The Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual fly-in and convention is more than just a global showcase of aviation innovation – it’s also the world’s largest air show dedicated to promoting the thrill of flight.
The founding of the EAA by Paul H. Poberezny Jan. 26, 1953, led to a gathering of 21 airplanes and 150 members in September of that year at Curtiss-Wright Field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and marked the organization’s first convention. The inaugural meeting was billed as part of the larger Milwaukee Air Pageant, but during the past 66 years the Pageant has become a memory while the fly-in has grown into the most prolific exhibition of all things aeronautical in the world.
The annual convention, held at Wittman Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, late in July/early August, routinely attracts more than 500,000 people from many nations to see a multi-faceted potpourri of flying machines from ultralights to the latest generation of military jet aircraft.
During World War II, Poberezny served in the United States Army Air Force’s Training Command as a flight instructor. When the conflict ended, he flew for the Wisconsin Air National Guard, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring in 1973. Poberezny served as EAA president from its inception until 1989 before transitioning to his new position as chairman of the board (COB) that he held until 2009. (His son, Tom, took over the presidency and the additional duties of COB before retiring in 2011. In addition, Tom served as chairman of AirVenture for 30 years.)
Paul Poberezny, who taught himself to fly a rebuilt glider at age 15, was a staunch advocate of a person’s right to design, build and pilot their own aircraft. As a result of his efforts, as of 2019 there are more than 30,000 amateur-built aircraft registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and thousands of these are flown for hundreds of hours each year by their owners and builders. In the wake of the 1953 first fly-in, participation in EAA increased until, as of this year, there are more than 220,000 members worldwide.
Poberezny died Aug. 22, 2013, at age 91. He was chiefly responsible for not only creating the EAA that eventually became a worldwide aviation organization, but spearheading development of an annual show dedicated to fostering growth of the postwar amateur-built aircraft movement. That event grew into EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
During his aviation career Poberezny flew more than 500 aircraft of various types and logged more than 30,000 hours in the air. He is remembered as an aviator whose constant goal was finding an affordable way for the common person to build and fly their own aircraft. His founding of EAA and the evolution of AirVenture paved the way for thousands of people to realize their dream of flying. Poberezny once summed up the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh experience this way: “Come to Oshkosh for the planes and come back for the people.”
During the next six years EAA members and their aircraft continued to return. The original convention grew by leaps and bounds until, in 1958, the space allotted to EAA at Curtiss-Wright Field became inadequate. As a result, the fly-in was relocated to the municipal airport near Rockford, Illinois, where it remained for the next 10 years. It was during that time at Rockford that the “EAA Fly-In Convention established both its prominence as a homebuilder’s event and its friendly atmosphere that it has retained to this day,” said Jack Pelton, chairman of the board and CEO of EAA. In addition, an increasing number of amateur-built aircraft were joined on the airfield by a diverse group of “Warbirds” from World War II including the North American P-51 Mustang and F-86 Saber Jet, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, to name only a few. Antique aircraft from the early decades of aviation also were on display, and aerobatic performances became an integral part of the daily airshows.
By 1969, however, it was becoming obvious that the fly-in and convention had outgrown the facilities at Rockford. The EAA board of directors considered a number of new venues, including one suggested by famed air racing pilot and EAA member, Steve Wittman. He recommended the regional airport at Oshkosh, which featured an FAA control tower, room for future expansion, and east/west and north/south runways (without any intersections) that would facilitate the efficient movement of aircraft during the convention.
The only potential problem was the absence of infrastructure to construct a new convention site. Thanks to the massive efforts of EAA’s volunteer network, within six months facilities were deem-ed adequate for the upcoming convention in the summer of 1970, and Oshkosh city officials were eager to accommodate the EAA and reap the economic rewards it would provide. Late in 1969 the board approved relocating the event to Wittman Field. It was during the 1970s and 1980s that the fly-in achieved both national and international recognition as a major aviation exposition. Attendance by the public exploded into six-figure territory and thousands more pilots as well as flying machines of all types made an aerial pilgrimage to Wittman Field each year. In 1998, the event’s name was changed to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
The convention has earned the respect and participation of federal government and general aviation industry officials from FAA, NASA, National Transportation Safety Board, the National Association of Airport Officials, General Aviation Manufacturers Association and other agencies. In addition, there is active participation by key international representatives of governmental aerospace agencies interested in developing private and business flying activities in their countries. Corporate officials from major general aviation airframe and engine manufacturers in the United States, Europe, Asia, China and South America, consider EAA AirVenture Oshkosh an important stop in their yearly travel schedule. An EAA official said the fly-in “spans the entire spectrum of aviation interests” and generates more than $170-million in revenue for the Wisconsin economy. Pelton said the International Convention and Fly-in “has become more than a place or a gathering for the aviation community. Mention ‘EAA AirVenture Oshkosh’ to nearly any pilot in the world and that person will know what you are talking about.”
In the past 10 years the convention site has undergone a series of major upgrades that have significantly improved visitor accommodations and space for more exhibitors as part of the organization’s effort to ensure that AirVenture “retains its world-class status,” another EAA official said. These changes allow both the general public and official participants opportunities to better study and understand the latest innovations and technological developments for aircraft and avionics systems, discover new ideas and techniques from hundreds of workshop and forum sessions held throughout the weeklong event, and see and listen to some of aviation’s well-known personalities as they talk about their experiences flying airplanes of many types from around the world.
Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1980s, EAA performed daily operations from its headquarters in a suburb of Milwaukee known as Hales Corners. Eventually, by the late 1970s room was becoming tight and the decision was made to relocate to Wittman Airport, build a museum to house displays of amateur-built, commercial and military aircraft and provide facilities for conducting aviation research. Restoration shops for resurrecting old airframes and engines would be included to underscore EAA’s commitment to maintaining the airworthiness of its fleet of vintage and warbird airplanes including (but not limited to) the museum’s Boeing B-17G heavy bomber Aluminum Overcast, a faithful reproduction of Charles A. Lindbergh’s 1927 Ryan Spirit of St. Louis and a North American P-51 fighter, as well as many other aircraft.
The following list highlights important milestones in EAA and AirVenture’s 66 years of history:
- 1953: First fly-in held at Curtiss-Wright Field in Milwaukee
- 1956: Fly-in makes one-year move to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but rain and hot weather spoil attendance
- 1957: EAA returns to Milwaukee for the next two years
- 1959: Convention relocates to Rockford, Illinois, for the next 10 years
- 1970: Oshkosh hosts the convention
- 1976: John Moody, considered the patriarch of the modern ultralight aircraft movement, displays a powered hang glider
- 1983: EAA’s new Aviation Center, museum and international headquarters dedicated
- 1984: Burt Rutan-designed Voyager, the around-the-world aircraft, was displayed before its nonstop, globe-circling flight that occurred in 1986
- 1985: British Airways displays a Concorde supersonic airliner
- 1992: EAA launches “Young Eagles” program with initial flights during the convention
- 1994: A salute to the Apollo moon landing program draws 15 of the program’s surviving 25 astronauts to celebrate the 25th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon in July 1969
- 2003: Airbus displays an A300-600ST Super Transporter, also known as the Airbus Beluga
- 2005: The world’s first successful, private-built spaceship, SpaceShipOne, winner of the $10-million Ansari X-Prize, displayed along with its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnight
- 2009: WhiteKnightTwo lands at Oshkosh for its public unveiling, along with the Airbus A380 – the world’s largest airliner
- 2012: EAA inaugurates “Eagle Flights” program aimed at introducing adults to personal flying
- 2014: The United States Air Force’s “Thunderbirds” aerial demonstration team makes it first appearance at AirVenture
- 2016: Actor and pilot Harrison Ford makes the two-millionth Young Eagles flight during AirVenture
- 2017: The United States Navy’s “Blue Angels” precision flight team flies at Oshkosh for the first time
- 2017: EAA observed the 25th anniversary of the Young Eagles program
- 2017: The recently rebuilt Boeing B-29, Doc, was on display and flew in formation with Fifi – the only other airworthy B-29 in the world.
- 2017: The convention site received a number of important upgrades that included electrical power available in the main campground, the Vintage Red Barn was enlarged and a permanent pavilion built for the experimental aircraft camping area.
2019 EAA AirVenture Oshkosh
This year EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh is July 22 through July 28 with 1,000 forums and hands-on workshops scheduled.
Other noteworthy items include:
- A gathering of North American P-51 Mustang fighters in honor of World War II ace Bud Anderson, credited with shooting down 16 German aircraft
- A “Year of the Fighter” program will feature the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 jets
- U.S. Navy Vought F4U-series fighters will be the centerpiece of a special exhibition
- Observance of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France that occurred June 6, 1944
- More than 2,500 aircraft show airplanes including warbirds, amateur-built, aerobatic, vintage, ultralight and military aircraft
- According to EAA, there are also a number of special anniversaries that will be observed at this year’s event including:
- 90th anniversary of the Pietenpol monoplane developed in the 1930s as an affordable “homebuilt” airplane
- 50 years since the first flight of the 747 airliner
- 70th anniversary of the North American T-28 and Beechcraft T-34 trainers and the Beechcraft Model 50 Twin Bonanza
- 50th anniversary of EAA AirVenture’s presence at Wittman Regional Airport
- There will be a special gathering of Cessna 180, Piper Comanche, Stinson and Helio Courier aircraft.
The event will also showcase the potential of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) through displays that emphasize innovative concepts in personal flight as well as urban transportation reported by TransportUp – a news service covering the latest information about electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) Flying Car and Urban Aviation industries.
Note: The author thanks Dick Knapinski, Senior Communications Advisor, and his staff at the Experimental Aircraft Association for their guidance and assistance in the preparation of this article.