‘If You’re Into Airplanes, Oshkosh is the Place to Be’

EAA AirVenture draws 600K fans, creating busiest airport on Earth for a week

By Matt Neistein

Published July 12, 2019

Read Time: 5 mins


The busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. It averages more than 100 landings and takeoffs an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But for one week every summer, officials at little Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., laugh at Atlanta’s light traffic.

Wittman is the host of EAA AirVenture, a gigantic annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts from around the world hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association. How gigantic? In 2018, Wittman handled 134 landings and takeoffs an hour during AirVenture, according to EAA.

That’s more than two flight movements every minute.

“There are millions of moving parts that must be coordinated as we create an aviation city for one week out of the year,” EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said of the event, being held from July 22-28 this year. “It’s exciting, ever-changing, occasionally exasperating, but ultimately an event that brings together people and airplanes like no other event in the world.”

AirVenture is EAA’s signature festival, where guests revel in flight in all its forms, from ultralights to space shuttles, via air shows, displays and more. It traces its roots back to a tiny fly-in at a regional airport in Milwaukee in the 1950s – now EAA bills it as the “World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.”

In 2018, Regional Wittman Airport handled 134 landings and takeoffs an hour during AirVenture. (Photo courtesy of EAA)

Among the more than 600,000 people who attended in 2018 was Ted Merklin, president of EAA Chapter 857, based at Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport. Merklin has attended nearly every AirVenture since 2006.

Merklin’s first experience with the fly-in came while he was in high school in the 1960s, when the event was held in Rockford, Ill. The seeds of his interest in aviation blossomed decades later. Now, despite not being a pilot, he leads the local group of about 35 members who work to pass on their passion to the next generation.

“Our primary focus for several years has been the Young Eagles program, which introduces kids between the ages of 8 and 17 to aviation,” he said. “Part of that involves pilots giving up their time and resources to fly kids on a 15- or 20-minute flight.”

Merklin makes the 12-hour drive to Oshkosh every summer, joined by about 900 exhibitors and more than 10,000 aircraft. This summer, the theme is “Year of the Fighter.”

“My basic approach to the show is to get there for the Sunday arrivals and just watch the airplanes come in,” he said, adding that he listens to radio chatter from the control tower as a beefed-up staff of air traffic controllers handles the incredible number of inbound aircraft.

Phil Kriley has piloted one of those aircraft quite a few times, and says it’s like nothing else he’s ever done. Kriley, also a member of EAA Chapter 857, has flown two different planes to AirVenture over the years.

“Before I go to Oshkosh, I always spend a lot of time practicing spot landings, making sure I can sit whatever airplane I’m flying down where I’m supposed to put it, because I have had up to three airplanes (land) on the same runway at the same time,” he said.

Last year, more than 600,000 people attended EAA AirVenture. (Photo courtesy of EAA)

Yes, you read that right: three aircraft landing simultaneously on the same runway.

“They have these colored spots on the runway … and they’ll tell you which spot they want you to land on,” Kriley continued. “It’s not just, ‘Land on the runway,’ it’s, ‘Land on that spot.’ And you have to try to be fairly close to that so you don’t chew somebody’s tailfeathers off. It’s pretty intense.”

Once he gets there, he says he enjoys visiting the EAA Aviation Museum, the exhibitors and workshops, among other attractions.

Knapinski noted that, while EAA is an organization with more than 200,000 members best described as enthusiasts and hobbyists, AirVenture draws plenty of heavy hitters in the aviation industry.

Airbus and Boeing have a presence here every year, as do companies such as Embraer, Ford, Microsoft, and others,” he said. “The big companies realize that many of the people who are interested in recreational aviation have key jobs in aviation and could be their customers.”

But AirVenture isn’t just about business – it’s about ogling vintage aircraft, going on helicopter rides, watching world-class aerobatics teams and sharing all of it with hundreds of thousands of people just like you.

Merklin described it as “a total aviation atmosphere for a whole week.”

Even celebrity aviation enthusiasts make their way to the small city about 90 minutes northwest of Milwaukee to take in the experience, Knapinski said, listing actors Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman and Kurt Russell among those who have made appearances in the past.

“Two years ago, the president of Botswana, a former military pilot and current ultralight pilot, made a trip to Oshkosh to AirVenture for himself,” he said.

But the highlights always come back to flying.

Merklin said one of his all-time favorite moments was touring a restored DC-7, the first aircraft he ever flew on as a child. Knapinski enjoys the memory of seeing seven of the Apollo astronauts gathered at AirVenture one year. And Kriley affectionately recalled the time he and his then-teenage son were camping near the airport, as tens of thousands of attendees do each year, when an F-111 Aardvark fighter jet buzzed the crowd at full throttle one morning.

“It was pretty cool. That’s my idea of an alarm clock,” he said.

Go for the rare and historic aircraft. Go for the innovative technology. Go for KidVenture, which features simulators and model rockets, or the daily air shows or the legendary aviation figures like Burt Rutan. The point is that you can go for all of them at the same time in the same place.

“If you’re into airplanes at all, Oshkosh is the place to be. It’s just incredible,” Kriley said.

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