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Ghosts From The Sky

June 2024
7min read

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.

THE WARBIRD MOVEMENT KEEPS REINVENT- ing itself, shrugging off predictions of its demise for lack of spare parts by finding new caches of old parts or simply making new hardware from scratch by referring to microfilmed drawings. In the early days of Oshkosh there was a pretty clear understanding that the old hands—the actual veterans of these planes—were the masters and that youngsters in the cockpit were to be treated as such. Over the last two decades, however, baby boomers have swelled the ranks. But with the new pilots has come new understanding about the realities of flying high-performance military machines. Oshkosh participants must attend, and display proficiency during, formation flying clinics before they are allowed to play in the big show. Safety seminars unite the various warbird factions long enough for their sometimes strong-willed members to agree that nobody wants to become a smoking hole. And although instantaneous media coverage of warplane mishaps at airshows tends to magnify the problems of flying these powerful machines, as Jeff Ethell, a warbird pilot, author, and Oshkosh regular, points out, “Our accident rate is the same as general aviation and for the airlines.” Of the burgeoning postwar fighter category, Ethell says, “The accident rate in jets is flawless; they just don’t fiddle around with them.”

Oshkosh is about flight. Some assaults on the continued flying of warplanes come from federal regulators; others from well-intentioned individuals who see any losses of such aircraft as debits to the national heritage. Ethell rattles off a litany of statistics that shows the number of former warplanes on the U.S. civil aircraft registry is actually growing at the rate of about twenty per year. This aircraft alchemy occurs as newer planes become available and as the market gets increasingly lucrative, prompting rebuilders to take a second glance at derelict aircraft—and pieces of aircraft. Whole sections of P-51 Mustang fighters are being built from scratch, while sometimes the corroded wing of a fighter serves as a template to clone itself as patient metalworkers replicate each part and reinstall it, like an organism sloughing off old cells for identical new ones.

IT MAY ALL LOOK dangerous, but the accident rate at Oshkosh is the same as that for the airlines.

Most surprising of all are some of the warplanes long ago written off as wrecks. At Oshkosh in 1995 Dave Kensler of White Lake, Michigan, unveiled an immaculate Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter, a barrel-chested holdover from the era when landing gear could be cranked up and down by hand using sprockets and motorcyclechains. And Kensler’s was one of two genuine Wildcats flying at Oshkosh that year; only a few years earlier the movement decried the possibility of ever seeing a genuine Grumman F4F-3 in the air again. But the pair at Oshkosh got there the hard way, after lying for more than forty years on the bottom of Lake Michigan. In recent years the U.S. Navy has embraced many of its fallen planes, submerged and all but forgotten for decades. Lawsuits and threatened lawsuits surround the raising of aircraft the Navy insists are still its property after all these years out of sight, but the two Wildcats in civilian hands were part of a salvage operation that had Navy blessings before Kensler ever bought one of them from the salvor. His plane had spent forty-eight years under 220 feet of freshwater. The depth had spared it the ravages of plant growth, and the Wildcat had been so thoroughly painted and prepared for the harshly corrosive environment of a life at sea that, amazingly, the protection held. The born-again fighter’s fuselage did not even require reskinning.


BUT THE LENGTHS TO WHICH WARPLANE devotees are going—coupled with record sales prices, including the $1.32 million fetched by a P-38 Lightning at auction a few years back—mean that this is no poor man’s hobby. If a P-51 fetched $5,000 in the 1950s, it was up to $25,000 by the late 1960s and pushes a million now. Engine overhauls cost more than a car. A Plexiglas canopy, blown fresh by one of several specialty shops, can run to several thousand dollars. Gone are the days of tinkering on a surplus fighter and hopping it on the weekends for a thrill. Perhaps that is just as well; the cost of these machines helps ensure them proper care.

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.


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