Last year, flying to Oshkosh AirAdventure with Southwest Airlines was on my list of my Top 5 experiences of 2010. Unfortunately I was not able to make the trip this year, but NYCAviation.com was and documented his adventure. Here is their story:
39,000ft over the West: For some reason, I doubt that most of the folks reading this post will be anything but familiar with the week-long aviation festival from heaven known as Oshkosh. I’d be willing to bet, too, that a number of folks are not just familiar with but are seasoned veterans of the show, able to count off the years or even decades they’ve made the pilgrimage to Wisconsin. Being a pretty big aviation fan myself, I have for years dreamed of making the pilgrimage and attending my first AirVenture, as the show is officially called. For various reasons I’ve never been able to make it; most of the excuses having something to do with the lack of money and the rest with lack of time. But this year; this year, opportunity came a knockin’.
That knock came about a two weeks ago, when, due to a strange series of events, I ended up filling in for AirlineReporter for Southwest’s second annual sponsorship of “Super Saturday”. In addition to other activities through the day, the airline sends one of their trademark 737-700 aircraft up from Chicago for the day bringing employees, contest winners, and a few media along for the ride.
After arriving to Chicago in the late afternoon and getting settled into my hotel, I took the opportunity to head downtown to the Loop. Taking in the sights of Chicago was fun, and I had planned to trek on foot from the Roosevelt area (old Meigs Field), up to nearly the Gold Coast. I quickly realized this was far too ambitious, and cut it short after coming across a free show put on in Millennium Park. Arriving back at the hotel pretty late I charged my batteries, cleared my cards, and packed my camera bag for the coming day.
Arriving back at Midway for the crisp hour of 6am, I checked in, got my ticket – which listed our destination, oddly, as Vegas, and proceeded to the gate. Bright yellow Southwest shirts flooded the boarding area, and once on board, reflected a soft golden yellow hue throughout the plane. The flight departed on time and made a nice pass over downtown Chicago (of course I picked the wrong side to sit on), then trekked due north-ish.
Ferry flights (having no revenue passengers) are always fun for a few reasons: first, there’s hardly anyone on the plane. Second, nearly everyone on it actually wants to be there. Third, you’re flying a route that usually doesn’t normally exist, which for a commercial airline nerd is just, well, awesome. The mood was good and the flight was short and smooth. Before we knew it, the farms of the Wisconsin country-side were taking up more and more of the window and then, in the distance, a runway.
A gentle landing and quick taxi trip later we all deplaned, donned our wristbands, and headed out to see the show. If you’ve never been there before it can be described as an enormous aviation wonderland, filled with more than you could ever possibly imagine. Aircraft ranged from Wright Replica’s to the newest in electric planes; TriMotor’s to a 737; B29 to F/A-18s; Citations to the HondaJet. The flight line stretched for what felt like forever. It took nearly 20 minutes at a brisk pace to walk from the ultralights on one end to Warbird Alley on the other. I thought I knew my planes, but I regrettably had to admit I saw far too many things that I could not positively ID.
And then there was the flying, oh yes, the flying. I could not believe the volume and frequency of traffic. I had heard about the legendary split runway action, and was thrilled to finally see it happening in front of me. Runway 27 was constantly alive with activity; there was never a dull a moment. 18 functioned as the main runway and was generally kept intact while 27 often bounced between single and split. P-51’s with their iconic sounding Merlin’s buzzed the crowd while T-6s/ SNJs flew formations out into the North Central skies. L-39’s and T-45 Goshawks landed in between huge flying boats and tiny Bonanza’s. And this wasn’t even the air show yet.
And there were the crowds. Being mainly a photographer, crowds are both one of my favorite and least favorite parts of every airshow I will ever go to. They are my least favorite because they prevent me from easily accessing the porta-potty or acquiring another burger in less than two hours time, but much more so because they get in the way of my static shots (can I hear an “amen” photogs?). Nothing screams “ruined” more than someone’s head cutting off a nose cone, blocking an intake, or obscuring the entire right third of the photo. But at the same time, the crowds offer tons of unsuspecting targets to bring the story together.
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t stood in line to get on board something cool, or spent time talking with a crew member? I did it multiple times throughout the day, and getting a chance to see and capture individuals interacting and experience aviation is sometimes better than watching the show itself. Speaking of getting on board, I checked out the B29 FIFI, a DHS Dash-8 (super, super cool interior plus the crew’s titles were “Air Interdiction Agent” – how bad ass sounding is that??), Super Stallion, Piaggio Avanti-180, A-26 Invader, TriMotor, Breezi, P51D, and more. Some of the lines, particularly for the B29 and our Southwest 737, stretched quite long.
The air show itself was a bit of a mixed bag. A Navy Heritage flight consisting of the only remaining HellDiver combined with one of the retro CoNA F/A 18’s flew a moving demo to open it up. By and large the rest of the show consisted of Warbirds. Everything from T6/SNJ/Harvards to P51’s, B25 Mitchell to Trojans, a Huey to the venerable C47 took the skies over the course of two hours. The show appeared to be cut short, however, by weather moving in. A strong wind storm wreaked havoc during a demo by Sean Tucker, eventually forcing the airport to close. For the folks on the Southwest ferry flight like myself it was just as well, as we had to be back to the plane for departure right around the time the storm hit anyways.
Boarding was smooth and straightforward, and once the field reopened we were towed up to the taxiway, helped along by folks waving us off from the crowd. The flight back to Chicago was again short and sweet, clocking just shy of half an hour. I was lucky enough to get a very nice window seat, with a view to die for.
The rest of the day was spent working up photos (over 1,000 of them) and getting some much needed sleep. The flight back to my home city on Southwest 762 the next day gave me some time to think over the show, and I came to the following conclusions:
First, it’s huge. Yeah, I know, this one is obvious, but it deserves saying it again. There was just no way I, or anyone, could have seen it all in one day: not even close. The show was so large, the planes so numerous, the talks so intriguing – one can’t do it all. I’ve heard from folks who go for the week who can’t even get around to see it all.
Second, and much more importantly, it’s about airplanes, yes, but much more-so it is about community. News reports since the show have quoted that as many as twelve thousand aircraft visited the show over week and hundreds of thousands flooded the grounds over the week. Let’s be honest, maybe a few hundred, at most, of that 12,000 actually flew as a part of the official airshow; the rest were folks who were there to bask in the community that is aviation. At the end of the day, airplanes are really about people: the people who build them, the people who fly them, and the people who admire them. Friendships are made and strengthened, stories are shared, and new stories are made to tell at future AirVentures.
In the spirit of full & clear disclosure NYCAviation/AirlineReporter was offered and accepted round-trip tickets from Seattle to Chicago Midway and a two night accommodation at the Chicago Midway Marriot. We thank Southwest for the offer and their hospitality.