Okay, so maybe it's a little bit about the airplanes. (Did you see the Mosquito? The GoodYear Blimp?!) But for most people, Oshkosh is about so much more than airplanes. If you follow Oshkosh on social media then you've heard the buzz of engines during the airshow and you've seen your friends posting selfies in front of amazing airplanes. But what you can't see from the photos is something else that's deeper, more elusive, that only exists at Oshkosh. Maybe it's a feeling, or maybe it's just something in the air. It's probably different for everyone, but whatever it is, it's general aviation at its absolute best. Airplanes are just the backdrop.
A friend (who I happened to meet at Oshkosh) said it best in this video when he said, "It feels like coming home."
So what is it that makes Oshkosh special? What is it that keeps thousands of aviation fanatics returning each year to a place that's not even easy to get to? It's about the people, the encouragement, the mentorship, the conversation and the camaraderie. It's about an industry that welcomes you into it without pause and allows you to consider it your home without even a hint of reservation. It's an immediate family where every single one of your sisters and brothers just "gets" you.
Over fifteen years ago, I entered the world of aviation by walking into a sleepy airport terminal in my hometown, completely on my own. I had been on a single plane ride before, and I knew I wanted to fly. There was just one problem: I didn't know how. I didn't have a mentor. I didn't have a family member to show me the ropes. I didn't know anyone in aviation. I didn't know where to go or what it would take to become a pilot.
I remember walking into that terminal, a nervous teenage girl, to ask about flight lessons. With a comforting smile and a gleam in his eye, the airport manager sent me across the field to the sleepy little flight school. The owner of the flight school, without asking me why a girl like me would possibly want to fly, without hesitating or commenting on my five-foot-nothing height, hired me on the spot as a secretary. I could answer the phones, he said, and he'd pay me six dollars per hour and let me sit in on the ground school for free. "It's a deal," I said.
What I didn't realize was that this deal would go far beyond six dollars per hour and free ground school. I didn't realize I was gaining an instant family. The flight instructors took me seriously, treated me with respect, and introduced me to the world of flying with enthusiasm and encouragement. Beyond that, each one of them shared their worlds with me outside of our flight lessons. They told me about air shows and scholarships and what airline life would be like. They taught me about the bigger, Part 135 aircraft they flew during their off time. On their days off, they came to the airport with their wives and kids. It felt like home.
Fast forward a few years, and I made another solo trek, this time to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I'd heard the stories, but wondered how it could be more than just another air show with expensive food. I'd seen enough air shows. I'd seen Tora! Tora! Tora! and P-51s and Sean Tucker and Kirby Chambliss. What would be different about AirVenture? I had to find out. I showed up at my room that year - a small bedroom in a lady's house that I booked on a referral from a journalist friend - and found a group of people who had been coming to Oshkosh for years together. But instead of sticking to their own group, they immediately took me in, inviting me to ride the bus with them and inviting me to their nightly dinners. And then I showed up to the media tent, once again by myself, and immediately found friendly faces there, too. I walked the grounds, and while running into old friends, I made even more new friends. One introduction led to another and before I knew it, I had new aviation family members all over the place. It felt like a family reunion - with a pretty spectacular air show on the side.
Last year, I made a few friends at Camp Scholler who have been camping together as a group for years. This year, I was invited to camp alongside them at what they lovingly refer to as "Camp Bacon." I showed up with my kids, but otherwise alone, without really knowing any of these folks beyond social media. As if on cue, they welcomed me - and my children - into their aviation family immediately. They offered good conversation, interesting aviation stories, hot coffee, and even wine. They invited me to the nightly campfire, and to join them during their yearly "Dawn Patrol" walk to the warbirds at five a.m. They shared their stories with me and I learned about their aviation work. By the end of the trip, there were hugs, with the sound of P-51 Merlin engines in the background. It felt like coming home.
This is my family.
This is Oshkosh.