We came to our enjoyment of air shows by two different paths; one of us (Doug) was born into it, and the other (Anna) fell for someone who’d been born into it. Doug’s childhood memories are steeped with vividly colored Stearman biplanes, their yellows, blues, and reds flying in formation over his hometown at the end of each summer. The biplane’s humming radial engines predicted the return to western Illinois of fall leaves and winds. Anna’s first airshow was a scorching July day in the Quad Cities in the early 90s, when a Harrier shrieked in our ears—despite the orange earplugs handed out to the crowd—and a B-52 flew in from Offut Air Force Base, re-enacted carpet bombing Desert Storm-style, and then returned home without landing. The heat, the sounds, and the sights were overpowering.
Over our twenty-plus years together, dozens of days have been spent looking at gleaming aluminum and smelling—tasting—the mechanical tang of burnt AVGAS. Our early adventures in the Midwest and in College Park, Maryland, were warm-ups for our visits to the grand-daddy of the them all, the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Starting on the last Monday of July, AirVenture (known as Oshkosh to its devotees) runs for one hot, bright, buzzing week. On average, Wittman Regional Airport, the site for AirVenture, becomes home to about 10,000 aircraft, 250,000 visitors, and 1,000 port-a-potties. (Our sage advice is to drink enough water that you don’t get dehydrated without drinking so much that you must use a port-a-potty late in the day.) For the hand-selected FAA air traffic controllers who manage the skies and runways of Oshkosh, this is the pinnacle of their profession.
The roots of AirVenture are in homebuilt and experimental aircraft, and the event continues to offer workshops for those who build and fly their own. Many happy days of Doug’s childhood were spent endlessly poring over the homebuilt aircraft issues of Popular Mechanics. Among his pre-teen favorites were the VariViggen and VariEze designs from Burt Rutan (of course), the equally sexy Prescott Pusher, and the jet-powered version of the BD-5 (best remembered from the opening sequence of the Bond film Octopussy). Even though Oshkosh is a celebration of the homebuilt and experimental, the thrill of our first Oshkosh together turned out to be spending the day with Glen Amundson.
Anna went to Oshkosh with friends in 2005. The following summer, we both went—with the same friends Lisa Long, Jim Amundson, and Jim’s father Glen. Doug worked with Jim at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for four years, and over that time, Jim recounted more than a few of his father’s aviation stories. Some were humorous in that uneasy way that encourages amazed laughter when you learn that everyone survived (lesson: always check both fuel tanks). But the stories weren’t adequate preparation for meeting the man. In the stifling heat and humidity of a late-July Saturday in the Midwest, Glen, a hale and hearty octogenarian, spent five hours leading our entourage across grassy acres covered with aircraft. The alchemy of shape, structure, and power that human beings have used to tame drag and thrust, weight and lift, was never more varied and immediate to us than on that day because Glen was our living guidebook.
Glen’s enthusiasm—a childlike fascination combined with deep understanding—for all things aviation was obvious every time we paused in front of something with wings (that occurs frequently at Oshkosh!). He had the most to say when we made our way to a row of World War II Corsairs, in particular to an extremely fine example of that breed, an FG-1 produced by Goodyear. Anna has always found the Corsair to be the most birdlike of airplanes. To her, the Corsair’s winged aspect suggests avian movement: flapping, soaring. Doug favors the second-generation Corsair (affectionately known as the SLUFF—look it up). Glen’s reaction was necessarily more personal, for the Corsair carried him through the Second World War as a young Marine Corps officer. From the air, he saw—for good or ill—things few of us ever will.
As he has every July for more than fifty years, Glen returns to Oshkosh this week, this time with his granddaughter Elin, who will experience the smell of AVGAS for the first time (she lurched in utero to the roar of the engines in 2006). Oshkosh is largely for the communities within aviation. There are scheduled mass arrivals of Cessnas and Mooneys, group photos for women pilots and veterans, and a sort of flea market of airplane parts. Our great pleasure has been as interlopers in the annual gathering. Our advice to Elin is to keep her eyes wide, wonder how we ever managed to build machines that fly, and ask Grandpa Glen to tell a story. In a few years, we hope that Elin will ask her parents to pay for a ride in the B-17. And when they say no, she’ll give them a pleading look and settle for a ride in the Ford Tri-Motor, a noisy box of a plane in which we had a great ride several years ago in Kalamazoo.