a Tuesday, July 24, 2001 photo, crowds at the
Experimental Aircraft Association's annual
AirVenture gathering in Oshkosh, Wis. view a United
States Air Force C-17 aircraft. Just about every
type of aircraft imaginable has made an appearance
at the event, which is celebrating its 50th
anniversary his year. The annual convention and
fly-in draws about 10,000 planes to the region,
5,000 of which are parked at Wittman Regional
Airport and the adjacent EAA grounds.
OSHKOSH — Steve Wittman
made a pitch.
The airport he ran here had
two runways, one that ran east-west and another
Equally important in his
1969 proposal to Paul Poberezny was the land that
surrounded the air strips. It would provide ample room to
park planes and campers from around the globe and
ultimately create an internationally heralded event that
is the gold standard for those fascinated with wings,
aeronautics and the people pushing aviation forward.
Experimental Aircraft Association's fly-in convention, has
drawn astronauts, decorated fighter pilots, Hollywood
stars, engineers and just about every type of aircraft
imaginable over the years. The agreement between Wittman
and Poberezny, EAA's founder, also transformed the city of
Oshkosh and the region.
This year, the fly-in is
marking 50 years in Oshkosh with 600,000 people expected
to celebrate all things aviation. The seven-day event that
opens Monday generates about $170 million of economic
impact in a five-county area, according to a 2017 study by
UW-Oshkosh and commissioned by the EAA.
statue of Paul Poberezny, who founded the
Experimental Aircraft Association and its annual
fly-in and convention in Milwaukee in 1953, greets
visitors in the lobby of the EAA Aviation Museum in
Oshkosh, Wis. Wednesday, July 3, 2019.
"It really puts it in
perspective that this is really a big, important event
that can't be underestimated. There's just so much
impact," said Amy Albright, executive director of the
Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. "For the
people that come here, it's their Disney World."
The EAA grounds and Wittman
Regional Airport are expecting to park 5,000 of the
estimated 10,000 airplanes that come to the region during
AirVenture with the remaining planes parked at surrounding
airports. Wittman has 8,000 landings and the EAA grounds
host 40,000 campers on 12,000 campsites, 800 of which are
equipped with water and electricity. There are more than
5,000 volunteers, 800 exhibitors, 1,100 bathrooms and four
new permanent buildings that each have 50 showers.
Off the 1,500-acre grounds,
hotels are booked, restaurants in the area have some of
their biggest weeks of the year and retailers compare it
to Christmas. Those who live in the area boost their own
incomes by renting out rooms or even whole houses to EAA
visitors, the Wisconsin State Journal reported
Dorms at UW-Oshkosh, Marion
University in Fond du lac and Ripon College are rented
out, and Valley Christian School on Oshkosh's north side
becomes a lodge as it converts offices and classrooms into
bedrooms and offers meal plans and shuttle service to the
EAA grounds. At the YMCA, the air-conditioned indoor
soccer field is turned into a campground as guests, who
pay between $40 and $60 a night, are allowed to set up
worker cleans windows at the Experimental Aircraft
Association's Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wis. as
the grounds are prepared for the association's
upcoming 50th annual AirVenture event Wednesday,
July 3, 2019.
Meanwhile, the airspace
above Wisconsin becomes a buzz of activity. AirVenture
holds nine airshows in seven days while later this week,
formations of planes making their way to Oshkosh will be
spotted throughout the state. For example, flocks of
Cherokees are scheduled to depart Saturday from Waupaca,
Mooneys will take off from Madison and a squadron of
Cessnas will arrive from Juneau. On Sunday, scores of
Cirrus aircraft will depart from Janesville.
Smaller groups of fighter
planes and bombers from World War II are common sights as
are biplanes and thousands of smaller, home-built planes
by some of the EAA's 220,000 members. They are flown not
only from around the country but from around the world,
with some swapping out seats for gas tanks in order to
make the trip over vast stretches of ocean.
"From an aviation
event (perspective), it's the biggest in the world,
relative to general aviation and recreational aviation. So
if that is one of your hobbies and interests, this is the
place. There's nothing even remotely close and that's
continued to grow and build," said Jack Pelton, who
retired from Cessna and was named the EAA's CEO in 2015.
"It has a uniqueness that even if you're not an
airplane geek, it's a fun enough activity that you want to
participate. It's just a wonderful place to be and I think
that's what sustains this thing."
The EAA was founded in
Poberezny's Milwaukee basement in early 1953 as a local
club for those who built and restored their own planes.
The first fly-in was in September of that year at Wright-Curtiss
Field (now Timmerman Airport) and dubbed the Milwaukee Air
Pageant. It drew about 20 planes and 150 people and
quickly outgrew the airport. In 1959, Poberezny moved the
event to the Rockford Municipal Airport in northern
Illinois where the event established itself with diverse
aircraft, airshows and international visitors.
During the convention,
Rockford was declared the "sport plane capital of the
world," governors from Illinois and Wisconsin were
frequent visitors and the economic impact to the area in
the 1960s was between $250,000 and $500,000, according to
the Rockford Register-Republic, the city's daily
But Poberezny became miffed
when there was little support from local groups to provide
visitor information and direct crowds. Poberezny told the
newspaper in 1967 that he wanted the event to stay in
Rockford, but by 1969, the airport's manager, Robert
Selfridge, demanded that no camping be held at the airport
if there were aerobatic demonstrations. The EAA also
needed more space at the airport to accommodate its
"Poberezny said the
decision to locate elsewhere was made because relations
with Selfridge had worsened in the last several years and
EAA officials felt they were no longer welcome and not
wanted in Rockford," the newspaper wrote in 1969.
EAA officials looked at a
few other sites around the Midwest, but it was the offer
from Wittman that was the most attractive. The offer set
in motion an aeronautical, economic and social boom in
Oshkosh, where the Ho-Chunk lived for centuries and where,
in the 1800s, sawmills lined the Fox River, many of which
provided lumber to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of
OshKosh B'gosh was founded
in 1895, Oshkosh Corp., formerly Oshkosh Truck,
manufactures specialty and military vehicles, and Lake
Winnebago offers the city boundless recreational
opportunities, including sturgeon spearing each February.
The city is also home to other major tourism events like
the country music festival Big Country USA and Rock USA.
This weekend features the Waupaca Boatride Volleyball
Tournament, which started last week with 1,800 teams from
around the country, while Lifefest, one of the largest
Christian music festivals in the country, was expected to
draw nearly 20,000 people to the Winnebago County
fairgrounds over the weekend.
The EAA, which opened its
museum in 1983, has helped bolster tourism year-round and
drawn other major events to the region, like next month's
International Pathfinder Camporee. The event, one of the
largest Adventist youth events in the world, is expected
to draw more than 50,000 people from more than 100
countries to the EAA grounds over five days.
But the fly-in convention
is the most anticipated event of the year.
In 2005, Rockford created
AirFest, one of the Midwest's largest air shows, but the
last show was in 2015. The city is now touting the table
tennis Olympic trials for North America, a mural festival,
Tough Mudder and a basketball event that celebrates
Rockford native Fred VanVleet, who won an NBA title this
year with the Toronto Raptors. In 2006, Cheap Trick named
an album after Rockford, its hometown.
"I think we feel very
fortunate and embrace (AirVenture), but we don't take it
for granted," said Albright of the convention and
visitors bureau. "AirVenture put us on an
international map. For a town of 65,000, that really says
something. We would look very different without
The first fly-in in 1970
drew around 100,000 people but by 1976 attendance had
tripled. Three years later, despite fuel shortages for
both planes and automobiles, attendance rose to 400,000
people. That growth continued in the 1980s as attendance
reached 800,000 and included a visit in 1989 by the SR-71
Blackbird spy plane. Attendance hit a peak of an estimated
850,000 in 1994, but in 2005 had dropped to 700,000. EAA
officials say attendance has been relatively stable at
about 600,000 over the last several years and their
ability to accurately count the crowds has vastly improved
with electronic people counters, scanning wrist bands and
tracking ticket sales.
The challenge to
maintaining the event is continually upgrading facilities
to meet the needs of modern day campers and visitors, said
Pelton. It ranges from better campsites to more food
options at concession stands, more portable bathrooms and
showers and improved traffic flow. A study is underway
this year to determine how to better move people
throughout the grounds.
"It's grown so
big," Pelton said. "Those are the things you
have to constantly work on."