Another year, another EAA AirVenture in the books! The week-long event at Wittman Regional Airport annually draws in over 10,000 aircraft, from general aviation to warbirds and modern military aircraft. Many people will camp the entire week, either in the nearby campgrounds or even in a tent right under their plane, because there is simply too much to see and do for just a weekend. For aviation enthusiasts young and old, AirVenture is the biggest event of the year.
This year’s event stuck out to many as one of the best in recent years, thanks to the number and magnitude of highlights. The statistics certainly back up this notion; total attendance was approximately 550,000, up two percent from last year. Even more than that, there was a noticeable increase in both aircraft attendance and activity. At one point, only one parking spot was left in the Fightertown section!
With so much going on, let’s dive into some of this year’s highlights!
Airbus’s New A350 XWB
On Monday, a flight-test version of the Airbus A350 XWB (Extra-Wide-Body) gave an impressive display of the aircraft’s flight capabilities. Its tight turns, steep banks, and high rate of climb had spectators on their feet. After its performance, the aircraft was towed to Boeing Plaza for tours of the interior. On Wednesday, it was towed out of the plaza and down to the end of the runway where it gave a second demonstration before returning home. The A350 XWB can carry over 300 passengers nearly 8,000 nautical miles, and is already in service by Qatar Airways and Vietnam Airlines.
B-52 in Boeing Plaza
On the Friday before the show, many of the runway lights were taken down to accommodate one of the largest aircraft ever to land at Wittman Regional Airport: the B-52 Stratofortress. While it did not fly in the show, this massive bomber took up a big chunk of space in Boeing Plaza throughout the week, where the pilots and crew gave talks, answered questions, and sold some squadron merchandise. Fun fact: the B-52 is part of the 343rd Bomber Squadron out of Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. This is, coincidentally, the same location as EAA Chapter 343. As a result of this coincidence, special 343 patches commemorating both the base and the chapter were sold in limited supply.
The crew even got into the AirVenture spirit by registering the aircraft as a home-built with over 14,000 flight hours and asking for it to be judged. As a result, the B-52 won a special award!
Unfortunately the aircraft did not fly during the event because of the logistics of getting it back to the runway. However, we were there on the following Monday and got the best seat in the house for its departure.
Honoring the Legacy of Burt Rutan
This year, Burt Rutan returned to AirVenture to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his VariEze aircraft design (which first flew in May of 1975). Rutan is famous for his innovative aircraft concepts, such as the use of canards on various general aviation aircraft and also for perhaps his most famous milestone: SpaceShipOne. On Monday, a rare Beechcraft Starship made a special airshow arrival and the next day it joined with various other Rutan designs for a tribute during the show. Tuesday night, the Theater in the Woods featured ‘Garage-to-Garage’, a special presentation that highlighted Rutan’s legacy; 46 different aircraft designs with over 1,000 aircraft in service.
Arrival of the F-35 Lightning II
While the USMC version of the F-35 has been giving mini-demonstrations throughout the year at military airshows, AirVenture 2015 marked the first appearance of an F-35 Lightning II at a civilian show. Early Wednesday afternoon, two USAF F-35s from Eglin Air Force Base performed some low approaches before landing, unfortunately without afterburner. One of the pair was soon towed over to Boeing Plaza; setting up a rare opportunity to see it next to not only an F-22 Raptor, but a P-38 Lightning as well! Both stealth jets were kept under tight security with armed guards who kept an eye on the swarms of people surrounding them and taking pictures.
F-100 Super Sabre and F-4 Phantom
These two Vietnam-era jets created their own thunder in the later half of the week. The F-100, currently the only one of its kind flying, makes precious few airshow appearances and had never graced the Oshkosh skies before. Pilot and owner Dean “Cutter” Cutshall flew it in from Fort Wayne, IN and performed twice during the show. The first time was during the Friday warbird show when it flew with the Warbird Heritage Foundation’s A-4 Skyhawk and Jeff Kaney’s MiG-17 Fresco in the “Vietnam jets” segment. The real show, however, was the twilight performance just before sunset on Saturday night. The F-100 is known for its primitive one-stage afterburner that POPS very loudly when first engaged, and Cutter knows just how to show it off for the crowd. In the dim evening sky, the flame trailing the aircraft was even more visible than usual and had aviation fans drooling.
The USAF F-4 Phantom II had a similar showing at AirVenture, performing a couple times as well as flying during the Saturday twilight show. This particular F-4 has been modified to fly as an unmanned target drone, making its proper designation QF-4. Several of these QF-4s were given special commemorative paint schemes in recent years and taken to airshows to perform in Heritage Flights alongside current fighters. Sadly many of even the specially painted F-4s have been shot down now as the QF-4 program comes to an end and the similar QF-16 program begins. This, combined with the recent budget cuts, meant that the pilots were not Heritage Flight qualified this year, and so they were only able to perform a solo mini-demonstration. Still, an F-4 twilight demo would be a highlight of any show. Oshkosh may very well prove to be the final public appearance of a military Phantom; if so, it went out in grand style.
Salute to Veterans
Each year, EAA AirVenture hosts an Old Glory Honor Flight, which flies veterans to Washington DC to visit the memorials built in their honor. This year, the flight honored veterans from the Vietnam War. As the American Airlines MD-80 carrying them returned to show center at the conclusion of their special day, it was greeted with a water cannon salute from a pair of firetrucks. A large crowd on onlookers cheered the arrival, and the crowd shifted to the main stage in Boeing Plaza for a ceremony followed by a performance by the Lt. Dan Band (featuring Gary Sinise, best known for his role as Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump). Several Vietnam-era aircraft, including the F-4 Phantom, F-100 Super Sabre, A-4 Skyhawk, OV-10 Mohawk, and A-1 Skyraider were arranged to ring the concert, making the moment even more special.
Record-Breaking Sky-Dive Attempt
The Golden Knights will often reference a “traffic jam in the sky” when several of their jumpers are coming in to land, but even their routine is nothing compared to the massive sky-diving attempts that were performed Wednesday and Friday during AirVenture. In an attempt to set the sequential mega-formation world record, 108 skydivers from around the world were divided among 5 jump aircraft. After jumping from 20,000 feet, the group had only 60 seconds to join up and form five different formations before splitting apart. As the jumpers opened their parachutes simultaneously, the sky exploded with canopies; so many that it was clearly audible on the ground thousands of feet below! Although the group made 3 different attempts at the record, they were not successful in the eyes of the judges. However, they did end up setting a Wisconsin state record for largest skydiving formation!
Rare Bombers: B-29 Superfortress and PB4Y-2 Privateer
This year’s show featured the world’s only flying B-29 Superfortress and PB4Y-2 Privateer. Although the B-29 “Fifi” has been in Oshkosh several times in the last few years, it was the first visit for the all silver Privateer. Both flew during the week, making simulated bombing runs with the help of the Tora Bomb Squad pyrotechnics team on the ground. “Fifi” also operated out of Appleton for part of the week, selling rides to passengers alongside EAA’s B-17 Flying Fortress “Aluminum Overcast”.
Roar of the Merlins
Thursday was the day of the legendary Merlin engine. The warbird portion of the show marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain by having the Avro Lancaster and de Havilland Mosquito, both powered by Merlins, fly together along with a replica Spitfire. The Lancaster and Mosquito are both one of only two of their type left flying in the world. A second Mosquito was on static display, however it is part of the EAA Museum located on the airport and does not fly. Still, the opportunity to see two side by side was incredible!
A short time later, no less than 14 P-51 Mustangs taxied out. As they approached the runway, they stopped to perform simultaneous run-ups right in front of the crowd. Talk about goosebumps. They soon launched, mostly in pairs, and the formation-rated pilots in the group joined in three elements of four aircraft to provide high cover before diving in for individual high speed passes. Add it up and that’s twenty Merlins singing together in the skies over Oshkosh!
Same Old AirVenture
Each year EAA AirVenture offers something new; something even fans who have been going for the last 35 years haven’t seen before. But at the same time, EAA AirVenture remains fundamentally the same; a massive gathering of aviation enthusiasts and fans with an unmatched feeling of camaraderie that draws people back every year. From the 10,000+ aircraft that fly in to the 1,000+ forums/workshops and the 800+ exhibitors, AirVenture will always be the world’s biggest aviation destination and that is a worthy highlight in its own right.