The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the (C5) Galaxy

Lessons learned from three consecutive trips to Aviation’s Mecca

Prose & Photography: Larry Griffiths (@twoeleven_aviation)

The weather approached from the northwest as I hurriedly wired up my parked rental car to charge camera batteries for the night. My old Coleman dome tent stood nearby, the warm light ready to take me in for the evening as dusk slipped to dark. Flashlight, laptop, the day’s memory cards, an ice-cold beer, and some granola found way into my arms as I closed and locked the sub-compact rental car charging station. I slipped into the security of the tent to escape the first traces of rain; I was zipping myself in for some evening campsite photo editing. My first night in my own tent, in my own campsite, on my first ever trip to EAA AirVenture was shaping up to be a great Saturday night, the gentle rain now a light but steady shower on my tent and I remember thinking, “How cool is this?”. I fell asleep laptop open and flashlight on, exhausted. Welcome to Oshkosh, 2017.

The clap of thunder, flash of lightning, and water on my face jarred me back to consciousness all at once, the brunt of the storm bore down on my tired dome tent, the gusts collapsing it against my air mattress and sleeping bag, transferring water from outside to inside as I reached up to support the wind-twisted structure. Thunder, lightning, wind, and rain…Lots of wind and rain. It was almost 1 a.m. Sunday morning and I could see the floor of the tent was already wet, and getting very wet; it looked as though a small stream was flowing across my tent floor. I scrambled to pull camera equipment, clothes, and my new laptop up onto the air mattress with me, the only slightly drier option I had. With the rain pouring down and my tent failing its most basic function above thousands of dollars worth of damp equipment, it occurred to me, “How cool is this??? THIS is not cool at all!”. The storm finally subsided at 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, and most of what I had in that tent was now some degree of wet including me and my camera equipment, but I was alive and my shelter was beaten and soaked but standing, and my laptop still worked.

I had arrived at EAA’s Camp Scholler community campground the night before, driving in late Friday night from Chicago, but I had slept in the car as it was too dark and too windy to set up a campsite. Saturday morning early I was up and about, tired from traveling from Los Angeles, but excited for the day…I was heading out to nearby Hartford Municipal Airport for the pre-Oshkosh Cubs to Oshkosh, a gathering of Pipers staging fifty-odd Cub variants for their scheduled Mass Arrival into Oshkosh Sunday morning, the day before Oshkosh 2017 officially opened for the coming week.  

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So, I had quickly set up camp on Saturday morning with plans to head out for the entire day, knowing I would have a tent to come home to that evening… In my hurried excitement and contrary to years of actual camping experience, I had managed to pitch my tent in a noticeable depression on my assigned plot, a decision that later that night allowed water to almost freely flow through a door zipper into the floor of the old, tired, Coleman dome tent. I spent Sunday morning stringing clothes lines and hanging everything out to dry, tent included. Lesson learned.

Fast forward to 2019, now a returning Oshkosh Veteran with two years of camping at Oshkosh under my belt…I was excited when the First Officer’s final approach announcement stirred me awake on the red-eyed two-leg flight from LAX to Milwaukee. Realizing I had friends, a rental car, and a rental house waiting for me this year I was both excited and sad, as camping at Oshkosh is a ‘must do’, at least once or twice. It occurred to me that this year’s plan, although highly refined from years previous, still would afford me very little sleep for my first day at Oshkosh 2019: Arriving early Wednesday morning by red eye for the drive in from MKE, with a day AND night of airplanes and Oshkosh airshow activity, plus a fireworks show to attend before I would finally arrive at the shared rental house late Wednesday night. Another lesson learned. However, sleep stayed a relatively low priority this year, and after a very successful third time at Oshkosh, I realized I had gained some amount of experience that could have been helpful to have three years ago, prior to my very first trip. Sort of a guide that I can now use to plan my adventures.

“There’s an online ‘To Bring’ list for camping”, I was told. “Wear comfy shoes, and use the shuttles as much as possible”, was the advice from my first Media sponsor back in 2017. The on-line list is good, comfortable and DURABLE shoes will definitely make your life happier, and anytime you find yourself on a shuttle in Oshkosh it is like a miniature time out, and well worth seeking, if the lines themselves don’t scare you away from waiting. But what was missing was an overview, a 10,000 foot view down into North America’s largest airshow and fly-in, one week in July billed as “EAA AirVenture”, but to anyone in aviation it is simply known as Oshkosh. I was unprepared to maximize my first and second trips, did better this year on my third, and I’m already planning for Round 4, Ohkosh 2020.

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First of all, it is huge. Wittman Regional Airport itself is big with an 8000’ runway, a 6000’ runway, a grass strip, a nearby seaplane base, acres of parked aircraft, entire areas with vendors and aviation attractions, and literally square miles of surrounding campgrounds. Regardless of how you move around Oshkosh, you will be traveling miles each day. The campgrounds are an amazing community, divided into areas for motorhomes with hookups, areas that allow generators to run for limited hours, and the general campgrounds for tents and no generators. All of these have access to several shower/bathroom buildings, and even some general stores to buy dry socks, should you ever need those. Bikes and scooters buzz the subdivided campgrounds, each reservation getting you a 20’ x 40’ square of grass, allowing one vehicle and one tent per plot, those are the rules. If you are camping or bringing your RV, get a head start by visiting the EAA website. You may want to join the EAA if you are not already a member, this is after all their party and they have the most up to date information available. 

Although AirVenture officially opens on a Monday, people begin to show up long before that, there is no point in trying to be the first one there. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before the Monday kickoff are filled with vendors making final preparations, airshow performers arriving at an increasing pace, and many of the over 10,000 general aviation planes will arrive and be marshaled to their respective parking areas, and much thought is put into mass type arrivals and sequenced parking so that areas of the main aircraft parking end up dense with a specific genre or type of aircraft. For example, in 2017 when all 50 Cubs arrived Sunday morning, they were parked together in rows on the grass, not far from where the Cessna 190’s and 195’s were corralled, just across from “Vintage” parking, but nowhere near “Warbirds”. So it goes, the early days are the final stagings, as everyone prepares for Monday, opening day, with the week’s first afternoon airshow and typically a well-known musical attraction for a concert after the airshow.

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AirVenture itself officially runs from a Monday through Sunday in July, with daily attractions, displays, seminars, classes, get-togethers, lunches, contests, and everything else you may or may not need, including an airshow every afternoon. The biggest airshow days are typically Wednesday and Saturday (weather permitting) as these will include a twilight airshow with pyrotechnics, lights, music, and a Grand Finalé fireworks show that is getting bigger and more fiery each year. As the week progresses, a variety of airshow acts will get their turn in front of the afternoon crowds, Wednesday and Saturday making sure all of the top headliners perform. Combined with a Twilight Flight Fest at the grass strip every night except Wednesday and Saturday (Night airshow days), and virtually non-stop operations at the nearby seaplane base, each day can be full and tailored to whatever may interest visitors. From learning the finer points of aviation photography to learning how to rib-stitch a fabric covered airplane, there is something for everyone, and a detailed master schedule is available at EAA.com each year to allow a little bit of planning to help attendees maximize each day.

The longest runway 18-36 is the main airshow runway, the crowd burn-line is close to the action and you can watch from almost anywhere along the main show-line, save for show-center and some VIP chalets. This main runway and its adjacent taxiway handle aircraft arrivals and departures constantly, shutting down for only the airshow and then closing again at night. Runway 9-27, the shorter of the two runways handles overflow arrivals and departures, and is used during the airshow for launching and recovering some performer aircraft, depending on the act. This runway has a lot of daily action, and can be seen from the main aircraft parking area “The North Forty”, and from the warbird parking area “Warbird Alley”, and is close to that World Famous Oshkosh Control Tower, the busiest tower in the world, each year, for one week in July.

Use the tower as a landmark, the grass strip is at the far end of 18-36 from here and that’s for evening flying events, plus morning STOL and ultralight operations, and where they light the hot-air balloons for an evening glow. Stop by the Vintage Corral on your way down there. Not far from the tower is the Main Plaza where the largest visiting aircraft will park. Expect to find big cargo planes and big bombers here, doors are open during the day, and this is where you can typically walk through the belly of a C-5 Super Galaxy, see the B-29 Doc up close, and many other surprises each year. Surrounding Boeing Plaza are all of your main vendor displays, most of the major aircraft manufacturers will be there with planes, displays, salespeople, and celebrities to entice a visit into their area. Four large hangars nearby house a trade-show like experience with hundreds of supporting aviation products and companies. Where there are people, there is food and bathrooms, both around the plaza and up and down the main pedestrian walkway where you can find a variety of food and beverage.

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You can fly at Oshkosh. With a little pre-planning, or an early jump on it, there are aircraft demo flights you can schedule with manufacturers or distributors, including opportunities at the Ultralight field AND the seaplane base. You can go for a paid ride in a variety of aircraft including the helicopters constantly circling the campgrounds, one of two vintage Tri-Motors running flights everyday, or travel a short distance to a neighboring airport to try several other paid-for ride experiences that overfly Oshkosh.

So what have I learned? Camping is awesome and nothing can replace that experience. Renting a house with friends this year was absolutely a blast, but for different reasons. I definitely walked less, but I also slept less as late nights turned into early mornings with my other crazy aviation photographer friends staying up too late editing pictures and sharing stories of the (now previous) day. I missed buying a beater used bicycle from Goodwill for my daily camp-to-airport conveyance as I did in 2017, and 2018. I missed the smell of burning campfires, but found I was happy not wearing flip-flops in the shower at the house, and feeling good about actually having a roof, a fridge, and a clean bathroom each day, not to mention completely dry and readily charged camera equipment.

2019 was my best trip yet, incredible performances from the world’s top performers and military display teams. There were struggles with equipment, weather, scheduling, transportation, and getting enough (some?) sleep. All of the struggles were minor and part of the experience, and more than worth it. Each year, I have found myself in a ‘real’ moment, where everything synchronized and all of my life’s concerns disappeared. This year, that day was Saturday, the best single day of shooting aircraft I have had since I started in 2008. The Saturday twilight USAF F-22 Raptor Demo against an absolutely epic sky, with massive storm clouds in the distance bathed in an unbelievable orange sunset light that will be talked about for years. The entire day was spectacular and one I will never forget. 

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You can’t see everything so don’t even try. Pick a range of dates that includes at least either the Wednesday or Saturday night airshow and fireworks displays. All three of my trips were fantastic and unlike any other aviation experience I have had, each completely unique and none without minor challenges along the way. Plan well ahead, prepare well, and be prepared to change plans and possibly sleep in an airport or a car, or both, you never know.

Oshkosh is literally amazing, it is a trek every aviation enthusiast should take at least once, but it has already been hard not to go back for the past two years. I’m now planning my third return for my fourth consecutive trip, and I am even more excited now that I have a set of experiences to draw knowledge from. Oshkosh 2020, see you there!