EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Monday 24th July - Sunday 30th July 2023

EAA AirVenture, or, as it is simply known throughout the world - Oshkosh. The world's greatest aviation celebration, as it immodestly but justifiably styles itself. An event which features every type of aviation you can think of, and maybe one or two which you hadn't. It's vast, beautiful, bonkers - on a scale simply unimaginable elsewhere - and in 2023 celebrated a number of themes including the 70th anniversary of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) itself, as well as aerial tributes to the F-4U Corsair and the Vietnam War.

Gordon Duncan returned to his 'home from home on the prairie' to report on EAA AirVenture 2023.

"Airshows? You mean there are airshows? Is that what all the noise is during the afternoon workshops?" [anonymous contributor on an online Oshkosh forum]

Let's be kind to our anonymous forum-ite and assume that he was joking. Yeah, there are airshows - nine in total, in fact, running every afternoon Monday-Sunday and with two night-shows thrown in on Wednesday and Saturday for good measure. It would however be inaccurate to describe AirVenture as an airshow, as that doesn't really do the event justice. It's an aviation 'convention' in the truest sense: part expo, part fly-in, part celebration, part forum and, yes, part airshow.

This year broke several records, including spectators - 677,000 according to the EAA itself. This number should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt - it's not clear if someone attending on all seven days is counted seven times, for example - but it is clear that the appetite for this monster event remains as keen as ever. A more conservative estimate puts total attendance at somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 separate souls - still a huge number, even for a sprawling venue like Wittman Regional Airport, AirVenture's home since 1969.

Aircraft records were broken too: in excess of 10,000 aircraft descended on this charming little Wisconsin town, with huge numbers of vintage (nearly 1,500) and warbird (380) types taking part. In total, the FAA logged 21,883 aircraft operations in the eleven days from first arrival to last departure; the equivalent of 148 take-offs or landings per hour whilst the airport is open. If you're a photographer planning a visit, for God's sake take spare batteries and plenty of storage/memory cards.

The vast majority of types on the airfield belong of course firmly in the General Aviation category. You're either a GA-fan or you're not; however a gathering of so many in the one place at the one time undeniably has a strange beauty all of its own. Seeing '10,000 aircraft' written down doesn't really mean anything until you see it in real life, in all its glorious insanity; the fields of aircraft stretching literally as far as the eye can see. The… 'point' of all this, assuming that it needs a point, is to let you experience all forms of aviation up close, and to cater to all forms of interest in aviation. If you are a pilot or homebuilder and want to sit in a marquee for a week taking in any of the 1,400 seminars, forums and workshops covering everything from riveting to radio communications, then you can do that. If you're a local family and just want to let the kids see some cool planes, then that's ok too. Heck, if your interest is in biz-jets - and we're not judging, much - then head up past warbirds and park yourself next to the perpendicular 09-27 runway, where you're guaranteed at least half a dozen biz-jet movements per hour. And if you're a photographer who just loves airshow action with a particular emphasis on warbirds and modern military, then you're in heaven.

One of the more challenging aspects of this event, aside from its mammoth size, is the ever-changeable Wisconsin weather. Unfortunately, frequent and intense thunderstorms are as much an Oshkosh staple as hundred-mile approach stacks and giant coloured dots on the runway and this year was no exception. The Thursday morning of AirVenture week has always been a traditional departure time - many of those who fly-in to the show stay through the early part of the week and leave after Wednesday's night-show and fireworks - but this year the fields seemed to empty much more quickly than usual. One storm had already blown in overnight on Wednesday; the threat of another, made more acute by the intense heat forecast for Thursday and Friday, led to many people making the wise decision to pack up and head home rather than risk damage to their aircraft. Though some distance shy of 2010's infamous (and self-explanatory) 'Sploshkosh', this year's storms were still fairly wild… if you're the owner of a fragile GA or vintage aircraft who cleared off on Thursday, no-one could blame you.

A further complication this year, and source of much panicked speculation prior to AirVenture, was the smoke from wildfires burning hundreds of miles away in Canada but which had drifted far enough south to cast a literal and metaphorical pall over the event's ability to continue as planned. Mercifully the subsequent haze was only really an issue on Monday and Tuesday and didn't lead to the cancellation of any of the airshow elements on either day, including Monday's traditional mass warbird arrival.

The organisation behind all the madness, the Experimental Aircraft Association, as always succeeded in living up to its name this year by providing plenty of aviation oddities and rarities. Greeting visitors to the showground through the early part of the week on Boeing Plaza, at show-centre, were two highly unusual giants in the shape of a Boeing 747-400 'Dreamlifter', and perhaps even more impressively, NASA's Super Guppy. With its unique 'python trying to digest an antelope' bulge, the Dreamlifter is an enormous, ungainly beast on the ground, but belied its appearance with a sprightly departure on the Wednesday morning, after which it was replaced on the Plaza by another giant in the shape of a USAF C-5M Galaxy. The Super Guppy, alas, also didn't stay for the entire week, departing early on Thursday, but during its stay was opened up via its bizarre side-hinged nose to allow spectators to explore its cavernous hold.

Boeing Plaza also serves as the location for the static display of modern military hardware; this year's rotating cast included such gems as a CV-22 Osprey, two Oregon ANG examples of the increasingly scarce F-15C, several specially marked T-38 Talons and an F-16 (in garish yellow and blue anniversary scheme) from nearby Duluth AFB. The Duluth wing also provided an F-16 for the flying display, the 'Viper' taking part in a NORAD-themed demonstration which featured the simulated interception and forced-landing of a Beechcraft Baron which, in the mock-scenario, had unwittingly violated restricted airspace. With a sizeable percentage of North America's GA pilots as a captive audience, this demo also served as a none-too-subtle reminder of the importance of checking NOTAMs.

Such military participation has been a growing trend of this event in recent years. Among the stars in 2023, and turning up the heat (and the noise) throughout the week, the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team put on a series of exceedingly powerful displays which seemed to defy the old trope about restrictions to the Oshkosh display box preventing full displays by modern fighter jets. The Raptor demos simply rocked, brilliantly showcasing the type's full gamut of tricks and treats: the violent 90° snap to the vertical after take-off, cobras, tailslides and of course, the obligatory knife-edge dedication pass. Spectacular stuff and never more so than when opening Saturday's night-show, the nearly full moon providing a suitably dramatic backdrop to the Raptor's thunderous display. Joining the F-22 throughout the week were various warbirds to perform Heritage Flights; mainly P-51s, although A-1 Skyraider 'Bad News' also featured.

If one could have levelled a criticism against the show in recent years, it's that the local forces have been perhaps a shade under-represented. Not so this year, pleasingly, as the Wisconsin ANG provided an airfield attack set-piece to open Friday's airshow which lasted over half an hour and featured a super mix of types: six Blackhawk helicopters carrying out troop insertion and extraction manoeuvres, including a simulated medevac airlift, with three F-35s blasting around overhead performing mock Combat Air Patrols, supported by a KC-135 to represent the ANG's ability to provide AAR support to front-line fighter ops. The KC-135 returned over the weekend to provide another AAR demo, flying alongside an Altus AFB C-17 from Air Education and Training Command, one of the units being celebrated at this year's event.

2023 proved to be something of a vintage year for airfield attack demos: in addition to the Wisconsin ANG effort, we were also treated to a fourship of A-10Cs from the Maryland ANG beating up the airfield during the early part of the week. The type is no stranger to AirVenture - last year's event for example featured a superb black and grey special-schemed A-10C from the Indiana ANG 'Blacksnakes' - but to see four flying together really was quite something, and the organisers ensured that there was plenty of suitable pyrotechnic accompaniment for the 'Warthogs' as they charged around Wittman's long display line.

As always, there were plenty of aircraft to represent modern and not-so-modern naval aviation. NAS Lemoore provided two demonstrations, in the shape of an F/A-18F Super Hornet and F-35C… the latter a rather more impressive beast than the A and B variants of the F-35, on account of its big batwing, folding wingtips and reinforced undercarriage which, from certain angles, give it more than a passing resemblance to its F-22 Lockheed stablemate. Further Navy participation in the flying displays came in the shape of a pair of EA-18G Growlers from NAS Whidbey Island, provided by the Navy's only Growler training unit, VAQ-129. These displays were especially well received by the crowds, not least when they opened Wednesday's night-show, the Growlers going on to fly alongside a pair of F4U Corsairs (one of the types being celebrated at this year's event) for one of the Navy's 'Tailhook' Heritage flypasts. The Corsairs were given the chance to shine on their own towards the end of the week when around half a dozen of the big radial-engined fighters took the salute, followed by a few mixed formation passes.

It's in the showcasing of such warbird exotica that Oshkosh truly excels. No other show can compete with the sheer scale and variety of the warbird spectaculars at AirVenture, and alongside the usual array - a seemingly endless supply of L-39s, T-6s and T-28s - were some genuine rarities and new additions, two of which took starring roles in the flying displays. Heading home with the Grand Champion World War II trophy was the stunning P-47D Thunderbolt Bonnie, the world's only flying Republic-built 'razorback' P-47D, making its Oshkosh debut in 2023 and beautifully flown by Bernie Vasquez throughout the week. This particular airframe, abandoned in New Guinea during World War II, has been painstakingly restored over 10 years by AirCorps Aviation of Minnesota, with a focus on period detail and accuracy that borders on the manic, resulting in a 'better than new' P-47D which, God willing, will be with us for many years to come.

Another AirVenture 2023 debutant, Warren Pietsch's P-51C Mustang Thunderbird, also represents the restoration of an aircraft which was once little more than a wreck, albeit one with a storied past including ownership by Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart and victory in the 1949 Bendix Trophy air race. Built purely as a racer, Thunderbird wears a striking all-over cobalt blue paint scheme buffed to the highest sheen imaginable, in keeping with its racing heritage, to squeeze every last mph out of the beast. Amazingly, its first flight post-restoration took place on June 5th, less than two months prior to its arrival at Wittman for this year's show.

It was another recent restoration which stole the (warbird) show, in the shape of the quite beautiful VC-121 Constellation Bataan. Named after a peninsula in the Philippines, this particular 'Connie' was once the mount of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers during the Korean War, and like the P-51C also only returned to flight in June of this year following a lengthy restoration by Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. Due to arrive into Wittman on the Monday, there was a collective holding of breath when news broke that the Constellation was grounded in nearby Madison with engine trouble, though fortunately she eventually arrived on Thursday, resplendent in the afternoon sunshine and stayed until Saturday when her departure kicked off the afternoon airshow.

With remembrance of Vietnam to the fore this year, courtesy of the 50th anniversary of the cessation of direct hostilities in the conflict, the organisers ensured that both current and former types were given a chance to take part in the tribute. Representing the (ahem) 'modern' end of the scale, a lone B-52H kicked-off Friday's airshow with a solitary pass, while earlier in the week a rather more impressive demonstration from a U-2S reminded us of that type's equally staggering longevity. Perhaps the two most poignant Vietnam participants at the show, however, symbolised the role played by transport aircraft - one USAF, one Navy - with both airframes actual Vietnam veterans. Affectionately nicknamed 'Thunderpig', the world's last flying C-123K Provider touched down at Wittman on the Monday, though with one engine shut-off and a rather impressive oil slick running the length of the fuselage, it was clear that all was not well. Nonetheless the aircraft would eventually make its way onto Boeing Plaza, where it was given pride of place towards the end of the week. Trader Air's Grumman C-1 Trader N189G, meanwhile, did manage to fly during the airshows to represent the naval element of the conflict. Another lovely restoration, this Trader bears the name of the USS Independence, just one of the carriers from which it operated during its lengthy service career.

Of course, there are two sides to any conflict. Soviet-built types are not unusual at Oshkosh, but the sheer number this year felt remarkable even by the standards of this unique event. Incredibly, there were no fewer than four MiG-17s on the field (a type of course synonymous with aerial conflict in South-East Asia), three of which flew together at various points during the daily airshows in contribution to the Vietnam theme. Randy Ball and his (in)famous MiG-17 solo display also took centre-stage during the weekend shows, in addition to his now-traditional night-show displays on both Wednesday and Saturday. A perennial Oshkosh highlight, these displays are notable for the extreme low-level at which Ball holds the aircraft during several of its passes. Indeed, thanks to the undulating terrain of Wittman's vast runway, the display can actually be challenging to shoot, depending on where you are located; the little MiG at times seeming almost to disappear from view as it scoots along the display line at daisy-cutting height, blasting out its trademark afterburner flame.

Even more spectacular was Jared Isaacman's glorious MiG-29UB, returning to Oshkosh after a starring role at last year's AirVenture. An ex-Ukrainian Air Force example, this particular 'Fulcrum' has been in the US since the early 90s, when it was acquired by the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Isaacman - himself a tech billionaire and founder of the Draken International private air combat contractor - purchased the MiG-29 following Allen's demise and now operates it alongside a fleet of other fast-jets including L-39s and Alpha Jets. Very much a working fleet, these aircraft support the 'Polaris' space programme, helping acclimatise would-be astronauts to the effects of high speed and altitude on the body. Whilst the full complement of Polaris jets took to the skies for a few formation passes on Friday, a late and frankly eccentric FAA decision denied us the Fulcrum's involvement in similar passes at the Saturday afternoon show. Thankfully, however, it was cleared to fly again for the night-show, when the MiG-29 joined Randy Ball's MiG-17 for a series of stunning twilight formation flypasts. A clear highlight of the whole event, this really was one of those genuinely unforgettable 'I was there' Oshkosh moments.

No show, of course, is perfect. Airshows remain an inherently unpredictable and often fickle environment and even an event as mighty as Oshkosh can suffer the same cancellations, frustrations and disappointments which plague lesser events. Perhaps we were all just tempting fate when we allowed pre-show excitement levels to go stratospheric following the announcement, barely six weeks before the event, that, yes - there would indeed be a MiG-23 at Oshkosh.

A rugged, no-nonsense fighter with a wonderfully raw, throaty afterburner growl, this particular 'Flogger' - an ex-Czechoslovakian Air Force twin-seat MiG-23UB - sneaked into Wittman with little forewarning at lunchtime on the Tuesday, treating those fortunate enough to be situated next to the main runway to a series of passes with burner lit and swing-wings in various configurations. With the stage all set for the 'Flogger' to be the star of this year's show, the Aviation Gods duly intervened and the aircraft lost part of its canopy during a routine test-flight on the Friday morning, thus robbing the crowds of the chance to see this rarest and most exotic of participants in its planned slot at Saturday's night-show. There will always be question marks over the wisdom of operating such complex ex-military types on the civil register and incidents like this do nothing to dispel such doubts... an observation made all the more pointed by the fact that the damned thing crashed (albeit under seemingly bizarre circumstances) a couple of weeks after Oshkosh at the 'Thunder over Michigan' event.

Even allowing for the loss of such a star participant, and while there remains a suspicion that the show has not quite recaptured its pre-pandemic highs, this year's event felt like an improvement over the 2022 iteration which, by Oshkosh's exalted standards, perhaps lacked something of the usual sparkle. It remains a must-see event for the hardened enthusiast and will always represent a high-point in the global aviation calendar. AirVenture 2024 is expected to include a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force - plenty of scope for the organisers to work their magic there - and there are strong rumours of a return to Oshkosh for the first time since 2016 of the RCAF's Snowbirds display team. If our grumpy workshop-enthusiast will excuse me, I'm already looking forward to the daily airshows. See you on the prairie… just remember the sun-tan lotion.