EAA, AirVenture devoted to planes, flight

Head to Dayton, Ohio, this weekend and you’ll encounter the end of that city’s 17-day Wright flight celebration. Events include an air show with three of North America’s best-known military precision flying teams: the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Canadian Snowbirds.
The Wright brothers used to live in Dayton, so the city calls itself “the true birthplace of aviation,” the place where the first flying machine was “conceived, developed, tested and refined.” For more about Wright events there or elsewhere in the country, go to www.centennialofflight.gov.
It all shows how different public recognition of the 100th anniversary offlight can be. The heavyweight participant, though, is the Experimental Aircraft Association, whose annual AirVenture will be July 29 to Aug. 4 in Oshkosh. “Celebrating 100 Years of Powered Flight” is the theme; 750,000people are expected to attend.
This is the world’s largest gathering of aviation enthusiasts, a 50-year event that routinely attracts astronauts and authors, artists and historians. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, will be a featured speaker. So will actor Cliff Robertson, a longtime pilot who owns World War II aircraft.
Topics will be whimsical (speaker Ken Blackburn holds a world record for the longest paper airplane flight — 28 seconds) to gripping, as in a presentation about the search/recovery of the Columbia, whose seven crew members died when the shuttle disintegrated Feb. 1.
The grandson of Charles Lindbergh will speak at the AirVenture. So will descendants of the Wright brothers (a great-grandniece and a great-grandnephew; Orville and Wilbur were bachelors).
To see each row of airplanes in the flightline area, expect to do more than five miles of walking. The myriad exhibits will include a reproduction of the Wright Flyer, constructed by the EAA, that will be flown at Kill Devil Hill at10:35 a.m. Dec. 17, the exact time and day of the original flight.
The re-enactment will be a key part of the five-day First Flight Centennial Celebration at Kitty Hawk. For more, go to www.wrightbrothers.reserveworld.com, www.outerbanks.org or call 800-973-7327.
In Oshkosh, what aircraft will be a good example of how far aircraft have come, in terms of sophistication? Two examples were mentioned by EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski.
One is the Beluga, the world’s largest-volume cargo aircraft (it can carry the fuselage of an airliner). The other is the ORBIS, a DC-10 airliner that has been turned into a flying eye hospital that goes to developing countries to perform eye surgeries and teach doctors surgical techniques.

It’s been 27 years since I covered my first air show at the EAA convention, as a cub reporter for the Oshkosh Northwestern. From wingwalkers to Warbirds, the aerial grace and dynamics were amazing. Even back then, thousands would congregate daily to witness this late-afternoon spectacle.
But a lot has changed since the mid-1970s. Only EAA members and their families/guests used to be able to get an up-close view of the aircraft. Now everybody who pays an admission fee gets flightline access.
“It started out as an event that was meant for a small group of aviation enthusiasts, even though parts always were open to everybody,” Knapinski says.
I remember the heated debates about whether to invest public money to lengthen and strengthen Wittman Field runways for this once-a-year event. Before the EAA moved its headquarters from Franklin (near Milwaukee) to Oshkosh in the late 1970s, there were other stipulations that also would require a public investment, and skeptics who questioned the fiscal soundness of it all.
The EAA has since grown substantially in both membership and convention attendance, pouring an estimated $85 million into the state’s economy per year. That does not include the benefits of having the EAA Aviation Center and AirVenture Museum in the area; the facilities opened about 20 years ago.
So was it all a good investment? Here’s another clue: This summer EAA founder Paul Poberezny will get the annual Oshkosh Key to the City award.
His organization’s 170,000 members represent 105 countries, and they will migrate to Oshkosh from long distances. Knapinski says a small group of South African pilots already have left, in their homebuilt aircraft and Cessnas, to make the three-week trek to the fly-in.
What about this event hasn’t changed? The emphasis still is on families; no alcoholic beverages are sold. The event also continues to use volunteers extensively: About 5,000 put in 250,000 hours, from operating the air control tower to providing child care for toddlers.
For more information about the organization, the event or volunteer opportunities, go to www.eaa.org, www.airventure.org or call 920-426-4800.