Oshkosh (EAA AirVenture)

Monday 22nd July - Sunday 28th July 2019

Where does one begin with Oshkosh? As any enthusiast worth his (or her) salt is aware, it's the largest aviation event on the planet, which creates an interesting conundrum for the would-be reviewer. The show can be enjoyed in as many ways as there are people to enjoy it; my Oshkosh experience could differ from your Oshkosh experience to such an extent that we may as well have been at different events. A crowd of over 600,000 descended on this otherwise quiet corner of Wisconsin over the week of this year's show, taking in an event which incorporated some of the rarest warbirds on the planet alongside a fair smattering of the US military's latest heavy metal.

Gordon Duncan trekked to the far north of the USA to report back for UKAR from EAA AirVenture 2019, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary of being staged at Oshkosh's Wittman Regional Airport.

The bare numbers in themselves are staggering. Over 10,000 aircraft line the taxiways, fields, and hardstanding of this most picturesque of locations, flying in from all over North America. Whilst the vast majority of these are small, General Aviation-types, the sheer spectacle of seeing them lined-up in the one place at the one time is never less than mightily impressive. There were fears this year that adverse weather – a month's rain fell over the weekend immediately preceding the show – would affect both aircraft numbers and the showground area, however by the Tuesday of show-week the monsoon's only legacy was a few patches of mud here and there. This was great testament to the efforts of the volunteers and show crew, who worked tirelessly to prepare the site ahead of the arrival of the huge crowds.

To help make sense of this mammoth event, the showground is divided into different sections, such as homebuilds, vintage aircraft, warbirds etc. The centre of the showground, and forming a key focal point of the show, is known as Boeing Plaza and features a rotating cast of some of the rarer (or more spectacular) static exhibits. The star this year was the split-new UPS Boeing 747-8F – so new, indeed, that when it arrived at Oshkosh it hadn't actually been delivered to UPS yet from the Boeing factory. It was opened to the public throughout the show days, allowing visitors a chance to wander through its cavernous cargo hold. On Thursday the 747 departed to be replaced by another giant, in the shape of a C-5 Galaxy from Travis AFB, which provided an unexpected moment of drama when it suffered a brake fire upon arrival, fortunately without any lasting repercussions. Other marvels on the Plaza included, at various points, B-29 Superfortress 'Doc' (the other B-29, 'Fifi', was a regular sight over the airfield as it ran pleasure flights out of nearby Appleton Airport); an LC-130 with its fabulous 'ski' undercarriage; the famous C-47 'That's All Brother', fresh from supporting the various 'Daks Over Normandy' events in Europe; and even an ultra-rare National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration WP-3D Orion, one of only two such 'Hurricane Hunters' in existence - a delight to see such a significant airframe up close.

One area where the event's scale is immediately apparent is the warbird enclosure, which this year contained a record 400 airframes. These ranged from the near-ubiquitous T-6s and T-28s all the way up to the fairly recent past and the jet-age, with perhaps half a dozen L-39s in attendance alongside much rarer treats such as a pair of A-4 Skyhawks, a T-2B Buckeye which took part in Navy Heritage Flights during the airshows, and even an immaculate F-5 in authentic Vietnam-era markings. The big themes being celebrated this year, however, centred around two of World War Two's most charismatic types, with a gathering of DC-3/C-47s to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day (wonderfully well represented during the 'warbirds' segment of the airshows), as well as a gathering of Mustangs to celebrate legendary P-51 triple-ace Bud Anderson. There were at least 23 Mustangs present at the event; these included, alongside many 'classic' P-51Ds, examples of both the P-51C and the incredibly rare P-51H. Eighteen P-51s eventually took part in the official 'salute' to Anderson, which formed a centrepiece of the Thursday afternoon airshow.

Though a uniquely wonderful event, AirVenture can at times prove a rather frustrating experience. Quite apart from anything else, Wittman has two active runways running perpendicular to each other, and it is therefore quite impossible for a photographer to cover both. It's all too easy to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time; there's nothing quite like watching a de Havilland Mosquito recover at a distance of about a mile, for example, to make you regret your recent life choices. And aircraft come and go throughout the week with a sometimes irritating irregularity; one of the joys of the event is not knowing what's about to show up, but the flipside is that you're never quite sure what might be about to depart, either. One way of coping with this, therefore, is simply to park yourself next to one of the two main runways, camera in hand, and wait and see what happens. It's a bit like fishing, perhaps, and requires a similar zen-like acceptance that you're bound to miss out on something. If you're lucky you might get a couple of low, full-burner passes from a MiG-17 in formation with a CT-133 Silver Star. And if you're really lucky, you might get a pair of T-38 Talons circuit-bashing before landing…

The above approach tends to work best during the mornings, as from 2pm onwards the focus shifts to the main display runway and the daily airshows. These last around four hours and feature a superb variety of aircraft although, if there were a criticism, it would be helpful to have at least some advance notification of what is expected to display on any given day. The programme does list the daily performers, but not in any great detail: one day's 'Warbirds of America' segment can differ so much from the next as to have an almost entirely different 'cast' of aircraft taking part. Another (mild) criticism: yes, the daily airshows are great, but they contain a fair amount of what we in the UK would recognise as 'filler', such as small aerobatic solo displays and novelty acts. Now, in mitigation, most of these displays are excitingly, beautifully flown, often at heights and crowdline separations which would give our CAA a collective heart-attack, so they certainly don't lack in spectacle. However, put six of them on back-to-back (as can happen at Oshkosh), and the overall effect can be somewhat wearisome. So, mix it up a bit. Have them more interspersed with the solo military displays, or the themed displays such as this year's excellent aerial firefighting demos, or the great warbird formations which are the show's true hallmark and for which it is rightly globally famed.

All that said, I don't think the good people at EAA need too much advice when it comes to putting on these afternoon events… on the whole [understatement alert], they seem to be doing just fine. This year's highlights included the afore-mentioned Mosquito, straight out of every UK enthusiast's wishlist and looking just gorgeous. Sadly, with more horrible weather predicted for the end of the week it was forced to forego its planned Saturday display, departing before the show on the long haul back to Texas before the weather closed in. Another British classic long-absent from these shores, and source of another 'my God am I actually watching this' moment, was the magnificent Fairey Firefly AS.6. Something of an ugly brute on the ground, not least because of the unusual placement of the navigator/radio operator's position behind the wing, it morphs into a surprisingly graceful, powerful machine once airborne. The aircraft which flew at Oshkosh represents a Fleet Air Arm anti-submarine example, and is presented in Korean War markings. But perhaps the real star of the show, and source of much pre-show excitement and rumour, was the recently restored and utterly extraordinary XP-82 Twin Mustang. The story of its 10.5 year restoration is fairly remarkable in itself, with parts salvaged from all over the USA and a spare intact Merlin V-12 engine turning up in a garage in Mexico City. Even its first post-restoration flight, on the appropriately auspicious date of December 31st 2018, was highly unorthodox; what began as a fast-taxi developed into a 5-minute unplanned test flight, as the pilot rapidly realised there was no way of safely stopping the machine once it began charging down the runway. At Oshkosh we were treated to several display passes by this most bizarre of warbirds, and a stunning sight it was too, the all-over chrome finish glinting in late-afternoon Wisconsin sunshine.

From warbirds to modern war-machines: the latter were, as always, very well represented, with sprightly daily displays by an A-10 (which, pleasingly, became a pairs tac-demo on one show day) supplemented by appearances at various times throughout the week from both F-22 and F-35 alike. Modern combat aircraft can't fly full aerobatic routines at Oshkosh because of restrictions to the display box, but both put on excellent (and exceedingly loud) tactical demonstrations. Of particular note was the sunset display by the Raptor to kick-off Wednesday's night show, the big jet fairly tearing apart the skies, with the glow from its burners spectacularly accentuated by the failing light. All the modern combat types on display also took part in Heritage Flights across all show days; a real Oshkosh staple, these featured a terrific mix of different aircraft in celebration of different themes (the Close Air Support Heritage Flight, for example, featuring A-10 and A-1 Skyraider, was a real winner). On the downside, hearing 'Keep 'em Flying' up to several times a day will eventually try anyone's patience…

With other airshows, you tend to be left with memories: "it was great to see aircraft x again; I thoroughly enjoyed display y," etc. Oshkosh's AirVenture of course provides such moments in abundance, but it is really the feelings which linger long after the event has passed: the gut-punch of astonishment as you see it again for the first time and your brain scrambles to take it all in, a shock even to the returning visitor; the delight at seeing some incredibly rare warbird take to the skies, perhaps a sight previously only dreamt-of; the tranquillity of a morning chilling at the beautiful seaplane base on the shores of Lake Winnebago, the cheerful chaos of the main venue relegated to a background hum for at least a few hours; the contentment of an evening stroll along one of the vast flightlines, hundreds of aircraft on either side of you, maybe a warbird or two growling away in the circuit overhead, and the aroma, smoke and hubbub from dozens of barbecues and catering outlets drifting across the airfield. If you could bottle all this and sell it to the aviation community, you'd make a bloody fortune.

Trying to come up with comparators for Oshkosh is particularly difficult. You instantly have to start thinking outside of the aviation box; it's far easier to think of events from different spheres which are of similar (relative) magnitude. Inspiration struck one glorious morning whilst photographing a stunt-plane drawing the letters 'EAA' and a perfect smiley face in the sky above the main showground: Oshkosh is the Oktoberfest of airshows. It succeeds in combining sheer scale, organisational brilliance and a euphoric celebration of its core subject in much the same way as Munich's famous beer festival. Once experienced, it is hard to shake the feeling of the event (gently) sinking its claws into you; thereafter, every year without a visit to Oshkosh will feel somehow diminished, until you are eventually compelled to return. If you've never been, hopefully this review has further whetted the appetite. It's almost certainly already on your bucket-list. Beg, borrow, steal, save your pennies and just go - you won't regret it.