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Thu, Aug 03, 2006

Oshkosh, Two Days After

Nearly Alone In The Ghost Town

by ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

The wind alone makes the air bearable, as occasional planes struggle to climb in 100 degree, blowtorch heat. Most of them are gone, and the wide open spaces of Wittman Field are wide open once more, or getting that way. One Aero Commander sits alone in camping... what's the story there? Plane down? Pilot had to leave early? The plane itself stands mute; it'll never tell.

Many displays are already gone. Flyboys, The Movie has taken their show on the road to Seattle; the Nieuport 28 that was on display at their booth (a type which is not in the movie at all, but which adds a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi to the display) had previously departed, flown by an Australian pro home to its proud owner a couple of days ago.

"What's it fly like?" I asked the Australian, who turned out to be none other than round-the-world flyer Jon Johanson.

"Heh. A World War I fighter plane," he said. "It's a rudder plane, like all of them." It's not quite the bundle of snakes a Fokker Triplane is, apparently -- there is a little bit of fixed fin on it, and the rudder has a greater arm -- making it a little more willing than the tripe to travel prop-forward. But it's got to be a job of work to fly this open-cockpit, 85-kt, concentration-demanding machine on a cross country trip. Still, wouldn't you trade places with our friend from Down Under, if you could?

Johanson did tell us that as Americans, we didn't know "hot and dry" conditions. "Come to my country and see!" he invited us with a grin, before pushing the plane off for departure.

The exhibits that aren't gone are hollow shells. Some of them fold into a colorful truck that advertises the company: our neighbors, Harley-Davidson and Klein Tools, were set up like this. Others loaded their stuff into a rented box van -- that was Canon's approach.

We shuttled stuff we own to storage, and met trucks that hauled off stuff we rented, and packed more stuff for the ride to the home office. The last thing we did was kill power -- and therefore, A/C -- to our onsite office. With the heat outdoors, we'd work a bit, go in to cool off a bit, again work a bit. Great Googly Moogly, we were tired.

Looking around the grounds, we saw things -- or, were seeing things. I think I remember a Cirrus standing here for the preflight contest, where it's now a sea of golf carts and John Deere Gators. I never knew EAA used so many Gators! Deere is one of the non-aviation sponsors that are so important to AirVenture; another big one is Ford. In both cases, the sponsorship happened at least in part because company executives personally used and believed in general aviation.

Flying executives are not unusual; there's a very high correlation between high achievement and aviation interest. Some would say that the flying follows the money, but as your freshman stats prof told you, "correlation does not prove causation." Indeed, my take is that it's the other way around: the same independence of spirit and curiosity that drives men and women to fly, whether powered parachutes, C-17s, or anything in between, drives them to excel in business and in life.

AirVenture is not Woodstock; when the show pulls out, the only sign it was there is money in the hands of Wisconsin merchants (well, and that Aero Commander. And me, with my car up on a lift). You could lie down on any of the lawns and fall asleep, if you were acclimatized to the heat. There's no trash. The entire show is in the process of vanishing after dominating this area, in a sort of Orwellian contradiction: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery.

S. J. Wittman Field is a mid-sized regional airport. It has always been a mid-sized regional airport.

After a week of seeing landmarks on the field that are not there now, of seeing teeming crowds that are not there now, of seeing airplanes where there is now nothing but pavement or green grass, I still see them in my minds eye. Ghosts of the show. The Honda pavilion is an empty shell, but I remember marveling at the beautiful lines of the HondaJet here (along with Honda's impressive range of other products; "If it burns fuel, we build it," a fellow from Honda Marine said matter-of-factly). Indeed, I remember trying to take a picture of the HondaJet without getting glare from the floodlights -- a good reminder why I'm a writer and not a photographer; that's stuff's hard!

They aren't the only ghosts, those memory-resident families and pilots, vendors and homebuilders, innovators and restorers. There are also the ghosts of the dead after this sad event. But it is not the ghosts who are sad; it is those of us who stay behind.

The fallen flyers have passed the gates to Valhalla. They are made welcome by those that went before. "Bad accident, we saw it, I went the same way in '43 in a P-40. Never saw it coming. You'll be alright. The suffering is over. And wait till you see what we fly here."

The older ghosts are here as well. They were here during the show of course; with all the cacophony we couldn't hear them. Now that things have slowed down, if you listen hard enough you can hear them. "Do you have a message for us?" Well, of course they do. "Tell the guy that restored my old Mustang -- yeah, I have that tail number in my logbook -- that he overdid it. She never looked so good in those days. But thank him anyway."

But the strange thing about the ghosts is this: if you don't try to see them you never will. And when you try too hard, they disappear like a lifting fog -- you can see right through them, and then you can't see any sign of them. You have to put yourself in the right frame of mind for the ghosts to come and visit.

The empty AirVenture grounds put me in that frame of mind.

FMI: www.airventure.org

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