EAA Celebrates 50 Years

Air Line Pilot, November/December 2002, page 26
Story and photos by Gary DiNunno, Editor

Laughter-silvered wings and the smiles of thousands of enthusiasts were abundant during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s golden anniversary July 23-29. Hundreds of ALPA members joined an estimated 750,000 aviation aficionados from all over the world to celebrate 50 years of the EAA during this year’s annual, week-long AirVenture extravaganza in Oshkosh, Wis. More than 1,900 international visitors from 80 countries registered with event staff.

In addition to acres of parked vehicles of those who drove onto the show grounds, more than 10,000 aircraft arrived at Wittman Regional Airport for this year’s show, and some 2,500 show planes were put on display for the award judges’ scrutiny. The FAA suspends normal air traffic rules and brings in "high density" controllers from some of the more crowded U.S. airports to manage the traffic flow at what’s touted to be the busiest airport in the world for the 10 days of the airshow.

The EAA heralded its humble beginnings with a re-creation of the first EAA convention in September 1953 at Curtiss Wright Field (now Timmerman Air-port) in Milwaukee. Volunteers in 1950’s costumes greeted the display’s visitors, who viewed representations of aircraft present at the first event, listened to early 1950’s music, and examined 1953 autos and other vehicles.

Nowhere else in the world can an aviation buff see so many vintage aircraft at one time. These are not static museum displays. They fly in and out during the event. The audience watches and listens to World War I bi-planes, a Ford Trimotor that takes paying passengers on rides, a B-17 rumbling as its engines crank up. No one is unaware of when the Harriers arrive—earplugs are a necessity along the flight line. F-15s roar overhead. An A-10 Warthog pulls on to the tarmac. Air Atlanta Icelandic sends a B-747 to the show. Everything and everyone stops while a B-2 Stealth Bomber sneaks by, turns, and does another fly-by. On another day, a B-52 wows the crowd. A Super Connie in vintage TWA colors, which the "Save-a-Connie" organization has refurbished, draws long lines to get inside. A B-25 moves onto the runway to take off.

Have you ever seen a rocket-powered airplane? Dick Rutan flew one of his signature aircraft modified with two small rocket engines. XCOR Aerospace developed the engines for the modified Long-EZ homebuilt aircraft and dubbed it the "EZ-Rocket." Rutan fired off a 12-second burst, providing enough thrust to take off and loop once. He fired off another burst and maneuvered into position for a landing. EZ-Rocket is touted as the first step toward cheap and easy civilian access to space.

"Brats" and soft drinks spilled off a cardboard tray onto the ground. No one noticed, because all eyes were skyward as Capt. Julie Clarke (Northwest) took her Beech T-34 through its paces. Rolls and loops thrilled the spectators as the T-34 danced among the clouds, before Capt. Clarke released her signature red, white, and blue smoke from the tail and wingtips. Every after-noon, thousands of pilots and wannabes were entertained by parachute teams, wing-walking acts, and aerobatics that seem impossible to fly in any airplane.

The roar of supercharged, highly modified engines on the taxiway pulled the crowd to the edge of the flight line. Time for a race, and four Unlimited-class racers cleared their throats before moving to takeoff position. These airplanes can reach nearly 400 miles per hour with engines generating more than 2,000 horsepower. Although this contest is supposed to be a demonstration of pylon racing, similar to the annual National Championship Air Races held in Reno, Nev., every September (each of the racers has competed there), the manner in which these pilots go for the checkered flag leaves no doubt that the competition is real. After taking off and positioning themselves for the start, the chase plane peeled off and the race was on.

Carving turns around the pylons with wings perpendicular to the ground and hitting the straightaway at hundreds of miles per hour, the four planes, just a few seconds and a few feet apart, maneuvered for the lead. A winner was declared, and the racers returned to the runway—to await the next day’s "demonstration" race and a new chance to win the day’s bragging rights.

Many enthusiasts at Oshkosh, when they visited the Wright Experience display, were able to simulate how Orville and Wilbur Wright must have felt flying their bi-winged, powered aircraft or soaring on their experimental gliders. Capts. Clif Walker (Northwest) and Chip Mull (US Airways), during a break from ALPA booth duty, joined hundreds of others for the opportunity to steer a model Wright glider, lying prone and shifting a hip or pushing or pulling to cause an appropriate reaction on the simulator monitor. Starting from 75 feet above ground level, each pilot tried to return to the landing area. Then, sitting together behind the controls of a simulated Model B Flyer, the two pilots worked together to fly and land that aircraft—wing-warping and all.

World War II airplanes lumbered down the runway. Loaded to the gills, they slowly climbed into position for their bombing runs. The ground shook with the percussion of the explosives as the airplanes passed over the "targets." It must have been 0300, as the afternoon Warbirds show was about to begin.

Mosquitoes were out as the sun rose over Wisconsin. No, wait, we were approaching the ultralight-aircraft area, and the buzzing in the air was from dozens of them slowly circling the southern end of the EAA show grounds. From these ultralights, with a little Dacron stretched over a few aluminum tubes and a small, sputtering engine, to airplanes with a fuselage and wings, ultralight advocates see their flying as more adventurous and pure than other methods. Their low and slow passes over the bucolic countryside allow them to soak in the scenery—in effect, to smell the roses—although, as they are flying over farmland and pastures, the aroma that touches their noses is probably not that of roses.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, in one of her last official acts before the end of her term, addressed a gathering of aviators for a question-and-answer session. Five years ago, as one of her first official acts as FAA Administrator, she addressed EAA show attendees in what was to become an annual appearance. This year, in addition to the traditional lively and frank "give and take," members of AFCSME Council 26 who work for the FAA greeted the Administrator with leaflets and an organized presence to protest the agency’s failure to sign a collective bargaining agreement.

Why is ALPA at the EAA annual event? It is one of the various aviation industry events that line pilots, as part of the union’s on-going education program, attend throughout the year to promote the profession, address issues important to the traveling and aviation public, and provide information about ALPA and its role as the advocate for all airline pilots.

Capt. John Feldvary, ALPA’s vice-president–finance/treasurer, joined ALPA Education Committee volunteers who staffed the Association’s booth during the week-long show, including Atlantic Coast F/O Alistair Stanton and Capt. Lauren Elliott; Delta F/Os Jim Young and Chris Durand; Northwest Capt. Clif Walker and F/O Lloyd Knight; F/O Eric Popper (United); and Capt. Chip Mull (US Airways). In addition to greeting the hundreds of ALPA members and retirees who stopped by the booth to say hello, the volunteers passed out career information to students and military pilots looking for an airline pilot career and information about ALPA to airline pilots represented by other unions, and, of course, gave an ALPA propeller toy to each of the children (of all ages) who stopped by.

Planning to attend the 2003 AirVenture in Oshkosh? Come by the ALPA booth in the southeast corner of Hangar B to say hello and learn if some of your training buddies—you know, those pilots you haven’t seen in a few years—are on the show grounds. Vintage aircraft and vintage friends—life is good.