Ghosts From The Sky

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THIS JULY MORE THAN TWENTY THOUSAND airplanes will make their way across hundreds and even thousands of miles of sky to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Some eight hundred thousand people will come to see them there, topping off the local hotel facilities, sleeping in college dorms and the rented bedrooms of private homes. For a few days a busy tent city will blossom around the planes, as America’s most impressive annual aviation event runs its hectic, buoyant course.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

THIS JULY MORE THAN TWENTY THOUSAND airplanes will make their way across hundreds and even thousands of miles of sky to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Some eight hundred thousand people will come to see them there, topping off the local hotel facilities, sleeping in college dorms and the rented bedrooms of private homes. For a few days a busy tent city will blossom around the planes, as America’s most impressive annual aviation event runs its hectic, buoyant course.

EVERY SUMMER THOUSANDS of airplanes converge on a Wisconsin town, among them squadron after squadron of hardy survivors that span the age of flight

The throngs who attend know the gathering simply as “Oshkosh,” but its official name is the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In Convention. This rather bloodless title doesn’t begin to suggest the variety of the craft that appear, and perhaps the most fascinating of all is the armada of vintage airplanes that, parked wingtip to wingtip in the summer weather, constitutes an extraordinary and evanescent working museum of American aviation.

This great airborne convention is the inspiration of Paul H. Poberezny, a pilot and designer of homemade airplanes who started it all with a modest gathering of fliers at Milwaukee in 1953. From a manual typewriter on a wooden table in the Pobereznys’ suburban Milwaukee basement, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has grown to an international organization with more than 166,000 members. Poberezny taught himself to fly in a well-worn glider he rebuilt when he was sixteen years old. He racked up experience as a military pilot, but his passion for flight remained a deeply personal grassroots involvement with simple flying machines he and his contemporaries could design and build in their garages and basements. Thus began an uninterrupted run of annual EAA fly-ins, first at Milwaukee, with a handful of participants, then to Oshkosh in 1956, where fifty homebuilts were judged and several hundred other aircraft carried their pilots in for fraternizing, and thence nomadically to Rockford, Illinois, until 1970, when Oshkosh and EAA consummated a marriage that looks like it’s going to last.

Today nearly nine hundred chapters embrace the membership—including second- and third-generation EAAers— worldwide. There has always been a kindred spirit among recreational fliers, and it soon became apparent that more than homebuilders were interested in what EAA had to offer: The culture the organization serves is rightly identified as sport aviation.

Paul Poberezny has assumed the mantle of patriarch of EAA gracefully, turning over much of the organization’s operations to his son, Tom. This has caused some griping about nepotism, but it’s hard to deny the success of Paul’s quiet perseverance followed by Tom’s business acumen.

Out on the grass flight line, arriving airplanes from all over the country and several foreign lands are grouped by category. Near a glade of huge old trees, antiques and classics from the 1920s through postwar years roost while their pilots compare planes and tales.

TO THE OCCASIONAL chagrin of devotees of other types of aircraft, military planes are the glamour machines at Oshkosh.
 

There’s an airshow each day of the weeklong event. Most days squadrons of warplanes rise from the runway, representing World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and, increasingly, Cold War machines that are cropping up on the international market.

Inevitably the portion of the airfield staked out by EAA’s Warbirds of America division attracts large crowds. To the occasional chagrin of devotees of other types of aircraft, military planes—or, as their proponents invariably call them, warbirds—are the glamour machines at Oshkosh. There’s a sense of getting away with something in this camp; the ability to buy, and fly, everything from World War II bombers to supersonic American and Soviet jet fighters reminds one of that borderline high school kid who had the lowered Ford with lake pipes when everyone else still rode a bicycle.