Since Oshkosh 2020 has been cancelled due to Covid, I thought it would be fun to share my experience from Oshkosh 2019. So…..here it goes!
This past summer marked my fourth time visiting EAA Airventure (Oshkosh), but it was my first experience with the legendary Fisk VFR arrival. Colin Gibb and I took advantage of his newly minted instrument rating, and went in search of one of aviation’s most coveted merit badges.
Our story began on Friday night, two days before Airventure opened, when 5″ of torrential rain hit Oshkosh, completely soaking much of the grass airplane parking areas and rendering them unusable. A significant number of visiting airplanes arrive on Sunday, so that left mother nature with only a day or two to dry out the grounds. Spoiler alert – it wasn’t enough!
Colin and I departed KFWA at 0630 on Sunday. Notifications out of Oshkosh informed us that all airplane camping areas were closed to new arrivals, but we were determined to press forward. We had been monitoring a line of lingering thunderstorms moving east through Chicago, but the forecast gave us hope that we would be able to pick our way through to the west. We filed an IFR flight plane, and were cleared to KOSH. Much to Colin’s delight, we did encounter IMC throughout the trip, but for the most part we were on top of the clouds and it was clear, smooth, and beautiful.
Once north of Chicago, Colin and I held out hope that we were going to be landing in Oshkosh, because ATC had not yet cancelled our IFR plan. We optimistically reasoned that they would allow only IFR arrivals! Alas, when we were less than 60 miles out, ATC informed us that all airplane camping was closed, and we were told to divert. We had previously chosen Fond du Lac airport, just to the south of Oshkosh as our backup destination. KFLD had designated space for airplane camping, and after we landed we were guided into a quiet and serene spot just a few yards from Interstate 41. (heavy sarcasm) In demonstration of our dogged optimism, Colin and I refused to unpack our gear and set up camp. We were hoping that the warm weather and moderate breeze would dry up enough of the Oshkosh ground to allow us in.
Sure enough, around six PM we got the word that Oshkosh was open to GA camping. We wasted no time departing Fond du Lac, and headed straight for Ripon.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the procedure for safely bringing 10,000 airplanes into the busiest airspace in the world, it starts with every pilot carefully reading and understanding a 32 page instruction book called a NOTAM. (Notice to Airmen) Every VFR arrival starts the final leg of the journey by flying over the small town of Ripon, Wisconsin. Pilots are given one of two altitudes and airspeeds that they must maintain, are instructed to assemble in single file, and to find and follow another aircraft in 1/2 mile separation. (FYI, this is way closer than most planes will ever get to one another under normal flying conditions.) At Ripon, pilots are instructed to fly directly over a set of railroad tracks and follow them to the town of Fisk.
At both Ripon and Fisk, there are professional ATC personnel on the ground looking up at the ordered chaos in the sky and giving non-stop instructions to the invading horde. Pilots do not respond verbally, but rather wag their wings in acknowledgement when ATC provides specific instructions. If the airspace gets too congested, ATC will instruct some of the planes to enter a holding pattern around nearby lakes. During busy times, it is not unheard of for planes to remain in these holding patterns for hours, until ATC gives them the green light to continue on to Oshkosh.
With that ordered chaos in mind, let’s return to the story. As soon as we left the ground in Fond du Lac, our radar lit up with pings from more airplanes than I have ever seen. Clearly, there were lots of other optimistic pilots who had been waiting at several local airports for Oshkosh to reopen. And guess where every single one of them was headed? You guessed it – Ripon, Wisconsin.
The NOTAM procedure doesn’t really anticipate a massive arrival of planes over Ripon at one moment in time. It’s more common that – while always busy – planes arrive steadily throughout the day. As we closed in on Ripon, we saw an gap in the procession of planes and Colin expertly maneuvered us into the lineup. I wanted to take out my phone and take a picture of our radar screen showing all of the other airplanes, but neither of us dared to take our eyes off of what was happening around us. (I lifted the following photo from the internet to provide some visual context of the congestion) Colin’s job was to fly the airplane, maintaining separation, and strict airspeed and altitude settings. I manned the radio frequencies and kept an eye on the radar. We were both hyper focused!
Once over Ripon, we spotted the railroad tracks. Colin positioned N9258C directly above and we headed to Fisk, just a few miles up the tracks. ATC was working to keep everyone safe, but you could hear the rising concern in their voices with regard to the number of planes they were contending with. We did not want to be placed into a holding pattern, as we feared it would be very a prolonged hold that may result in us not being permitted to proceed to Oshkosh. Less than one minute after leaving Ripon, ATC announced that all Oshkosh arrivals were being cancelled, and if all planes not yet at Ripon must turn away. The absolute joy we felt at that very moment was overwhelming. We realized that we were going to make it to Oshkosh, and by the very slimmest of margins.
A few minutes later, we landed on the massive yellow dot painted on Runway 36 and were directed to our parking space for the next three days. While the Oshkosh experience is always memorable, I know that this epic journey will be very hard to top.