Well that’s what many Canadian General Aviation pilots were contemplating this year as to whether to attend the mother of all fly-ins, the 2021 EAA AirVenture Oshkosh (known mainly as Oshkosh) and arguably the world’s greatest general aviation (GA) event. Every year tens of thousands make the pilgrimage journey from across many continents to Oshkosh Wisconsin where for one week Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) becomes the busiest airport in the world!
Despite the pandemic in full swing, in response to the loud and clear voice of GA pilots, this year’s organizers decided to proceed to hold the 10 day event between July 22 to July 31. Facing the most challenging of circumstances the organizers executed a successful event with over 600,000 attendees and well over 10,000 aircraft arriving at Wittman Field with an average of 116 takeoffs and landings per hour when the tower was operational. Aircraft had the option of GA parking or GA Camping when arriving by prominently posting GAP or GAC sign on their windshield.
Given that for 10 days, Wittman Field has he highest concentration of aircraft in the world, each year the FAA and the US Department of transportation issue a 32 page NOTAM (EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 NOTAM) that must be read cover to cover and adhered to in order to maintain acceptable safety levels for all aircraft arriving. For those that may be familiar with the NOTAM from previous years, this year there were two more intersections added further back from green Lake to reduce inflow congestion at the FISK intersection waypoint.
For Canadian GA pilots however the barriers associated with the pandemic also included the logistics and uncertainties around the ever changing constraints (Is the border even open?), requirements (rapid testing, quarantining, vaccinations?), and risks of border crossings not to mention attending a large event with lots of crowds. It was no surprise that the Canadian attendance numbers this year were significantly below the previous levels. Unlike previous years, I did not see a single Canadian registered aircraft at the show (looking at some of the stats it appears a small number of Canadian Aircraft registered at the field this year). However, for the Canadian pilots that chose to go and endure the brain-scrambling rapid testing and overcoming other hoops and mitigating the risks, it was very doable, easier than expected and well worth it! The only disappointment (which was understandable) was the Canadian Pavilion was not operational due to the expected near zero Canadian attendance.
For me, as it is every year that I have gone, it was just as much about the Journey as it was about the destination. Starting first by getting proficient flying slow (90 knots for my Cirrus is a bit slow and for safety requires 50% flaps) while maintaining altitude and spacing and secondly flying a nonstandard pattern that requires you to perform a continuous coordinated descending short final tight turn and hitting a one of the touch down “dots” that the controller clears you to. Keeping the nose down and avoiding a cross control turning stall is a key awareness point for this maneuver. Lots of practice with your instructor is recommended before you attempt it at Oshkosh.
Here is the interesting part! As you make that descending turn from base to final there are hundreds of spectators on their lawn chairs watching every landing not to mention the two lanes of departing aircraft that are holding short waiting for you to hit your mark without any delays and taxi off on to the grass (they depart two aircraft off of the runway side by side with a slight lag). Shortly after the clearance to land was also given to another aircraft to land on the Orange dot about 1000 ft behind us; basically two aircraft touching down on the same runway seconds apart from each other and behind one another while the first aircraft is still rolling on the runway!
Aside from the intense arrival and landing procedure which is a ton of fun if you are proficient, it was all about flight planning (i.e., the route, fuel and meal stops, where to cross border and at what airport clear customs as well as avoid any weather). One of the lessons from previous years’ shows was to ensure your last fuel stop was close to KOSH as you could be subject to delays during the FISK arrival procedures and the last thing you would want to declare is a low fuel emergency. We crossed at North Dakota and cleared customs at Williston (KXWA) to a very friendly customs officer who was quite interested to hear about our epic journey to Oshkosh. Our last stop was the beautiful Appleton Airport (KATW) which is also one of the three diversion airports for the show when the field is too full or too wet or when they have a runway shutdown due to an emergency. When we arrived to join the FISK VFR arrival route depicted in the NOTAM radio communication was only one way from the controllers to the aircraft which they identify by its features or type (red low wing, white twin, etc.) and by asking the aircraft to rock their wings. Once positive contact is made then we were routed to runway 27 and asked to join the right downwind and fly over the gravel pit. Tower then contacted us when were abeam the green dot which is located ½ way along the runways and asked to turn base abeam the orange dot.
I have to admit the landing at Oshkosh is THE most exhilarating part of the journey, but it is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced pilot. Being proficient at nailing your touchdown point is strongly advised as a prerequisite. Unfortunately, every year there is some sort of a runway incident with a hard landing, gear up landing (this year had one), porpoise landing, or some sort of unstable or uncontrolled landing event simply due to the pressure or lack of proficiency. I strongly suggest less experienced pilots to fly to one of the nearby diversion airports and perform a standard circuit pattern and landing and uber it to the show avoiding the pressure or an incident!
Now that I have talked about the highlights of the Journey, the destination (the show itself) is an unforgettable and even an overwhelming event. With so much to do and so many people the options are endless. Whether you are camping on the field next to your aircraft or staying in town, the experience during the week is all about the buzz of aviation. The site, smell and sounds is all a feast for the senses. For those who made the trek, the week was filled with all kinds of activities for all ages and interests – there were forums, airshows (day and night), concerts, exhibitors, homebuilder demo’s, Heli rides, a seaplane base, Ultralights, vintage static displays, etc. (too many to list). The EAA website had enhanced their tool to plan your itinerary and to really organize yourself or you could go adventurist and unplanned. The weather was cooperative with the exception of Wednesday evening with severe thunderstorm and threats of tornadoes to the south causing many people to take shelter nearby. For me highlight was the night airshow on Saturday as it was mesmerizing. The second best part of the week was all the people you meet and the new friendships. I also had the pleasure to meet up with a few of my favourite aviation youtubers.
After an overwhelming week at Oshkosh, planning the return was just as exciting as the arrival. First, you must attend one of the many departure procedures briefings held every 30 minutes all over the field. Another reason for arriving with relatively full tanks is to ensure you don’t need to fuel at Oshkosh as it is costly and can cause you delays. We planned our route to hit some of the memorable FBOs on the way back by taking a lightly southern path and crossed into Estevan, Saskatchewan to clear Canadian Customs and then the strong 40 knots of headwind all the way to Medicine Hat for the night and a short hop the next day our home airport.
In summary there are a few pieces of guidance I can provide for those that want to make the trek to next year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in order to make the journey hassle free – know the latest Canada and US COVID-induced requirements, utilize the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) US Customs and Border Protection website, practice and be proficient in flying low and slow and nailing your touch down point, Have and be fluent in your US Sectional Charts and Airport Facility Directories (AFD), Have a compliant ADSB out system so you can fly in controlled airspace easily, Know that in the US VFR flight plans do not open automatically as they do in Canada and you must contact Flight Service to open and close your flight plans (or use your EFB to do so), Do not cross the border into the US without a transponder code given to by one of the US operated Centres (e.g., Salt Lake Centre, etc.), Contact CANPASS at least 2 hours prior to your arrival into a Canadian Customs Equipped Airport.
This may seem like a ton of logistics, but it really isn’t if you are prepared, organized and planful. If you create your own checklist of items not to forget, you can then really focus on enjoying the journey and the destination at Oshkosh 2022! Hope to see some EFC members there next year! If there is enough interest I can organize a Sortie to go as a group!
By: Allen Atefi