The Malone Column
A long-held desire to visit Oshkosh is spectacularly fulfilled
There are airshows and there are airshows, and then there’s Oshkosh. Like every other pilot on planet Earth I’ve been meaning to go for years, but life got in the way. So I decided to stop waiting−the opportunity to fly in was never going to coincide with a clear week in the diary−and just do it. Scheduled to Chicago, hire a car, and never mind the fantasy.
I wondered whether my expectations were impractically high, but by midmorning on the first day I was sitting in a 1929 Ford Trimotor as it taxied out in the sunshine along a row of a hundred warbirds, any one of which would have attracted a crowd. A Corsair edged out of the line, massive prop describing a great arc over our heads, spread its wings and fell in behind just as an F-22 Raptor taxied off the runway to the left. Above us an F-86 and an L-39 were doing some sort of aerobatic double-act, over my shoulder three Bell 47s were giving low-and-slow tours of the field, and across the top a B-17 ploughed by on a sightseeing sortie. My eyes were sticking out of my head. I was, shall we say, not disappointed.
Driving in, stuck in traffic, I’d tried to figure out where all the circuits were and failed. Helicopters were coming straight at me, and microlights overhead from behind, both turning in a couple of wingspans apart. A second circuit was operating towards the south side, and in the distance a stream of aircraft coming from the west was being vectored onto another runway. Tuning in to just one frequency at ‘the world’s busiest control tower’ was a joy in itself. “Aircraft on final; clear land on the green spot, vacate right or left onto the grass as soon as it’s safe, high-wing on base; turn final, you’re for the orange spot, Bonanza downwind; start your descent, wheelspats turning base; gimme plenty of bank, there’s one right behind you…”
Through the gate and you’re into a wondrous hybrid of Magic Kingdom, Glastonbury and the Hajj. Imagine Aero Expo stretching from Booker to White Waltham, and every alley and every tent filled with stuff you desperately want to see. I felt like a country hick at the circus, ready and willing to fall victim to every
medicine man with a patent cure, buy every magic box, learn to tig weld, apply Oracover, hear about flying opportunities in China, make money with drones, understand li-ion batteries and see the bearded lady. One of my favourites was the God Mobile−take a test to see whether you’re going to heaven, answer guaranteed. Why bother asking? All pilots go to heaven, it’s a well-known fact.
I’d arranged to meet Les Brodie, who flies a Tiger Moth from White Waltham and used to be Concorde training captain: he was with two other Concorde crew, Richard Owen and Trevor Norcott. Concorde made five appearances at Oshkosh, and on the first occasion John Cook did a touchand-go with eighty charter punters in the back, setting off every alarm in the car park. Where else could you get away with
I felt like a country hick at the circus, ready to fall victim to every medicine man
that? He didn’t, in fact−he got an official reprimand from BA, but those who were there will never forget it. Les, Richard and Trevor were making their first trip to Oshkosh−trevor had been due to bring Concorde as flight engineer when the Paris crash put a stop to the trip. We went in search of the caravan where you paid for a ride in a B-17, through row upon row of warbirds−t-28s, Corsairs, a B-29 for heaven’s sake, Mustangs−fifteen of them, plus the extraordinary XP-82 Twin Mustang, Daks recognised from Duxford, a formation of 24 Texans (Harvards to us) going over low, the ground vibrating.
Tragically, B-17 rides were sold out until the Saturday, by which time we’d be back in London. But you have to see Oshkosh from the air, so I bought a seat on the Tin Goose, which turned out to be utterly magical. Later that day I took a tour of the airfield in the Bell 47, with a pilot wearing a peaked cap just like Chuck in Whirlybirds, and from that Perspex bubble at fifty knots and 400 feet you see the whole vast fairground encampment that is Airventure spread out to the horizon, an oh-so-familiar picture of endless lines of aircraft and tents, seething masses of people, and the comings and goings of what sometimes looks like a cloud of bats−all for $49.
In the absence of Concorde I went in search of something British and didn’t find much. A Spitfire, a Mosquito rebuilt in New Zealand, and a Shorts 330−alias the C-23 Sherpa, built in Belfast for the US Army and now in service with the Department of Agriculture. I impressed the crew by saying I was a friend of the test pilot, which was stretching things… I profiled Graham Andrews in the Spring issue of Pilot, so I wasn’t completely making it up. They told me this was the last of the A models, although they’d just acquired sixteen of the B model−based on the 360−and it would fly for decades yet. The Mosquito lives in Texas: its pilot told me singleengine control speed is 190 mph but it flies off at 105, so you’ve got 85mph to find before you know you’re not going to die today. Gorgeous looking aircraft, though, beautifully restored.
And of course, this being general aviation, you’re going to run into someone you know−in my case Adam Spink, who is that uncommon creature, a senior air traffic controller (he works the Tower at Heathrow) who is passionate about aircraft. He’d had the good sense to book his B-17 flight online months ago, but just five minutes before we met he’d had to switch his flight from Thursday to Saturday. So that meant there must be a spare seat going for Thursday! We dashed back to the B-17 caravan, only to see a smug-looking woman walking away with Adam’s ticket.
So there’s nothing for it−i shall have to go again. Next time, as a veteran, I shall do things differently. Try to fly in. Book warbird flights months ahead. Wear shorts, and a floppy hat, not a baseball cap. Take blister pads. Camp on-site−they’re brilliant at handling aircraft, not so hot with cars. Take my own food; I’m an undemanding omnivore, but you wouldn’t believe just how bad the concession stand food is.
But go. Don’t put it off, go. You’ll kick yourself if you die first.