Sunday, August 17, 2008

You Know It's Coming

A good morning. I crashed out on my couch last night watching the Olympics, after having cheered on Phelps and the rest of the men's swim team on the 4x100m relay. And I awoke this morning to the unmistakable sound of burners whooshing overhead, as a hot air balloon seemed to barely clear the roof of my apartment building. It's getting to be that time of year again in Albuquerque.

A cup of coffee, a glance at the online headlines for the Dallas Morning News (I just can't stomach the local Journal) and absent-mindedly flipping between Fox News Sunday and a Sopranos repeat on A&E. I muse briefly that the two shows probably have more in common than Chris Matthews would care to admit.

Clouds hang low over the Sandias; the ceilings lie at least 1,500 feet or so beneath the 10,678 foot summit. From my perspective on Albuquerque's west side, the clouds seem lower than my balcony. They're not, of course, but that's how they look. There's not a trace of wind, either. A good-sized thunderstorm blew through last night, and this is the result. It was on a similar morning, four years and one month ago, that I soloed for the first time.

There's nothing big on my agenda this morning. It's a rare Sunday that I don't have to work, Jim's covering. Not much to do today, other than go up to spend the afternoon with my folks and Abby. I need to run to the store, too -- there was no milk for my coffee this morning, I had to resort to one of umpteen creamer packets I've copped over the years from a variety of motel rooms. Still, I have the rare luxury of time today... so I lay back on my couch, and watch TV.

9:00 am, This Week comes on ABC. Still a Sunday morning of tradition of mine, one that started four years ago in Dallas. The local affiliate finally moved the program to its rightful place in the morning; it had been on Sunday afternoons here, but KOAT moved it back to the morning shortly after Meet The Press host Tim Russert died... correctly assuming, I imagine, that with Russert's passing MTP would be more vulnerable in the local ratings. Such is life.

I only pay half-hearted attention to the commentators, discussing who will be chosen as Obama's and McCain's running mates. But I look up as I hear the familiar strains of the theme for "In Memoriam."

Issac Hayes. Jerry Wexler. The head of the Democratic Party in Arkansas, who was gunned down in his office this week by a crazed lunatic who had recently quit his job at a Target store, sigh.

Nine soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sigh, again.

Camera one, back on George. "We also lost a member of our ABC News family this week. Leroy Sievers..."

I stop cold, and stare mouth agape at the TV. I feel tears welling up, but wipe my eyes angrily before the torrent can begin.

God damn it...

Photo by Tyrone Turner

Friday, August 1, 2008

My Own Private Oshkosh

(I wrote this Wednesday morning, still trying to kick the OSH-Cold I'd managed to catch. Alas, I didn't have time to complete it and find pictures, so it's sat in the "Created" file on ANN's CMS the past three days... and gotten stale for the site. So, I'll post it here...)

I have to say, that so far this year's Oshkosh hasn't gone the way I'd hoped. That's certainly not the fault of the EAA, which has once again put on a dynamite show. Nor can I blame the weather -- so far as perfect as one could dare hope -- or the crowds, which have exceeded expectations to date and appear to be heading for a banner year.

No... it's because I'm typing this from ANN's "OSH House," sitting at the kitchen table in self-imposed exile for the second day in a row, loaded up on cold medicine and ibuprofen. Which means I've already missed such notable attractions as the first flight of the Martin Jetpack, the Dreamlifter's departure from Wittman Field Tuesday night, and the first public flight of the Rocket Racing League's prototype racer. At this rate, I'll probably miss the Cirrus SJ50's arrival Wednesday afternoon, too.

So, rats. And to add insult to injury, our house is close enough to the field that a steady stream of piston, turbine, and full-wail jet aircraft are making regular laps right overhead. Maybe the Cirrus jet will fly a REALLY wide pattern to land on 18, and I'll be able to snap a shot of its belly.

Even with my head feeling as if it's been placed in a vice, though, I know I can't really complain. How many readers would rather be under the weather, three miles from AirVenture, instead of being perfectly healthy and reading about the week's goings-on at Wittman Field from their office computer? There ya go. Rob, stop complaining.

I was also fortunate to arrive early this year... and by that, I mean EARLY, as in a full week before the show started. Thanks to the gang at Gobosh Aviation (who as regular readers know provided the light sport plane I earned my license on earlier this year) I was able to fly myself almost the entire way to Oshkosh, from Denver. Company vice-president Dave Graham invited me along for his flight, ferrying a new plane back from a trade event at Centennial Airport to Gobosh's headquarters in Moline, IL.

I suspect one motivation for his gracious offer was so that he could sit back and enjoy the trip for a change, and let someone else do the flying... which I happily did, logging a hair over six hours of brand-new, Pilot-In-Command cross-country time. And though I wasn't able to complete my planned goal, of flying myself into Wittman Field -- I had to "settle" for flying right seat in a pristine Beech Sundowner, as storms and low cloud cover along the route from MLI to OSH precluded a VFR trip -- I was still able to enjoy the sensation of being on final approach to land at one of the world's best-known and most highly-regarded airports. Not a bad tradeoff at all (and special thanks to Erik Skjerseth for a great flight.)

Arriving to Oshkosh a full week before AirVenture kicks off has some definite advantages. It's amazing to watch the field transformed from a sleepy Wisconsin airport (deceptively so... as OSH handles a significant amount of traffic in its own right, but those numbers are rated against the admittedly steep AirVenture curve) to the World's Busiest Airport.

Two years ago, Kevin O'Brien waxed poetic about that process in reverse... far more eloquently than I could hope to now, but I do better understand now what he was talking about. Even without all the tents, and the people and all the planes... there's an excitement present on the field. You just know something good's about to happen.

Even the workers on forklifts, those tasked with assembling the colorful displays and huge exhibit tents, seem to understand that. I had to be mindful of moving equipment as I walked around the slab of empty pavement last Tuesday, that in six days would become AeroShell Square and would host the Boeing 747-400 LCF Dreamlifter.

Instead of grumbling about the wide-eyed bystander intruding into their workzone, however... three different operators smiled and waved. I wholeheartedly returned the gestures. There's something about Oshkosh.

Arriving early, I was also able to enjoy a venue I'd never been to before, but for a quick walk-through last year en route to Cessna's SkyCatcher announcement. This time around, I wouldn't have to report on a trade event, or cover an early morning press conference. In fact, I was able to visit places far removed from show center, in both geography and ideology.

Last Wednesday, I was able to take in the EAA Museum and Pioneer Airport. For five hours, I walked around the exhibits, quietly taking each display in on my own time and my own (read, non-ANN-related) terms. And all I can say is, it was an illuminating experience.

I saw the SpaceShipOne mockup perform its tail-feathering dance, and watched the video presentation Alan and Dale Klapmeier gave in the mid-1980s about their VK30 experimental (love the hair, guys.) I sat on a nearby bench and contemplated the Wright Flyer; later I tried my hand at the various "kid's experiments" set up at the temporary NASA exhibit. I even spent time lolling through the gift shop... taking it all in, and buying a T-shirt for my mom.

It was... transcendent. For starters, it isn't every day you get to see a Ryan NXP on short final to a grass strip... but there it was, and the tram slowed down so everyone could grab their cameras. Yeah, it's only a replica... but how many replicas of the plane Charles Lindbergh first crossed the Atlantic in are still flying??

After arriving on the other side of the field, the tram deposited its load of families, a few older couples... and the wide-eyed Managing Editor, holding his camera.

I quickly walked ahead of the group. It's an annoying habit I have; when in a crowd, I always want to be first. But my rush to get ahead came to an abrupt end when I walked into the Aeronca hangar... and gazed upon the vintage airplanes contained within, under a veritable sea of wooden wing spars and period engines hung from the rafters. All sound from the outside seemed to vanish; I was now standing on holy ground, or so it seemed.

The families with their children eventually caught up, but even the youngsters quieted down somewhat as their parents stopped to read about the airplanes. The same was true as we walked through the other six hangars on the field; even the kids grew somber when we walked into the Wittman hangar, and read about Steve and Paula's last, fateful flight. As a group we paused to silently consider the propeller from their Wittman O&O, now hanging on the hangar wall.

After several moments, I walked back outside and watched as the EAA's Young Eagles GlaStar fired up, to take another young flyer around the patch for their very first time. It was an odd -- but appropriate, I think -- juxtaposition. While waiting for the tram back, I spent some time talking to Jake, also a first-time visitor to the museum, here with his wife from Scottsdale to spend the whole week at AirVenture.

Already in a reverential mindset, I opted to make one last stop on my own private Oshkosh journey. After retrieving the car, I drove back towards Aero-News press headquarters... but then turned left, heading towards the EAA Chapel and Compass Hill.

I'd only been in the chapel once before, during my first year at Oshkosh back in 2005 during an impromptu tour given by former ANN stringer Rose Dorcey, who now works for EAA. I'm not especially religious... but something drew me through the doors, and I sat for several moments in one of the empty pews, considering the events that had brought me to this point in time.

Next I walked behind the chapel, to the EAA Memorial Wall. Once again, I paused to reflect... this time on the names engraved in brass plates set upon the bricks. Some I recognized, mostly through reporting on their deaths. Most were foreign to my eyes... but I tried to take them all in. I considered taking a picture, but it seemed inappropriate.

It's on their shoulders, that we all reach for the heavens...

My last stop was Compass Hill... a fitting end to what had turned out to be my day to consider the celebrations and sacrifices of flight. I stood among the four lifesized bronze statues depicting a family watching planes at the airport -- "Directions," by sculptor Larry Anderson -- and marvelled in their realistic expressions of wonderment and awe. It didn't take much effort to imagine they were real... another group of wide-eyed enthusiasts, taking in another beautiful day at Pioneer Airport.

I can't describe the emotions I felt in my heart as I walked back to the car, sitting forlornly in the chapel parking lot. This would probably be the last day that lot would be empty, at least for another week or so. I was grateful to experience such a place "by myself."

There's something magical about being among 600,000 of your closest friends during AirVenture. But it's quite another to have Oshkosh all to yourself, at least for a little while. I'm glad I had the chance... it's those memories that keep me going until this darned cold subsides, and I can visit the field again.