantastic finish!

  10. That C5 reminds me of watching our 5 year old’s brain melt when he walked through one at an air show last month. We walked in the nose ramp (the nose was obviously open) and as we were walking down the aft ramp he asked where the cockpit was. I told him it was at the other end and he was confused so we walked back through and I showed him the ladder up to the cockpit. Then we went out and I showed him where the windscreen was and . His brain was broken the rest of the day over that, kids are great sometimes.

  11. As someone who knows a few people with Grumman Mallards (G-73s) and who has a decent amount of experience with them do not buy one.

    They’re 71+ year old flying boats built by an aircraft manufacturer who had no concern for the lifespan of the aircraft as they had just spend several years trying to make fighter planes faster than the Japanese could shoot them down, then immediately after the war they took that disposable attitude and applied it to what amount to a luxury private jet nowadays but this one can land on land and on the water, and with those twin radials it burns oil like a caprice burns gas. The fuel tanks are integral to the wings and the only thing that keeps gas from leaking out of them is the copious amounts of sealant the mechanics who last redid the fuel tanks did, and depending on their skill level you can have a ton more sealant than needed. Also if your landing gear fails to deploy you better hope you have 2 other guys with you or a nice big lake to land in. It takes 2 people to lower the landing gear manually and you need someone to fly the plane while you’re doing this, no autopilot in the 40s.

    IK a guy who has one and they found some corrosion in one of the wing spars, welp first you have to take off those massive radials, then take off all the aluminum skin on the wings to get access to the main spar, requiring the drilling out of thousands of flush rivets, then you are rewarded with the daunting task of removing a spar that was never designed to be removed, it’s this massive L shaped piece of aluminum that is also bent upwards past the section the resides in the fuselage, making it a huge pain to remove.

    Oh, you’ve removed it? Want to get a new one made? Welp it’s made from a type of aluminum none uses anymore, so not only do you have to find someone to make a whole new spar who has all the proper certifications to make said spar, but you have to also find a foundry that’ll make a small custom batch of an aluminum that noone makes anymore…

    Okay so that’s done, now you got to do the process in reverse.

    Rn this guy is at the put it back together stage and it is by far his biggest money pit as far as vehicles are concerned.

    It’s a beautiful aircraft and there is not another standard category aircraft like it, but like a ton of beautiful things it’s high maintenance and it’ll take you for every penny you got effortlessly.

  12. I’d so love to do a fly-in to Oshkosh someday. I’ve done a few minor fly-ins with maybe a thousand planes, and even that was super nerve-wracking for a new pilot. Maybe when I’ve got 5 years or so under my belt I’ll make the trip. I can’t imagine the traffic in that pattern (and swarming the 20-mile radius) even though I’m sure they control it like class B airspace.

    Thanks for the great write-up, Mercedes. It looks like it was an epic trip!

  13. Great write up on Airventure, I can’t wait to see what else you have coming! One weekend really isn’t enough, I was there nearly start to finish in 2018 and didn’t get to see everything. As others have said, when you get the chance take the opportunity to fly-in and camp with your plane.

  14. Oshkosh is an amazing show. I remember going there one year with my Dad, and the Concorde was visiting. They were selling rides, but Dad balked at the cost. He was visibly upset the day the Concorde retired and still considers passing up that opportunity as one of his biggest regerts.

    1. I was there for the Concorde too, and I feel the same way your dad felt. Should have popped for the ride, however they could not go supersonic over the US due to sonic boom regs. It was a treat to see it. I’ve been up there at east 5 times but sadly since my oldest brother died, an aeronautical engineer at United Technologies and our own personal docent, it hasn’t had the same cachet. Also, whoever above dissed the fake bombing runs: I disagree, seeing those warbirds low altitude over the runway is off the charts cool. Finally, if you go be aware that it is hot as F up there and there is no shade and lot and lots of asphalt. Dress wisely and bring massive amounts of water. Thanks for the memory Mercedes.

  15. Mercedes I love that you fell in love with the DC-3, I fell in love with it during its 50th anniversary in the 80’s, its one I still need to get a ride in someday… quite the plane, still going strong 80+ years strong!!

    1. Come down to New Zealand next summer (late January to February ideally) and you can take a spin over the Bay of Plenty coastline and wheel around over holidaymakers on the beach, then relax on a surf beach maybe ten minutes’ drive from the airport if that’s your thing. One of the nicest ways I’ve spent an afternoon.

  16. Admittedly I wasn’t there, but I CAN tell you the coolest plane there was actually Mike Patey’s Scrappy bush plane. I am not a big air show guy, but I was considering flying out there just to see Scrappy. Adjustable trophy truck style offroad suspension, hand built and painted carbon fiber body, completely redesigned wings, custom engineered control surfaces, race plane engine with nitrous (though the nitrous is coming out in favor of twin turbos….the list goes on. He customized or completely reengineered basically every single aspect of that plane.

    I think the denizens of the Autopian would probably enjoy his YouTube channel if you have even a passing interest in planes/wrenching/engineering. I don’t fly, but I watched the entire Scrappy build series and I had watched most of the Draco build series. Mike Patey is kind of a fascinating dude.

    Back to work!

    1. Mike’s youtube site has the most impressive airplane engineering I’ve seen and very impressive he appears to do nearly all the work himself. His attitude and energy are amazing, seems like a genuine real life role model.

  17. Awesome post, and I am looking forward to the other write ups.

    A few of my co-workers went for a few days this year to rep the company and I am pretty jealous that I didn’t get to go. That said, I’d rather go with my kids when they are a little older and have fun than with co-workers and be expected to “work”.

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