Friday before AirVenture 2009, we loaded up my F33A Bonanza with a week’s worth of casual clothes, along with camp chairs, laptops, sunscreen, towels and backpacks and departed San Diego-Montgomery Airport for Oshkosh, via Albuquerque and Lincoln, NE. We were two of thousands of general aviation pilots and enthusiasts making the annual trek to Oshkosh for the world’s largest fly-in and celebration of all things flyin’.
AirVenture is all about “planes, people, passion and participation”, according to EAA chairman Tom Poberezny. Pilots of all ages, flying airplanes from Aeroncas to Airbuses, consider their yearly journey to Oshkosh a near religious experience.
I, too, very much was looking forward to the adventure of flying 1,500+ nm VFR at low altitudes, down where you can see so much of the country. Our route would take us through some of the southwest US’s most scenic lands, assuming we could dodge the meteorological armada of monsoonal thunderstorms welling up from the Gulf of California trying to block our route.
Thank heavens for technological progress. Flying to Oshkosh used to be a considerable challenge because of the weather and little airplanes often became stranded at tiny airports waiting for the skies to clear.
Not now. Prior to launch, we fired up the computer and for several hours we checked the progress of thunderstorms along our route at Intellicast and Aviation Digital Data Service. Airborne, we had a Garmin 496 that displayed XM satellite radio weather along our flight plan route. It felt as though we were linked to a weather AWACS plane that told us how to avoid the enemy.
We plotted a course to fly northeast and dodge the first line of thunder-bumpers over the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree. Then, we would fly to Lake Havasu and pick up a course more or less parallel to historic Route 66 and the Santa Fe railroad to Albuquerque where would spend Friday night with a friend of ours who founded a VLJ company.
Weary of July monsoonal weather patterns, we intentionally didn’t depart San Diego until 16:00 to allow the sun to go down over Arizona and New Mexico during the next two hours, removing most of the heat fueling the thunderstorms looming over the Mogollon Rim and high desert country. The low sun angle also provided spectacular illumination of forests and hamlets, streams and canyons, cliffs and mountains.
In the cockpit, XM radio weather validated our strategy of allowing the storms to abate as the ground cooled. Most died down or disappeared. The remaining cumulus cloud formations at dusk were an impressive sight. What a visual treat it was for an admitted weather junkie.
As the skies darkened, some meteo-monsters still lurked ahead. They were virtually impossible to spot through the windshield. However, the NEXGEN weather graphics showed us where they were hiding. And our lightning detector pointed to where new ones were building. Meanwhile, we could see a stream of headlights on I-40, a beam from the engine of a mile-long freight train westbound from Zuni toward Flagstaff and light beacons of tiny airports along the way. So, the last part of the San Diego – Albuquerque trip was calm, safe and entertaining.
Saturday before Oshkosh, we loaded up our Albuquerque-based friend, his golf clubs, luggage and other kit, topped the tanks and continued the journey. The flight plan predicted 3+53 enroute from Albuquerque to Lincoln. It assumed standard day temperatures and predictable winds. In reality, the heavily loaded Bonanza took almost 25 minutes to climb from Albuquerque-Double Eagle’s 5,837 ft elevation to our 11,500 ft cruising altitude in 20 degree warmer than standard day conditions.
The density altitude sapped the engine’s performance in cruise. We bumped along 10 knots below book cruise speed through the thermals in the upper Rio Grande valley and over the mesa north of Las Vegas, passing over the northwest corner of Oklahoma. This was desolate country, with a few ranches and windmills. Gradually, the terrain elevation dropped, temperatures cooled and the bumps gave way to smooth air, much to the pleasure of the three of us. Speed picked up in the cooler air and winds became more favorable.
Just as we comfortably settled in for the last half of the ride to Lincoln, another line of thunderstorms started to build ahead. Using XM radio weather, we watched some cells build to more than 40,000 ft on the cockpit display. The National Weather Service issued a convective SIGMET bulletin, but we also could the cells moving away from our flight path toward the east southeast.
After a quick top off in Lincoln, we headed directly to RIPON, a VFR waypoint that feeds arriving traffic into Oshkosh, about three hours away. Clouds thickened below us and several thunderstorms approached Oshkosh from the west. We found a nice opening in the under-cast south of Madison and pressed on toward RIPON, carefully monitoring the movement of the weather 100 nm away using the satellite link.
Abeam Madison, we knew we the last of the big cells would just pass through five to ten minutes before we arrived. The storms were massively powerful, but we could watch them move off to the east at safe distance over Lake Winnebago. We followed the railroad tracks ten miles from RIPON northeast to FISKE and awaited instructions. To cut radio frequency congestion, FAA’s AirVenture bulletin asks pilots not to use their transmitters. All instructions are acknowledged with a wing rock unless the controller asks for a verbal response.
“Welcome to Oshkosh,” a cheerful FAA controller broadcast from a remote site near FISKE. “White and blue Bonanza, rock your wings,” the controller said. We did.
“Turn right and follow Fisk Road to the airport and switch to tower on 126.6,” she said. Moments later we could see Oshkosh-Wittman Regional Airport a grassy Mecca already filling with hundreds of little airplanes arriving from all over the US, Canada and Mexico, some even from Europe and beyond.
We touched down on Runway 36L and taxied to parking. Soon we would be meeting aviation enthusiasts from all over the planet, speaking dozens of different languages, all sharing in common their passion for flying. Like so many others, the three of us were grinning in anticipation of the week ahead during which we’d get close up looks at Virgin Galactic’s White Knight II mother ship, the mammoth Airbus A380, historic warbirds and perfectly restored vintage airplanes.
Planes, people, passion and participation. That’s been the spirit of Oshkosh for decades and it’s only going to get stronger in the future.