Aviation’s Oshkosh AirVenture Airshow

by Tom Casey on December 7, 2009

This is an essay I wrote after attending the 2005 Oshkosh AirVenture Event. You’ll see I had some distinct impressions that seemed relevant to the national and political climate of that time.

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air however slight lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
William O. Douglas, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

A Meditation

By Tom Casey

EAA has lost its soul. Or maybe it’s America.

The Experimental Aircraft Association holds its annual fly-in at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh Wisconsin each year toward the end of July. It is the largest event of its kind in the world, and was originally intended as an occasion for home-built aircraft makers to meet and share the successes, failures and difficulties encountered in their ambitious and fascinating avocation. The air show was meant to be a showcase for the efforts of member homebuilders, and also a celebration of the history of aviation. The weeklong event attracts pilots and their families from all parts of the country and from many parts of the world.

Attendees arrive with happy expectations; they camp under the wings of their airplanes and renew friendships and acquaintanceships of long standing. There are static displays of celebrated aircraft, many home built, and this year aviation’s greatest designer, Burt Rutan, brought his history making creations for the general population to see: the GlobalFlyer, the first aircraft to carry a person solo around the world without refueling, and SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded and manned vehicle to leave earth’s atmosphere.

The crowd ambles through these impressive examples of aviation genius, and through the pavilions where home built kits and parts and other aviation-related technologies are available to see and purchase. The grounds are spotless; the showers and sanitary facilities are abundant and meticulously kept. There are food cafés and tents for lectures that take place throughout the week, and something called Theater in the Woods, where the week began with Scott Crossfield of X-15 fame and Mike Melvill, astronaut on SpaceShipOne, sharing their experiences; there is the Young Eagles program for teenagers, “KidVenture”, where younger children are taught to build models of airplanes and rockets, and even a program to promote aviation among the disabled. These activities and programs are the natural spawn of dynamic, thoughtful and proactive individuals dedicated to safety and excellence in their field. If all of this is good about EAA, what is bad?

I arrived on the first day of AirVenture as a crewmember in a Grumman Albatross amphibious flying boat. This is a large antique airplane comparable in size and vintage to a DC-3. Small private planes, experimental home-builts, ultralights, and other flying machines arrived throughout the week, each type directed to a parking place, usually with others of the same or similar models: for example, biplanes are parked with other biplanes. We were listed among so called “warbirds,” because the Albatross served as a search and rescue aircraft during its tenure in the military inventory, mostly during the 1950’s and 60’s. Warbirds is a general designation, but usually meant to refer to American bombers and fighter planes of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. These often stunning restorations are the work of groups or individuals with varying motivations. One stand-out at AirVenture this year was Glacier Girl, a P-38 Lightning exhumed from a two-hundred-fifty-foot depth of ice. A restored and updated Dornier tri-motor turboprop flying boat was another rare bird parked next to a recreated Sikorsky twin S-39. The owners of these rare aircraft fly them to AirVenture so that pilots and enthusiasts may see them at close range and share stories.

It is worth noting that the EAA and AirVenture operates as a non-profit organization by the Pobereznys, founder Paul, who is retired, and son Tom, who is currently its president. It is also worth noting that nearly the entire fly-in is manned by volunteers, and that except for professional aerobatic show pilots and their planes, all the restorations invited to participate in various show events are unremunerated. Maintenance is provided by volunteers. Fuel is not provided to participants, though it is available for $3.00 per gallon by local vendors.

And so almost everybody is volunteering time, money, airplanes, piloting and maintenance skills for the benefit of the many fine programs sponsored by the EAA, for the AirVenture event itself, and not insignificantly, for the Pobereznys.

The cost value of this volunteer contribution is incalculable; indeed, the event would not exist without it. For those who understand the tax benefit that obtains for non-profit entities, the advantage of volunteerism at AirVenture can legitimately be compared to the gains of tithing to the church or slavery to the plantation. Volunteers are not slaves, of course; their efforts come as willingly as that portion of their paycheck put into the donation basket each Sunday. These are, for the most, part good people brought to a good cause they feel is worth their time and generosity.

There is, however, a dark, if not cynical implication to AirVenture perhaps more evident in these times. History celebrated here through the lens of aviation might be considered at best rose colored, at worst negligent of larger truth. Behind the meticulous crowd control and sunny summer glimmer of families whiling away a vacation week is something that infuses the mood from without, something insidious from attitudes past and present in American history that reflects the larger America not in attendance.

If the original intent of the Experimental Aircraft Association was to form an association of experimental aircraft builders and their aircraft, curiously and conspicuously none were seen in formal flying displays. Unseen at AirVenture during the flying portion of the daily air shows were examples seen on the ground in static displays: Acrosport, Glasair, RV, Velocity, Harmon Rocket, Legend, Wichawk, Aerocomp, and many others. Instead of celebrating the genius in these modest designs, the air show, day after day, featured instead a panoply of bombers, fighters, and World War II trainers, an F-4 Phantom from the Vietnam era, and an F-16 of recent times. This is not new at Oshkosh, and most people in the crowd are happy to see these restorations and hear their motors rumbling in impressive formations. It is commonly seen as a tribute to those who lost their lives defending our country, and a celebration of the glory of victory. These fly-bys are followed by competition aerobatics, where restored and experimental aircraft are flown in competition by the best aerial athletes in the world. Why should any of this highly entertaining display bring pause?

As I wondered why I was not seeing home-built aircraft featured in the flying portion of the air show, I wandered beyond a no-pass line. The line, defined for safety reasons by the FAA during the air show, was manned by Civil Air Patrol volunteers. Except for their youth and that they were unarmed, these volunteers were dressed in full military field camouflage, replete with utility belt, flashlight and canteen, and were indistinguishable from army infantry.

“Sir! Excuse me, Sir!” A military figure sprung up suddenly from a kneeling position began walking toward me with alarming zeal. “You can’t go beyond this line, sir.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was looking up.”

“That’s alright, sir.” When I stepped back without further comment he relaxed: he saw I meant him no disobedience.

The presence of these uniformed Civil Air Patrol volunteers gave me a chill. The “sir” he used was the politesse of authoritarianism. I thought of myself at seventeen and made comparisons; I could find few.

The missing man formation passed overhead, the very formation that, in cruel irony, found one of its participants missing. Waiting to fly in the segment, Dick James, who had suffered an apparent incapacity, crashed and had been killed.

I did not know at the time that the missing man formation was in truth missing a man, something that transcended symbolism and touched at truth poignantly, I only reflected on the solemn exhibition which was the airshow’s most honest as a meaningful salute to honored dead.

Is there a greater tragedy than war? This week the first citizen of Oshkosh was killed in Iraq, a twenty-eight year old husband and father. 405,399 Americans lost their lives in World War II. That war, chaotic and destructive as it was, is considered by history to have been necessary. But tens of thousands of Americans have lost their lives in wars since, wars fed by policies later abandoned as barren. Korea was not a war, but a “police action” though the soldiers who fought in it didn’t know the difference. Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam, acknowledges today that America’s waging of war against the North Vietnamese was, in retrospect, ill-considered. As an F-4 fighter thundered overhead at AirVenture, I thought of the dead, dismembered and dispossessed Americans and Vietnamese on both sides that were annihilated. I wondered what the honored dead would think of the narrations of the glory of firepower that accompanied the fly-by of warbirds at AirVenture this year; I wondered what they might look like if we could see them reflected in the mirror bright finish of the warplanes they knew, now owned by privileged citizens, many of whom are not veterans, most of whom have never seen combat: in their heavenly omniscience, deprived of lives they might have lived, what would they think of the spectacle before them?

There is a deep strain of patriotism at AirVenture, but it takes a narrow view. Remembering the dead of war must include the loss of innocent victims as well; brave soldiers who died for the cause of freedom should be honored, but war should never be celebrated; war should be lamented as a failure of civilized man to overcome his animal nature. After Germany, no nation is immune to travesty. But we don’t believe it.

What hold has history on lessons learned from horrors? The spectacle of war reenactment enthusiasts dressed up in Nazi uniforms of the Waffen SS standing in front of a Junkers Tri-motor with a swastika on the tail made me think that even World War II, for all its bloodshed and evil, has been slowly transformed by bland nostalgia into a circus. With that thought, I began to look more closely at the atmosphere at AirVenture, and why I was feeling unsettled in the midst of it.

I began to notice jeeps with machine guns mounted on the hoods; these were the war reenactment group bringing verisimilitude of battle to the grounds of AirVenture. I spoke individually with Civil Air Patrol partisans, who told me you could join ranks in the sixth grade. They marched to breakfast in formations each morning singing military chants. How wholesome is this sort of inculcation? Why has the cult of war seized the imagination of these people so profoundly?

The day after Dick James was killed in his P-51 there was no mention of it in the EAA News, the daily publication of AirVenture that reports on the previous day’s activities, an observation that made me reflect that there is no bad news in a fascist state. In fact, the more I thought about it, AirVenture was a microcosm run on fascist principles of cleanliness and order. Were my gathering impressions subversive? Was it appropriate to argue against order and cleanliness, sobriety and obedience? Where is the line to be drawn?

Well, that is precisely the question, and the answer to it defines our notions of freedom. Freedom comes at a price that must resist fear…of freedom. There are analogies: safety, for example, can be argued into agoraphobia; there must be a point where individual freedom acknowledges responsibility without the intervention of authority. But here fear, dressed in military fatigues, touched patriotism with a nailed on smile, and there was religion in it just below the surface.

What can it mean that AirVenture’s celebration of freedom runs on principles of proto-fascism? The tight authoritarian atmosphere and quasi-militarism on the grounds is creepy to any discerning sensibility. I was put in mind of Disney’s Celebration, a zoning utopia of psychopathic proportions, where uneven aspects of human interface have been erased by corporate municipal planning doctrines. AirVenture is a festival administered with a skinflint’s thrift and a despot’s greed: an unpaid staff of hundreds do grunt work worth millions and ice cream bars sell for $4.00. It is rumored that the food concessions belong to the Pobereznys. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but what, finally, as warbirds thunder overhead in military formations, does AirVenture stand for?

At last the obvious must be said: the AirVenture festival overall is as close to a celebration of war as exists in America. For all the weird lionization of firepower past and present there is no meaningful acknowledgement of carnage wrought in the wake of these warplanes, or that history has ruled on the wrongness of our engagement in, for example, Vietnam; viewers stare in slack-jawed amazement as war jets zoom past while the devastation they brought to the enemy is recalled in general terms with nostalgia one might use when remembering Mickey Mantle and his baseball bat. There is no mention of napalm. Significantly, I thought, show pilots following the warbirds’ segment torture their planes in an aerial impression of nervous breakdown, an unintended acknowledgement of the spiritual and moral devastation of war in this unconscious mosaic. This is lost on most. The show goes on; the Poberezny’s are seasoned crowd pleasers and they are certainly canny entrepreneurs.

It seems clear that Americans have come to live in a culture of denial where distractions and prescription drugs sedate our senses: therefore, we have become senseless. Blood shed under this Bush administration has been obfuscated from citizen consciousness by dissimulation aided by our favorite pastimes: blasting music, endless pointless television, pointless sports, and pointless endless pornography; individuals in this country exist in bubbles willfully disconnected from meaning and consequence.

If you want a quick take, obesity is the morbid symptom of this disconnect. The obese were legion at AirVenture. Any person who is fifty to a hundred and fifty pounds or more overweight knows that something toxic is taking place, yet they willfully ignore the obvious repeatedly, compulsively succumbing to instant gratification. This is the essence of Bushism: it’s not that Americans can’t pay attention to what’s happening to them, they just don’t want to. There are ramifications to this. The evangelical movement responds to this manifest intellectual paralysis by providing assurance that handing over responsibility for your life to Jesus Christ is not evidence of moral lassitude, but rather spiritual enlightenment. But a prayer never brought back a mother’s fallen son or grew back an amputated arm. The sales pitch of politics stands on the shoulders of the pulpit’s mad promise of eternal life. Tell it to the marines: the truth about war is death, and there is no coming back from that.

I listened to “Amazing Grace” being sung in the Theater in the Woods on Sunday as I prepared to leave for New York, and I thought how all the pious patriots in armchairs around the nation have ignored our historical tendency to eat our young and have voted to feed another generation into the meatgrinder. As I write this I learn that seventeen American soldiers were blown up this morning in a war begun with Iraq on a pretext found to be in error but justified by instincts of anger and fear following the 9/11 attacks.

This is the first American tragedy of the 21st century. There will be more and greater sorrows for families of the fallen. Terrorism exists, to be sure, but sometimes it’s closer to home than some imagine; sometimes the enemy is hard to see without a mirror. Maybe we should all pay more attention to truths about life and death, war and freedom, and whether we are paying lip service to our ideals as we shred them by our actions. But our shoes are spit-shined and our lawns are spotless and orderly, this must be admitted. And now stand for the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by today’s events.

Tom Casey

Copyright 2005 by Tom Casey

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kath Stevenson December 18, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Hey C. A. –

Great website! Can’t wait to read your other books. Your novels are the first things to entice me to go buy a Kindle….

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