Ghosts From The Sky


The machinations of the increasingly sophisticated warbird movement are mostly invisible to Oshkosh visitors. What the public sees are rows and rows of fighters, bombers, trainers, and transports that are living emblems of fierce and desperate moments in American history. Strolling among the parked veterans in the early morning, spectators are likely to be temporarily held back, but not far back, by Day-Glo-vested safety spotters so a huge P-47 Thunderbolt can crank its engine and taxi out for a morning flight or a brace of P-51 Mustangs can gurgle their way to the runway for spirited play overhead. Air tçaffic controllers can orchestrate Wittman Field, whose two runways form a “P,” to launch and recover airplanes most of the day, starting with informal dawn patrols and culminating in a formal airshow. The morning’s spontaneity is a particularly appealing part of the Oshkosh ambiance; one soon becomes comfortable with, if not blasé about, the comings and goings of World War II bombers, the steady drone of an ancient Ford Tri-Motor selling rides to the past, and the earnest buzz of a brand-new ultralight.

THE FIELD IS PEOPLED by persistent tinkerers, patient craftspeople, and dedicated historians.

Over at the antique/classic aircraft parking area, the tempo is less urgent than in warbird land, but some of the hurdles are the same. Vintage tires are becoming scarce, and companies willing to make the old sizes come and go. It’s at the point, says Henry G. Frautschy, editor of the EAA’s Vintage Airplane magazine, where some owners of antique aircraft will fly to Oshkosh on modern wheels and tires and switch to more precious vintage gear for judging. To be judged at Oshkosh, an airplane must fly under its own power and land there. But for frail old-timers, the main part of the trip can be made by trailer so long as the vintage airplane takes off and then lands at Wittman Field.

The antique division is still peopled by individuals and families who bring their one pet aircraft, much like show-and-shine car buffs. A postwar Aeronca Champ, a fabric-covered two-seater, can be had for eight to twelve thousand dollars, putting this EAA division within the grasp of more fliers than you’ll find in the rarefied atmosphere of the warplane owners. The U.S. civil aircraft registry shows an impressive tally of about sixty thousand planes that fit into one of EAA’s three antique/classic/contemporary categories of aircraft built before December 31, 1960. Part of the appeal of this division is that the planes involved were largely made using hand methods that can be learned and performed by individuals today. Some modern conveniences do creep in. It’s so difficult to get hold of decent cotton today, Frautschy says, that the classic fabric covering for vintage airplanes has largely been replaced by modern synthetics made for the purpose. But if two otherwise identical antiques are up for judging and one has cotton, it’s going to take the prize. Some safety modifications are permitted —even encouraged—by EAA with no points deducted in judging. Things like modern wheel brakes and shoulder harnesses, if installed in keeping with the rest of the aircraft, are allowable deviations. But craftsmanship must prevail even in safety installations. “If you do it sloppily, you’re going to have points taken off,” Frautschy notes. The realm of antiques and classics has room for replicas, which can also be judged as homebuilts, depending on how authentic they are to the original specifications. As for those owners who want a custom airplane, plush beyond anyone’s expectations a half-century ago, there are custom categories for judging, although the top-of-the-heap best antique at Oshkosh will always be the most original.

Some people watch the Olympic Games to derive inspiration for their own endeavors from the wills of the athletes. The same recharging of the philosophical batteries can he had at Oshkosh, where the field is peopled with quiet innovators, persistent tinkerers, and patient craftspeople, among them dedicated historians who find their calling not in books and manuscripts but in leather, machined aluminum, half-century-old weaponry, and all the elements that in combination offer so vibrant and immediate a connection with the past.