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Bill Anders backup suit for Apollo 8. (credit: E. Hedman)

EAA AirVenture 2015 or bust

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SpaceShipOne zooms past Pluto. Dr. Strangelove would be puzzled. Apollo 13 is relived. Ride a Mustang to the Moon. NASA explains Mars plans. The sky is falling. A new fighter is unveiled. History and sacrifice is honored. They’re all part of the greatest week of the year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Burt Rutan brought up an interesting connection between SpaceShipOne and the New Horizons mission that just flew past Pluto. There is a small piece from inside the cockpit SpaceShipOne aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

EAA AirVenture has come and gone once again. For people who know me they know I look forward to the annual week-long fly-in as the greatest celebration of aviation and spaceflight on the planet. Now that I have set your expectations, it is time to tell you about what you should not have missed.

My first brush with the Experimental Aircraft Association came when I was in junior high school and my father took me to see the EAA museum that was in a relatively small building in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. The collection had several interesting planes, but offered little hint of what the EAA was to grow into. That early museum would be just a small nook in the grounds today around Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh that is the home to the EAA. The growth has been phenomenal.

One day at this year’s EAA AirVenture, I was chatting with three generations of a family that had come for the first time from Australia. (If they can come from Australia, you can make the trip.) The teenage daughter started the conversation by making a comment about my antique thirty-year-old camera that I was using to photograph the airshow. (I also did bring a digital camera.) Her father, who works in the oil industry, knew the show would be big, but he said it was far bigger and better than he ever expected. His father, who is 83, and his mother wanted to make the trip while they still could. They were thrilled that they did. They had seen nothing like it ever in the land of kangaroos and didgeridoos.

On July 20, I made the roughly 80-mile drive from my home to Oshkosh to pick up my press credentials and to catch the opening night concert. In the area of the grounds now known as Boeing Square, I joined 25,000 to 30,000 of my best friends to hear a concert by country star Dierks Bentley. Behind the crowd, among a multitude of parked airplanes, was a B-52H that had flown up from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Sitting atop the wing listening to the music was the crew. It was such an unusual sight that Dierks Bentley could help but comment many times about it. After having walked under the plane with my head up in the bomb bay, I couldn’t help but think about Slim Pickens riding a hydrogen bomb out of the bomb bay in the movie Dr. Strangelove like a cowboy riding a bucking bronc. It was a rousing start to the week.

Great seats for a concert on the wing of a B-52H behind the crowd. (credit: E. Hedman)

On Tuesday the 21st I came to hear Burt Rutan, his brother Dick, and Mike Melvill talk about their careers and lives and what shaped them. The crowd was spellbound. David Hartman (former host of Good Morning America) moderated the discussion. It ran the gamut from their youth through their wild adventures. Burt and Dick Rutan both talked about the times the police brought them home after being caught in mischievous adventures. Burt said that the first time the police brought him home his father said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” And that was the last he heard from his father about it. Dick said that when his father picked him up from the police that when he got into the car, all his father could do was excitedly point out the features of his new car. Being raised Seventh Day Adventists they were not allowed to play in sports nor go to the movies. They found other outlets for their interests that led to their careers in aerospace.

panel session
(credit: E. Hedman)

Burt Rutan said that he’s working on his latest homebuilt aircraft design. It is an amphibious design that he was hoping to bring this year to Oshkosh, but it is not yet ready. He told a joke I had heard him tell before. He says he was asked how long it takes to build a homebuilt aircraft. His standard answer to this is one-and-a-half wives. It was one of many humorous anecdotes he and the others on the stage delivered. This team has become very good at these presentations and are worth seeing whenever you get the chance.

Burt Rutan brought up an interesting connection between SpaceShipOne and the New Horizons mission that just flew past Pluto. There is a small piece from inside the cockpit SpaceShipOne aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. Roughly a decade ago, Alan Stern, the principal investigator on New Horizons, called Burt Rutan looking for a way to connect these two unusual programs together.

As a result, a small piece of carbon fiber from inside the cockpit is attached to the lower inside deck of New Horizons with an inscription on the two sides: On the front:

To commemorate its historic role in the advancement of spaceflight, this piece of SpaceShipOne is being flown on another historic spacecraft: New Horizons. New Horizons is Earth’s first mission to Pluto, the farthest known planet in our solar system.

On the back:

SpaceShipOne was Earth’s first privately funded manned spacecraft. SpaceShipOne flew from the United States of America in 2004.

After the presentation I chatted with Mike Melvill. He has retired from test flying aircraft and spacecraft and is taking life a little easier. I asked him if he would have any interest in flying on SpaceShipTwo once it is ready. His answer surprised me: he said no. He said he lost a friend in the crash of SpaceShipTwo. He said it is a dangerous business and he’s done taking those kinds of risks.

I asked Melvill if he would have any interest in flying on SpaceShipTwo once it is ready. His answer surprised me: he said no. He said he lost a friend in the crash of SpaceShipTwo.

Another unusual somewhat space related item at the Oshkosh fly-in was a one-of-a-kind special Apollo edition 2015 Ford Mustang. The car has the color scheme of the Saturn V rocket complete with the flag and USA decals. The interior has seats designed to make you feel like you’re in either an aircraft or a spacecraft. There is an Apollo logo in the back seat. The Ford Motor Company has a long history of working with the EAA and this car is quite a statement and was drawing continual interest.

(credit: E. Hedman)

Boeing has a huge presence at the EAA. When I asked a Boeing instructor pilot why they invest so much, he responded that the point is to encourage young people to enter careers in aerospace. They have a vested interest in maintaining a flow of qualified workers. Boeing Square is where many of the most interesting aircraft are displayed. It was interesting, though, to see an Airbus A350 XWB parked in the center of Boeing Square! It was even more interesting to see it fly an incredible nearly aerobatic routine for the crowd considering the size and purpose of the aircraft.

(credit: E. Hedman)

This year the Air Force sent two of its premier aircraft. Parked next to each other in Boeing Square were an F-22 Raptor and an F-35 Lightning II. This was the first appearance of the F-35 at a non-military airshow. The F-22 put on an impressive flight demonstration. The F-35 pilot said he tried to make a little noise as he buzzed the field before landing. The pilots and support crews were available to talk with the public about their aircraft and careers in the Air Force.

(credit: E. Hedman)

The pilot of the F-35 had some interesting things to say about the development of the F-35 that applies to both aircraft and spacecraft efforts. The F-35, after all these years, is still in development. Periodically they get software upgrades that are slowly expanding the flight envelope of the aircraft. Right now, the avionics software won’t let the aircraft pitch up to more than an eighteen-degree angle of attack. Future upgrades will allow the pilot to get to fifty or possibly more degrees, depending upon how testing goes.

It’s how software upgrades can improve an aircraft, a spacecraft, or even an automobile after it is built. After the first oil change on my new Ford Escape, the dealer said I needed to schedule a time to bring it in so they can do a software upgrade on a couple of computers onboard, including the engine controller, to improve performance. The development of your auto isn’t done when you buy it anymore. Nor is it finished on a jet fighter or even on a spacecraft shooting out of the solar system.

There is more to see and do than at the annual EAA AirVenture. In addition to all the space-related items at this show, everything you can possibly imagine in aviation is in Oshkosh for the week. You can ride in a Ford Tri-Motor or the only flying B-29 in the world. You can watch 112 skydivers falling towards you after attempting a world record three formations during the freefall. You can fly an Air Force flight simulator wearing Oculus Rift virtually reality goggles. And, best of all, you can meet outstanding people from all over the world.

The family I met from Australia spending most of the week in Oshkosh told me that they couldn’t believe how friendly and engaging Americans are. I told them that Oshkosh might be a little misleading because you will not find a friendlier or a more interesting crowd anywhere. I have never met a boring person at the EAA AirVenture. If you take time to say hi to the people sitting next to you at presentations or at the places to eat everyone seems to want to talk and have a story to tell and are eager to listen to what other have to say. The stories you hear will boggle your mind.

If you were not fortunate enough to be able to attend this year, the dates are set for the next five years. You need to plan ahead because hotels will be booked solid months in advance for fifty miles in every direction. Next year if you see a guy with a media tag hanging around his neck from The Space Review, say hi. We’re friendly in Wisconsin, especially when at the EAA AirVenture fly-in.