Oshkosh EAA AirVenture runs smooth, safe through volunteers

Volunteers who help park aircraft get a front-row view of AirVenture arrivals.

I’m in an open-air VW bug with Dennis Spivey of Lansing, Ill., carefully zipping across a taxiway while picking up conversation via shortwave radio. “Red Cessna, you’re going right and you’re going long,” an incoming pilot is told, more than once.

“Nobody understands what happens here until they experience it,” Dennis says. “On a busy day, we’ll be landing four planes at once” on the miles-long driveways of Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.

More than 10,000 aircraft are flown to Oshkosh for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture, and the 60th annual gathering happens July 23-29. Some – like 124 Beechcraft Bonanzas in 2011 – swarm in as a group after meeting elsewhere, then forming an aerial caravan. Other pilots teeter in slowly and solo, from all points of the U.S. and beyond.

For many, this journey is a pilgrimage, a reunion and a chance for the spirit to literally soar. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you fly – hefty Warbird, bizarre homebuilt or aerobatic biplane – in the air is a strong sense of respect, awe and appreciation for the wonders of flight.

Dennis is one of at least 4,000 volunteers whose work ensures that AirVenture runs smoothly and safely. Many of these helpers are EAA members. Others are average Wisconsin people with an interest in aviation of willingness to learn more.

Volunteering is not about easy and automatic access to AirVenture. “We expect people to give the first eight hours of time on their own” before free admission is considered, says Sandy Marsh of La Grange, Mo., a volunteer for 36 years and coordinator of the event’s Activities Center.

Dennis devotes at least 20 hours to AirVenture before arriving in Oshkosh. He fields and coordinates a ground crew that works the “North 40,” acreage where pilots camp next to their planes. His aircraft greeters help guide and park the steady stream of planes.

That means interpreting windshield signs – such as VA for vintage aircraft, VAC for vintage aircraft camping, VAP for vintage aircraft parking – so orderly parking occurs.

Much on the volunteers’ checklist is addressed methodically: Did you turn off your master switch? Do you have tie-downs? Did you close out your flight plan? Pilots also get a quick orientation to their temporary home’s general store, showers and ice locations.

But aircraft greeters also are the first faces to greet pilots upon landing, and their “Welcome to Oshkosh. Is this your first time here?” is as important as the practicalities of being on ground.

“It’s important to be aware of what some people got through to get here safely,” Dennis says. “We remind them to call home and let their family know they’re OK.”

Darlene Legois of Winchester, a former travel agent, in 2011 worked five three-hour shifts as an aircraft greeter. “It’s fun,” she says. “I meet lots of interesting people, and it’s exciting to see all these planes come in.”

Dennis says it’s a serious job but even adults without aviation experience participate, after shadowing a veteran.

Volunteers do myriad other work at AirVenture, making sandwiches to interpreting foreign languages. At Sandy Marsh’s Activities Center, more than a dozen volunteer teachers led mini classes in art to exercise.

“A lot of us are here because our husbands are here and we’re tired of looking at airplanes,” Sandy says, only half-jokingly. “Marriages are saved here” because spouses – usually wives – find outlets of interest to them.

They weave baskets, bead jewelry, paint and chat. Children make sock monkeys, sand art, jewelry and play.

In Sandy’s cadre is Jean Ripley of Fond du Lac, who says she enjoys AirVenture in part because her father was a World War II bomber pilot. She and friend Hollye Sawyer were among the 2011 Activities Center’s 100-plus volunteers.

“Some of us go back many years,” Sandy says, so the gatherings feel like family reunions.

For more about volunteer opportunities during AirVenture and other EAA activities, consult airventure.org/volunteers and eaa.org/support/volunteer.asp, or contact Liz Tellock, volunteer coordinator, at 920-426-6540.

Daily admission to AirVenture, for EAA non-members, is $41 ($21 for ages 6-18; ages 5 and under get in free).

In addition to aircraft displays, aviation talks and daily air shows, marquee events include a concert by the Steve Miller Band, 7 p.m. July 23, a daylong 75th anniversary tribute to the Piper Cub, July 24; tributes to the Tuskegee Airmen and Doolittle Raiders, July 25; a daylong salute to military veterans and 8 p.m. Phil Vassar concert, July 27; and a night air show and fireworks, 8:30 p.m. July 28.

For more about AirVenture: airventure.org (or call 920-230-7800 after the event begins).