Bet you didn’t know that Mecca is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  No?  Well, aviation mecca, I should say.  Oshkosh is home to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Airventure, the largest aviation gathering in the country.  It lasts a week, and during that week, the airport’s control tower is the busiest control tower in the world.  Because of that, there are very specific procedures pilots must follow to arrive and depart without incident.  It is estimated that 10,000-15,000 aircraft come and go during the week.  EAA estimates actual attendees to be 300,000-500,000 people, making it the most well-attended aviation gathering in the United States.  WOW!  How could anyone interested in aviation pass THAT up?  Well, because of my job in finance and the busy part of the quarter coming right when Airventure is held every year, I have never been able to attend and could only listen jealously to stories from friends who attended.  That’s why I think it was written in the stars for me to lose my job in April and to still be unemployed at the end of July.  After over eight years of flying without attending Airventure, it was time!

Mind you, since I was unemployed and had no idea when I would be employed, I was keeping all spending to a minimum.  However, I reasoned that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend and that I would allow myself to spend money to fly there in my plane, camp in the “North 40” under the wing of the airplane to get the full experience, and fly back.

Of course, just two weeks before Airventure, I get a bite from a company interested in hiring me right away.  But…but…Oshkosh!  I told them I was going out of town for five days at the end of July and asked if we could work around that, hoping that Oshkosh wouldn’t cost me this job I needed so desperately.  Luckily, my future boss is also a pilot and therefore totally understood!

I asked a friend, Joelle, who is a flight instructor, if she wanted to come along since I wanted more than one set of eyes to look out for traffic as we arrived in the congested airspace.  She was more than happy to come along.

But then the weather started to look like it wasn’t going to cooperate.  But…but…Oshkosh!  Doesn’t the universe get that I needed to go to Oshkosh?!?  Surely it would take pity on me and offer good weather.  And normally it would be the southern portion of the flight that I’d worry about, this being the summer and all.  But there was a storm moving into Wisconsin and Illinois in the afternoon we were planning to arrive.  The flight would take a little over seven hours, depending on the wind, but we also had to plan to arrive either before or after the daily airshow, which closed the airport to arriving and departing traffic and ran from 2:30 to 6:30.  The original plan was to take our time getting up there, stop for a good BBQ lunch in Memphis, and arrive after the airshow but before the airport closed for the night at 8:00.  No problem!  Except that damn storm.  I made the decision the night before to leave super early and skip lunch so we could hopefully arrive before the airshow and before the storm.  We’d still have to stop once to fuel up, so I picked the halfway point of Sikeston, Missouri, which should put us just around three and a half hours on each leg, and that’s about as long as my bladder can last, so that should be about right.

Of course, with the weather threat running through my head and knowing I had to get up so early, I only slept for two hours.  Not good!  I become nearly non-functioning when I don’t get enough sleep, but I also knew that I’d be so excited to finally be going to Oshkosh that I’d be okay for the flight.  I just hoped we could take a nap once we got there!

We left my house at 6:00am and took off around 6:45 with sandwiches we’d packed for lunch and a bag of snacks in case we got stuck somewhere.  It was quite hazy, so unfortunately there really wasn’t much to see.  I was looking forward to seeing a part of the country I’d never seen before.  I’ve flown my plane from San Francisco to New Orleans, New Orleans to the Bahamas, but never straight north.

I flew the whole leg as Joelle dozed off and only woke up out of reflex when she heard air traffic control call my tail number.  After a pleasant, if unscenic, flight, just at three and a half hours, we landed in Sikeston to fuel up, hit the bathroom, and check on the weather for the rest of the trip.  Luckily, the storm’s progress east had slowed, which allowed me to relax a little since it seemed sure now that we’d make it the whole way in one day.  Now we just had to beat the airshow or be stuck waiting somewhere else for four hours.  We could just make it, but we had to be quick.  Happily, often when I travel as a solo female pilot in a sea of male pilots, I get a little special attention here and there.  Now with two of us, we gladly accepted the young men fuel attendants’ offer to pump our fuel while we went to the bathroom even though we had pulled up to the self-service pump.  We worked well as a team to get the most done in the shortest amount of time.  I paid for the fuel while Joelle checked the weather.  We were in and out in about 15 minutes!

And thanks to a tailwind, we were making good time to Oshkosh and would beat the afternoon airshow.  Now to focus on all the very specific instructions we needed to follow to arrive there safely.  I had already read the NOTAM (Notices to Airmen) twice, but there was a lot to remember.  I had also written down the most important things on a pink post-it note that I’d stick to the yoke once we got close so I’d have it right in front of me.  Normally NOTAMs are a few lines long.  The Oshkosh NOTAM was 32 pages long!

The first waypoint is a town called Ripon, and we were to arrive at Ripon at 1,800 feet and 90 knots.  As we were getting close, I descended to 1,800 and slowed to 90 knots.  Now that I was down low on a windy and hot day, it was pretty bumpy, so I was working it to keep the plane at 1,800 and 90 knots!  At Ripon, we were to be listening to a specific frequency, but unlike all other times, we were ONLY to listen, not talk back, not even to acknowledge receipt of the controller’s transmission.  So that they were sure we heard them, they would tell us to rock our wings, and they were standing on a hillside so that they could clearly see all traffic.  If there were any planes in front of us, upon arriving at Ripon, we were to allow a half mile spacing between the next plane in front of us.  There was no one immediately in front of us since the last plane we heard the controller talk to was about three minutes prior to our arrival.  We were to follow train tracks leading northeast out of Ripon to another small town called Fisk.  We kept our eyes peeled for the train tracks and flew directly over them, having to crab into the crosswind to fly straight over the tracks.  We were listening to the air traffic controller in Fisk now, and he was giving instructions on which dot on the runway to land on.  Yep, rather than the normal procedure of only allowing one plane on the runway at a time and a landing plane having to completely clear the runway before another plane could land, because of the high volume of traffic, EAA has to apply for a waiver from the FAA for reduced runway spacing for landing.  There are three colored dots painted on the 6,000 foot runway, so the first two are to be used for landing planes from each direction, depending on the prevailing winds.  The dots are 1,500 feet apart, so anyone landing can potentially have someone exactly 1,500 feet behind her at the same exact time!  It seems too weird, but as long as the pilots follow the instructions from air traffic control, things go off without a hitch.

The NOTAM said to expect instructions from the air traffic controller on the ground before we hit Fisk.  Just as I was saying to Joelle that I was worried they missed us, I heard “Cessna three-quarters of a mile from Fisk, rock your wings.”  Ah!  I had waited so long to hear that!  I rocked the wings.  He said “Good rock, Cessna.  Proceed on a right downwind for runway 27, turn base inside the gravel pit.”  I hoped the gravel pit would be readily apparent, not wanting to be *that pilot* who screwed everything up, especially since one of my air traffic controller friends from Louis Armstrong International would be controlling Oshkosh for the week and I didn’t want to embarrass myself!  Luckily, the gravel pit was huge and hard to miss once we could see it, and just as I started my turn, the tower controller said “Cessna inside the gravel pit, cleared to land green dot runway 27 behind a jet on a two-mile final.”  I immediately saw the jet and therefore extended my downwind leg just a little to give myself enough room to avoid his wake turbulence.  I think the controller meant to put me in front of him because then he immediately said “No, Cessna, keep your turn coming.  Aim straight for the green dot.”  I did what I was told, but then seconds later, the controller said “Sorry about that, Cessna, that’s not going to work.  Cessna, go around and re-enter right downwind for runway 27.  I swear I won’t send you around again.”  I powered up and retracted the flaps to go around and climbed out to re-enter the pattern.  Once on downwind, the controller said “Sorry again, Cessna.  You are cleared to land green dot runway 27.  Aim straight for the green dot now.”  I had just barely passed the green dot on the downwind leg, so this was going to be a tight pattern and wouldn’t allow me much time to stabilize the final approach.  And since it was still windy and bumpy, I was in and out with the power and up and down with the elevator control while I tried to maintain the right approach angle to the green dot.  The controller apparently thought I was going to land short, and since he had cleared another plane to land 1,500 feet behind me on the orange dot, he said “Cessna, you can’t land before the green dot.  I have someone landing behind you on the orange dot.  Don’t land before the green dot.”  I’M NOT! I wanted to say back to him, but since we couldn’t talk back, I couldn’t.  Just let me do my thing!  And I plopped that thing RIGHT DOWN on the green dot!  Take that, controller!  Yes, I was proud of myself for doing that after such a crazy few minutes.  And then he said those three immortal words that every pilot longs to hear: “Welcome to Oshkosh.”

The instructions were to turn off of the runway as soon as possible, so I turned left onto the bumpy grass.  There were flaggers spaced about every fifty feet since planes could turn off the runway at any point.  The one closest to me started to flag me towards him.  I could see him point to the plane that had just landed behind me on the orange dot to hold while I pulled in front of him.  Within seconds, another plane had landed and pulled off in front of me, so he flagged me to wait for that plane.  It was just mind-boggling the amount of traffic, and apparently it wasn’t even “super busy” that day, according to my controller friend who met up with us later.  Busy day or not, the traffic was handled expertly by both the controllers (even though he didn’t believe I’d hit my spot landing) and the volunteer flaggers.

In order for the flaggers to know where to send you on the immense airport field, we were to prepare signs to put in the window identifying where we wanted to park.  “GAC” was mine, short for general aviation camping.  Once they could see my sign, they pointed me straight ahead to follow a long line of cones they had set up as a makeshift taxiway.  With all the planes taxiing in line in front of and behind me, I felt like a jet in rush hour traffic at LAX!  I could see we were getting close when I saw hundreds of planes lined up in rows with tents pitched under their wings.  We were directed up a row and turned 90 degrees and then signaled to shut down the engine.  Three flaggers were there to help us push the plane straight back into what would be our parking and camping space for the next three nights.  They were also very helpful with telling us where to go to register, eat, and use bathrooms with flush toilets as opposed to the porta potties scattered around the field.

We had three two-foot long steel tie-down anchors that screw into the ground and have a loop at the top to tie a rope from it to each wing and the tail.  But since we had never used them before, we hadn’t thought ahead of time about how we would screw them into the ground.  After seeing there was no way we could do it by hand, we pulled the metal tow bar from the baggage compartment in the plane.  It had a handle that we put through the tie-down loop, and it still took all our strength to turn it and push it into the ground.  It was also about 95 degrees, so within seconds of that effort, we were sweating our guts out.  We took turns since it was so strenuous, and it was still about an hour before we had them in the ground and the airplane tied to them.  My controller friend arrived just as we were finishing, too late to give us a hand with it.

Still, we put him to use helping pitch the tent.  I had camped a grand total of two times before in my life.  Both times were in what most people would consider “luxury” campground accommodations.  Like once in a Disneyworld campground.  I, myself, believe that “luxury campground” is an oxymoron.  Both previous times camping were also with a friend who camped all the time and pitched the tent without me lifting a finger or even paying attention.  Oh how I now wished I had paid attention!  I had no idea where to even begin.  Well, I took the tent, borrowed from a friend, out of the bag it came in.  That was a start!  Why don’t they have self-erecting tents?  You know, like those air beds that blow themselves up when you plug it in.  So I busied myself with unloading the airplane while the other two toiled with the tent.  Once it was up, I helped them stake it into the ground and then put our sleeping bags and luggage in the tent.  Um…this tent was allegedly a four-person tent.  Our two sleeping bags and two very small suitcases pretty much filled it up.  This thing could only fit four people if they were packed like sardines with overlapping body parts.  No bother.  I’d worry about the details later when we actually had to get in it, which I wasn’t going to do until absolutely necessary.

My controller friend invited us into the control tower, a very rare treat!  In the break room where everyone was hanging out during the afternoon airshow, I got to meet the controller who gave me the go around and then landed me and told him I was going to hit that green dot like my life depended on it.  I also told him I was shocked at the request made by the pilot of a plane two back from me.  As I was landing and concentrating on my own plane, I heard the pilot request a touch and go landing, which means that he would just touch down on the runway and then take off again, clearly something he only wanted to do so that he could say that he landed at Oshkosh.  Because of the high volume of traffic, that was an absolutely absurd and selfish request!  The controller said “Look.  You may be new here, but in my nineteen years here, this is the first touch and go I’ve ever heard of!”  But the controller still let him do it.  I told him I would have suggested he go shoot touch and goes at any other airport and to never ask for such a stupid thing again!  We also talked about pilots who come in who clearly disregard or don’t even read the procedures.  As I was taxiing to my parking spot, I had overheard yet another lunatic call up the ground controller like he was at a normal airport, saying his tail number, where he was, and what he wanted to do.  You’re not supposed to talk to the ground controllers either.  They will identify you by your plane and color of the plane and tell you what to do.  This guy comes in and says “Cirrus 12345, taxi, with the weather.”  The ground controller said “Cirrus whoever you are, I don’t know who you are or where you are!  You DO NOT talk to me on this frequency!”  I wished my controller had been as harsh on the guy who requested a touch and go.  Now that guy will tell all his friends and they’ll all come next year requesting touch and goes.  You just can’t fix stupid.

We went upstairs to the tower cab and got to talk to the woman in charge of the controllers.  She said traffic was down 1,000 landings versus this time last year.  Hard to tell from my perspective!  We got to see the colored dots taped to the windows to correspond with the colored dots on the runway so the tower controllers could quickly spot them.  The tower cab also offered a priceless view of the thousands of planes parked everywhere on the field below.  Oh and the air-conditioning was also a rare treat in that heat!

 

 

After dinner with my controller friend at a local joint, it was time for a shower and some much-needed catch-up sleep.  Joelle and I planned to go to bed early since we were both exhausted.  Buuuut, it was still like a trillion degrees, and we were still sweating like pigs.  As nice as a shower would feel, we agreed that we were too tired to deal with walking to the showers, changing while still sweaty from the shower steam-room heat and humidity, and walking back to our tent.  So we both stripped down as much as we could and laid *on top* of our sleeping bags.  I opened both air flaps to the tent, not caring if some stranger walked by and saw me in my undees and bra—it was just THAT hot.

I was also now regretting that I had not taken my father’s suggestion and bought an air mattress to cushion the unforgiving hardness of the ground.  I figured that 1. it would be grassier and therefore softer and 2. I was in no position while I was unemployed to purchase something I’d use only once.  “Hindsight,” I thought as I lay on either a rock or a very hard lump in the ground, feeling my back muscles seizing up as I lay sweating.  I tried to shift my sleeping bag around to avoid the hard spot, but in this sliver of a “four-person tent” {ahem!  bullshit!}, there wasn’t much room for maneuvering.  It was either shoving my spine up towards my ribcage when on my back or squishing my boobs into my shoulder blades if I tried lying on my stomach.  I had also developed a personal pool of sweat that I was now simmering in.  Just add salt!

I was feeling very stupid for having conveniently forgotten how much I hate camping.  I seriously thought that since it had to do with airplanes, that would somehow magically make it enjoyable.  Unfortunately, as I was now finding out the hard way, pun intended, as cool as airplanes are, they don’t make the ground softer.

Joelle seemed to be nodding off, but I could tell she was pretty uncomfortable, too, since she was tossing a lot.  Still, we were both so exhausted.  Just as I think I was about to fall into a shallow sleep, that storm that we had beat there arrived, loudly and brightly announcing its arrival.  It started to lightning every few seconds.  Oh boy.  Joelle rolled over and looked droopy-eyed at me.  I groaned.  Then some obviously terrified kid a few tents over started screaming bloody murder, and I mean bloody murder!  Joelle said it sounded like his parents were trying to cut his finger off or something.  I’ll bet this kid will never go camping again either!  Every time I thought he’d run out of breath or scream his throat raw, he took a breath and kept wailing.  I shoved my earplugs into my ear canals as far as they could go, and it still sounded as if he were in our tent.

Just as I was about to finally pass out from exhaustion despite the lightning and despite the kid attempting to be heard in China, it started to rain.  And let me tell you: rain is mighty loud inside a tent.  I guess it had never rained on my previous two camping trips.  It was one of those what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong moments, so much so that Joelle and I both burst out laughing hysterically when the rain started.  As I was laughing uncontrollably, I was thinking to myself “This isn’t even funny!  This SUCKS!”  But I kept laughing.  And it kept raining.

Accepting defeat, I whipped out my phone and played around on email even though we had only charged our phones for a few minutes at the shower facility.  Yep, there’s no electricity at the camp sites except in the big shower room.  I guess that would come as no surprise to people who camp, but it was a rude awakening for me.  What do you mean I can’t charge up my phone, laptop, GPS receiver, iPad, digital camera, and digital video camera conveniently near me while I sleep?  I had more charging cords than you could shake a stick at, whatever that means.  I just couldn’t sit there miserable, knowing that it was my own stupid-ass idea to camp.

As if the rain, lightning, and screaming child weren’t enough, the tent then began to leak.  I moved my suitcase and clothes away from the leaks and shielded my phone.  I wrote an email to my dad, who had warned me that I’m not the camping type, with the subject “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” using the song as a joke about my camping situation, and then proceeded to bitch endlessly about it.  I knew my father would get a kick and an “I told you so” moment out of my email.  I was even halfway chuckling as I wrote it, picturing Dad picturing me saying this stuff in person, spittle flying, arms gesturing, and really getting into the tirade, as I always expertly do.

My controller friend, over dinner earlier, had even said that he has two beds in his hotel room just in case our camping didn’t work out.  Why is it that others who know me often know me better than I know myself?  At the time, I thought it was an overly kind gesture and something I would never take someone up on since it would be imposing too much.  Now I couldn’t wait until morning came so I could impose.

The rain finally ended, but it was still windy, and every time there was a gust of wind, it would shake cold water on us from where it was leaking into the tent.  It was still lightning in the distance and still lighting up my world even with my eyes closed.  The kid had finally either hyperventilated or fallen asleep.  Joelle was asleep, how I don’t know.  I walked around outside for a little while.  I finally decided I’d try to sleep again when everything was quiet and the storm had passed.

I was dozing in and out of sleep starting at 4:00am, but as soon as 6:00am hit, when the airport opens up again, planes were taking off about every thirty seconds.  I was so tired that I was able to sleep between the departures off and on until about 8:30 when I finally gave up.