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Musings From AirVenture National Park

Once a year AirVenture National Park rises up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Photo by Lee Dalton.

I’m musing this week from a campground at AirVenture National Park – and I've provided you with a picture of the park’s entrance sign to prove it.

The campground sprawls around me and I share it with about 40,000 other people who have gathered to camp here from all around the world. Some of us drove along ground-bound highways. Others from South Africa or New Zealand charter an airliner every year. Some are camped under the wings of airplanes they flew from home.

Around 800,000 people will visit this year's show over the course of 12 days. About 9,000 airplanes will fly in and the control tower will handle 15,000-18,000 takeoffs and landings over that period.

It’s the annual gathering at a place that rings magically in the ears of anyone who loves to fly and for many more who wish they could. It’s Oshkosh, where for a couple of weeks Wittman Regional Airport becomes the busiest airport in the world as the Experimental Aircraft Association hosts the world’s largest air show at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

It’s also home to AirVenture National Park where park superintendent / chief ranger / chief interpreter / chief of everything else, Nicholas Georgeff and a staff of four volunteers from Dayton Aviation National Historical Park stand beside a large black airplane with one wing folded back and tell the story of aviation’s place in the heritage of America – and indeed the world. The big, single-engined 1928 Fairchild was the first airplane flown in the 1930s by a relatively new part of our government. An agency called the National Park Service.

History Changing Before My Eyes

One morning as sunrise gilded a sea of tents and camping vehicles as far as my eyes could see through the window of my little portable motel, I found myself musing about the ever-changing heritage my old eyes have seen in my brief life and wondering what the eyes of my granddaughters will see. From the oldest who studies to become a mechanical engineer and has probably never touched a slide rule or used a Table of Mathematical Logarithms, down to the youngest who just learned to walk but can already play simple games on her dad’s smartphone – I wonder and, yes, worry more than just a bit, about what their eyes will see.

My grandmother lived from a time when horses drew everything that moved.

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"Superintendent" Nicholas Georgeff. Lee Dalton photo.

She remembered hearing about a couple of bicycle builders and a new machine they flew at a place called Kitty Hawk – and she lived to see Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn orbit the earth.

My father was in the last horse-mounted unit of the U.S. Army until his outfit’s horses were replaced with tanks so the 7th Cavalry could be sent to North Africa to fight against a man named Rommel. And I learned to fly while I was in high school in a tiny yellow airplane called a J-3 Cub with a 65-horsepower engine. Taught to fly by a man who had taught himself to fly while he was still in high school – after he had assembled an airplane he bought from a barnstorming pilot. Dual instruction in Lester Dethloff’s J-3 had cost me $13 an hour.

Now, at Oshkosh, I walk among airplanes called antiques that were new when I was flying them. I climb into a DC-3 that once flew for Eastern Airlines and remember that when I was maybe nine or so, I rode an Eastern DC-3 from North Carolina to somewhere. Could this be that very same airplane?

I remember clearly the night aboard an American Airlines DC-7 when I was the only passenger awake and the stewardess (as they were called then) took me to sit in the jumpseat behind the captain. There I spent the night watching runway lights at Dallas rising to meet our wheels and listening to voices through earphones they let me wear. That’s when the little boy I once was decided that someday, someday, I would become a pilot.

Today at Oshkosh, I will walk among airplanes with computerized cockpits that cost $1,000 an hour to fly. I’ll walk, too, among airplanes in which young pilots once hurled themselves against enemies in Europe and the Pacific as too many gave their lives to keep us and the rest of the world free from the enemies of their day. Other airplanes here were flown by young men who fought just as hard and just as courageously as they hurled themselves against our pilots. And as I look into the cockpits at their now primitive instrument panels with round gauges instead of computer-driven glass panels, I marvel at their courage and silently wonder how they could have found what it took to do what they had to do.

I’ll climb aboard an airplane built of corrugated aluminum in1929 by an outfit called Ford Motor Company.  A pilot will fire up its three engines and we’ll go for a ride.  I’ll hear people again and again as they remark, “I didn’t know Ford made airplanes . . .”  

On another day I’ll visit the Warbirds plaza and hear a man named Bob Hoover speak.  Bob Hoover, one of those teenagers who flew over Europe, was shot down and captured, and then went on to become a legendary pilot back in America.  I’ll walk among about 300 airplanes that had starring roles in wars from 1912 to today.  Airplanes lovingly restored and kept flying by private owners or foundations of various sorts.

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A 1928 Fairchild that once was flown for the National Park Service. Lee Dalton photo.

Our Aviation Heritage

This is heritage. Heritage preserved not only for my generation and yours, but for those yet to come. Yet Oshkosh preserves only one of many heritages of our nation and world. This is Yellowstone or Gettysburg or Fort McHenry with wings. Our national parks preserve literally hundreds of heritages. I can’t even begin to count them.

As I walk among the crowds at Oshkosh, I’ll see a heritage still being written. I’ll see airplanes from long ago sitting beside those of today and others that are still concepts for the future.

The other day I saw a thing called Terrafugia drive out to the runway, unfold its wings, fly, land, re-fold it wings and drive away. I watched what may be the next generation of small business jets as Honda’s Hondajet made its first public appearance. I also watched an old B-24 land and heard the snarl of 12-cylinder inline engines pulling red tailed P-51 Mustangs through the sky in tribute to black pilots of the Tuskeegee Airmen. A man from Switzerland, and perhaps the future, will jump from a helicopter wearing a set of wings and four little jet engines to fly around at 150 miles per hour – Yves Rossy, “The Jetman.”

All this is happening in a place where people from all over the world rub shoulders. We’ll share picnic tables and lunches with movie stars, multi-millionaires, plain ordinary families, factory workers and farmers, old pilots and young pilots, with pilots who fly huge planes for their livings and others who really can’t even afford to fly – but do it anyway – and with other folks who can only dream. Most important, though, we’ll be sharing it all with children. Children whose dreams are still being dreamed.

There are no security guards and metal detectors at the gates. I haven’t seen a single police officer. The grounds are immaculate and no one would think of dropping a candy wrapper.

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World's busiest control tower...for 12 days. Lee Dalton photo.

Nearly 4,000 volunteers do the work ranging from traffic and crowd control to selling tickets to administering first aid or driving trams pulled by John Deere tractors and a thousand and two other tasks. A wallet forgotten in a shower is in Lost and Found the next morning. People come from all over the world and speak many languages and worship several different gods. Yet we live here in harmony. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

This is Oshkosh.

A small part of it is also AirVenture National Park. Part of my heritage because I’m a pilot. Part of your heritage, too, even if your feet have never left the ground. Part of the future for those young ones who will only vaguely remember it as they grow – but who just might be inspired to reach higher and farther when their times come.

AirVenture is the world’s largest annual gathering of aviators and those who wish they were. Superintendent Georgeff points out that it’s the role of NPS to preserve parts of our American heritage. (He’s actually management assistant at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, but since he’s the only uniformed representative of NPS anywhere in sight, I figure he must be AirVenture’s superintendent.)

Heritage In Many Forms

I realize that as I’ve traveled to Oshkosh from Utah, I witnessed for myself some of the great variety our heritage contains. Whether it is the geysers, bears and bison of Yellowstone; tortured Badlands of South Dakota; a stone tower and stone quarry sacred to our neighbors who are the real Americans among us; or a hole in the ground where the end of the world could have been ignited, our heritage – or at least parts of it – is being preserved for us in our National Park System.

It’s disappointing that the National Park Service wasn’t able to send its usual delegations from NPS sites in Dayton, Kitty Hawk, and Tuskeegee where the Arrowhead guards our aviation heritage. I miss Darrel Collins, the ranger from Kitty Hawk who tells a riveting story of Orville and Wilbur and won’t be here this year.

But at least there are some to hand Junior Ranger Pilot shields to kids. Retired NPS ranger/pilot Cliff Chetwin is on hand as a volunteer to tell pilots about flying over and landing in national parks. He’s pushing the NPS contribution to aircraft noise abatement called Fly Quietly. Pilots are well aware of public upset with aircraft noise as we arrive and depart from most any local airport where we must fly flight patterns designed to keep engine noises to a minimum. Cliff is just extending the idea to our parks. His talk is humorous and seems to be well-received.

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Kids, old and young, tried the flight simulator that tested your skills at flying the Wright Flyer. Lee Dalton photo.

There’s a flight simulator that allows visitors to lie down and slip into the hip cradle the Wright Flyer used to warp the wings to bank and turn the airplane. A control stick moves the rudder to control yaw.

Superintendent Georgeff’s wife, Cassie, says very few people – including airline or Air Force pilots -- ever manage to land the simulator, and I witness several "crashes" as I watch. At least it worked for Orville and Wilbur.

She also hands out little toy propellers for children to twirl between their hands. The propellers rise into the air, and she explains that once when Bishop Wright came home from a trip, he brought similar toys for his two boys. They were playing with them one day when they saw a bird fly over and suddenly made the connection between the bird’s flight and the flight of their simple playthings. The rest is history.

The absence of most other federal agencies is notable. Even the Weather Bureau of NOAA is sparsely represented. There is virtually no military presence. The Federal Aviation Administration set off a firestorm when they demanded that EAA pay $450,000 to cover the cost of the 87 air traffic controllers who are needed to keep traffic flowing safely at the world’s busiest airport.

Needless to say, pilots who fly machines that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars an hour to operate aren’t very happy with that. They claim they pay enough in taxes – yet still demand services that other taxpayers will never use. And some of them are spending fortunes to keep some of our history in the air.

Is this another aspect of the entitlement epidemic in America? Are pilots who fly half-million-dollar airplanes any more or less entitled to services than a widow depending upon Social Security and Medicare? So what are the answers then? How do we finally decide who is entitled to what and how we will pay for all of it?

On the other hand, Superintendent Georgeff points out that he and his volunteers’ trips to Oshkosh wouldn’t have happened had it not been for funding from Eastern National, a park cooperating association, and the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, as both kicked in one-third of the cost.

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Even a World War II bomber turned out for the airshow. Lee Dalton photo.Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park covered the final third.Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park covered the final third.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park covered the final third.

Then there are other organizations, such as Greg Herrick’s Yellowstone Aviation of Jackson Hole that owns the big Fairchild and keeps it in flying condition while generously loaning it to the national historical park for display and use.

It actually flew from Dayton to Oshkosh and will fly back when the show ends.

Perhaps, he points out, sequestration will provide an opportunity for others who are intensely interested in our parks and the things they preserve to step up and help with funding.

Is it fair, he asks, for every citizen to pay taxes to support our parks even if they never use them? He reminds me that the EAA and the owners of the hundreds of old aircraft gathered here are also playing vital roles in preserving our national heritage of flight. He suggests that the national parks are really just one part of a much larger network of organizations and that each of them fulfill tasks in an intricate ecology of heritage preservation.

As we talk, I hear a noise outside and look to see Fifi, the only B-29 bomber still flying in the world, passing overhead. Some of these old planes are owned by wealthy individuals, but others are kept in the air by museums or foundations of various sorts, such as the Commemorative Air Force. CAF, with hundreds of volunteer members in chapters around the country, are keeping many of our old warbirds in the air. Without tax dollars.

When this year's magic ends and hundreds of airplanes and thousands of cars leave AirVenture National Park for another year, I’ll be going on to some islands in Lake Superior at a place called Apostle Islands. Then I’ll visit a house where a tall, awkward man lived and practiced law before becoming a U.S. president who led our land through its bloodiest history. On to a huge metal arch that honors a small troop of men who crossed a new continent and returned to tell about it.

Then an old school building where some courageous teenagers fought a different kind of battle. On to a tiny town in Kansas where a few people, fleeing the hatred of white-hooded horsemen in Kentucky homesteaded a harsh prairie land.

Finally, I’ll pass through a huge park and over a highway that will carry me across the first ranges of the Rocky Mountains in a place that preserves what our land used to be. All places where I’ll find an Arrowhead sign. As I do, I’ll need to remember that no matter how much we may disagree and sometimes argue over funding and priorities – over bicycle races or pets on trails, vehicles on beaches, or how to balance natural resources against pressures to develop, or countless other raging controversies – what we are really doing is struggling as members of a democracy called America to find an ever elusive balance.

One of those balances is how “. . . to preserve the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein for the enjoyment of future generations . . .”

Could it be time to reevaluate the complex intertwining structure of government, private, semi-private, for profit, or charitable ways we try to protect and preserve our heritages? Might it be time to begin an active search for something better and more workable? If so, what will it be? How will all the parts mesh together?

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The National Park Service preserves much aviation history. Lee Dalton photo.

Most important and vexing of all, who will make those crucial decisions since we know there’s no way we can trust our Congresspersons or the powerful lobbies that control them.

We all need to remember that no matter how we may argue or how we may unite in this never ending struggle, we are talking about something that simply cannot have a price tag attached.

We’re talking about the future of our past.

Our heritage.

The sun is coming up and I just heard an airplane’s engine start. I need to whomp up some breakfast and get going.  I have more of our heritage and future to visit today.


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This one was news to me, Lee. Thanks for sharing!

Lee--Although I knew Chetwin went every year, I never knew the extent of the event. Thanks for a nice piece.


By coincidence, this item appears on the NPS national website:

It's the history of the Fairchild that was on display at AirVenture.

Here's a link to a news item from the Experimental Aircraft Association's website about Darrell Collins.

         A little plug for the park service and one exceptionally fine interpreter.  Anyone who has heard Darrell's presentations won't quickly forget them.

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