Only a few days have passed since we returned from the "World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration" at EAA’s AirVenture and I am already having withdrawals! There is nothing quite like sleeping under the wing of an airplane that you flew in and waking up to the sound of aircraft engines whirling to life. As anyone who has been to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin knows, the week is completely unforgettable and there is no shortage of things to see and do.
This is the 4th year my husband and I have flown in, and the 2nd time that we’ve flown my father-in-law’s 1931 Waco ASO. This "Straightwing" biplane was restored in the 70’s and has an open cockpit. It is a wonderful aircraft, but definitely not ideal for cross-country flying. It’s extremely windy, and even in the middle of summer the air gets freezing once you’re at altitude. We knew we were in for a long trip before we left, but the series of events that followed were nothing short of unexpected.
Our plan was to leave Saturday morning, have a leisurely trip up, and arrive that evening to set up camp. However, the reality of our trip to Oshkosh was very different. When we got up Saturday morning, it was pouring rain and ceilings were at 800’. We had to wait for that to clear out, so we weren’t able to depart until around 3pm. We had a 20 knot headwind, and ForeFlight indicated our speed across the ground varied between 60-70 mph. We were slow, and the thunderstorms from earlier had broken up but there were still showers we had to avoid.
We made a quick fuel stop in Harvard, Illinois at a gorgeous grass strip called Dacey Airport. After this we were finally in the homestretch to Ripon.
An important side-note: for those who haven’t read the Oshkosh NOTAM, the gist of the arrival procedure is to approach the town of Ripon, southwest of Oshkosh, and visually separate yourself from incoming traffic. Once you have a half mile separation from the plane in front of you, everyone is instructed to fly at 90 knots and 1800 ft in single file to the next town of Fisk. Once directly over Fisk, the Air Traffic Controllers ask you to "rock your wings" for identification purposes and then they assign you a runway and you are passed to another controller who clears you to land. There are often 4 or 5 aircraft on final at any given moment, so accuracy landings "on the dot" and turning off the runway as soon as able are important. The NOTAM states that no talking on the radio is allowed, so usually this approach is actually easier than landing at some other airports.
With the NOTAM in hand and mostly memorized, we approached Ripon with high hopes for a smooth arrival and landing. After all, the 3 other times we have flown in there were never any issues. However, when we were less than 5 miles from Ripon we heard this on the radio: "Attention all traffic – the Oshkosh field is now closed to incoming traffic for the Bonanza mass arrival. Begin holding. This will be a LONG delay so divert to an alternate if you have low fuel." Partly because we didn’t expect a long delay, and partly because the fuel at Dacey was so expensive, we didn’t fill the tank up. We were far from a fuel emergency, but didn’t have enough to hold for a "LONG delay." We immediately turned to our alternate, Fon du Lac. As we got near and contacted the temporary control tower, we were out of luck again. Fon du Lac was where the Bonanza mass arrival was departing from, and were again told to divert due to "150 Bonanzas on the runway" (Certainly something you would only hear at AirVenture.)
We began looking for a third alternate, and located untowered Dodge County airport 23 nm away. The annoying thing about this section of our trip was that dozens of other aircraft were forced to do the same thing, and we were all inbound to Dodge County at the same time. One such aircraft had a stuck mic, so he was continually transmitting over everyone else trying to coordinate within the pattern. Eventually we all were able to communicate and land, and I must give props to the staff at Dodge County for the "refueling assembly line" they had created to deal with the sudden influx of frustrated aircraft.
The whole FBO was full of pilots who had to divert. Several were on their phones calling every hotel in town only to find out they didn’t have any rooms available. We asked around for a bit about lodging but it appeared our only option in Dodge County was to set up our tent and camp out. With less than an hour left of daylight, we decided to try going back to Fon du Lac, where my father-in-law had found a hotel with open rooms.
We immediately took off, watching as others began pitching their tents on the airport below us. Thankfully Fon du Lac had cleared out the Bonanzas, and we were able to land there (behind a C-47!) and tie down for the night. We were generously given a ride to the hotel by a T-6 pilot who had the same misfortune as us while trying to enter Oshkosh. His wife had brought a camper up earlier in the week and she drove there to retrieve him. After some late-night pizza delivery, we were exhausted and got some rest before a second attempt to enter Oshkosh on Sunday.
Sunday morning we were awoken to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. The weather had taken a turn for the worse overnight, and it was clearly going to be IFR for several hours. We spent most of the day in the terminal at Fon du Lac, watching The Open Championship on tv and monitoring weather. Finally around 3pm the skies began opening up. Immediately engines could be heard starting and it was "go time" for getting into Oshkosh. We took a few moments to refuel and ready the airplanes, and went on our merry way towards Ripon.
10 miles from Ripon we began monitoring the approach frequency. It already didn’t sound good. The controller urgently repeated the phrases "we are oversaturated! Everyone approaching Fisk turn LEFT and enter a hold! If you are not at Ripon, do not come to Ripon! Enter a hold and come back with a half-mile separation!" We figured this was just a big push of traffic, and it would pass through soon. We were very wrong.
This video was taken by someone else who was in the air the same time as we were. You can hear the hecticness and see the planes that are too close for comfort.
Our approach took several minutes, and the controller hadn’t mentioned a hold in a while so we figured it was safe to go over Ripon and enter the lineup over the railroad tracks to Fisk. However, as soon as we got closer we realized just how many aircraft were trying to do the exact same thing. Dozens of planes could be seen in any direction at different speeds and altitudes, going every which way and being way too close for comfort. It was very reminiscent of a WWI dogfight. We maneuvered around a few such planes but ended up with a Kitfox on top of us, a Navajo flanking us on the right, and a couple small Cessnas flanking our left. Clearly this wasn’t going to work and we would be turned away if we even tried to approach Ripon.
We broke away from that disastrous group and entered a hold around the rather large Green Lake. After a few circles mixed with other traffic, it became clear they were not allowing people to enter Oshkosh any time soon. The controller continued to instruct planes to "turn left and enter a hold," "restart the approach," or "stay away from Ripon." At one point he said "there are 300 of you between Ripon and Fisk, we cannot have that and we need better separation!" I’m not sure of the 300 figure was an exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it was accurate.
We stayed in a hold for a little over 2 hours before we decided to return to Fon du Lac and try again later. During this time several other aircraft began declaring low fuel emergencies and were granted permission to land. We monitored approach for several hours after we landed and it was the same story: people turned away right and left for airport oversaturation or improper compliance with the NOTAM.
We spent another night in Fon du Lac and got up at 5:30am Monday morning. Oshkosh officially opened for arrivals at 7:00am but we were not going to get there late and enter a hold. We departed Fon du Lac at 6:40 and went straight into Oshkosh. This was the arrival we were accustomed to. Peaceful, respectful, professional. We landed on the yellow dot and had an incredibly fun week. I hope that next year they seriously consider a way to handle the record-breaking traffic!