Back in the mid-1980s, after a solid year of neglecting my classwork in favor of mountain bike magazines, I received a Schwinn mountain bike for Christmas. The euphoria that resulted led to some questionable decisions that morning, namely tearing around our snow-covered backyard and icy driveway in my pajamas and enduring several crashes while a mild case of frostbite set in. But I had my very own mountain bike, and despite the bloody injuries, I regretted nothing.
In the years that followed, numerous vehicles came and went. Cool ones, at that. Multiple European motorcycles, a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and some fun German cars. But none produced the same level of euphoria as the Schwinn on that epic Christmas morning.
None, that is, until the arrival of my 1953 Cessna 170 last July.
After years of saving and countless hours of research, I had found the perfect airplane. The prepurchase inspection went well, and two good friends bent over backward for me, ferrying it from Seattle to Wisconsin. I finally had my very own airplane, and I was ready for adventure.
To top it off, EAA AirVenture 2021 at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was only a handful of days away. I may have been composed and properly clothed in reality, but in spirit, I was once again that crazed kid in pajamas, ready to go tear around in my dream machine. There were, however, some limitations preventing me from flying it to the big show.
The first issue had to do with insurance. Before I could fly my airplane, I had to obtain two hours of dual instruction in it or in another 170. And try as I might, I was having no luck locating an instructor that could get me checked out in time for Oshkosh.
Even if I was able to find an instructor, however, a couple quick hours of dual wouldn’t have given me the skill or confidence to feel comfortable gallivanting off into what was about to become the busiest airport in the world. I hadn’t flown regularly for many years, and I’d need significantly more instruction to feel truly sharp and proficient.
This left me with a frustrating conundrum. I was on the brink of achieving another lifelong dream of taking my own airplane to Oshkosh, but there didn’t appear to be a safe means of doing so. The last thing I wanted was to drive to the big event and leave my airplane sitting at home only 80 miles away. Camping beneath a friend’s wing was always an option, but it couldn’t possibly compare to camping beneath my own.
It was, as usual, a good friend who saved the day.
Gary to the Rescue
While lamenting my situation to my friend Jessica, she had an idea. One of her coworkers was an A&P, and he happened to have a 170 of his own. Perhaps, she said, he’d be willing to help me fly my own 170 into Oshkosh for the big show.
The gentleman’s name was Gary. As it turned out, he was thrilled to be able to welcome a new 170 owner into the fold and happy to help out with my situation. He proposed that he fly his 170 down to me, park it in my hangar, and fly with me in my own 170 back up to Oshkosh. He worked at a maintenance facility right on the airfield, so it wouldn’t even be out of his way. After the show, we’d simply reverse the process.
Gary was particularly keen to see how my 170B compared to his 170A. The flaps are quite different between the two models; the larger flaps on the B significantly decrease takeoff and landing distance. Gary had never flown a B-model, and the 40-minute flight would be a great introduction for him.
We agreed to make the flight the next morning, on July 21. This was just one day before the Oshkosh NOTAM went into effect, and thus, it would allow us to simply fly straight into the airport like any other day, without any special arrival procedures. I spent that evening excitedly packing two storage bins with all the necessary gear for a week of camping beneath my wing.
The next morning, Gary arrived as planned. We each provided the other with a brief tour of our respective airplanes. When I mentioned that my engine’s idle was set a bit too low, he kindly spent about 30 minutes adjusting it for me prior to our departure.
As we were strapping in, we discussed the flight. Gary would be PIC, both to satisfy insurance requirements as well as to ensure our safety. He had no problem with me flying the cruise portion of the flight, though, and I was happy to do so.
Although the ceiling was slightly low, the weather wasn’t a factor and the ride was smooth. I spent most of the flight taking a mental inventory of future upgrades. I may have only flown the airplane for about 30 minutes in total, but I’d already determined the need for inertia-reel shoulder harnesses, good sun visors, and some updated avionics.
AirVenture wouldn’t officially begin for another four days, and there was virtually no traffic of concern as we approached the Oshkosh area. Similarly, the parking and camping areas were still mostly empty, awaiting the arrival of the masses. Bustling activity was apparent, though; even from a distance, ground vehicles could be seen scurrying around the showgrounds and making last-minute preparations for the week ahead.
soloing? on the ground?
As we lined up on final for Runway 9, Gary casually mentioned that we could just taxi to his workplace on the north side of the field, and after dropping him off, I could then taxi down to the vintage area to find my parking spot/ campsite on my own. My heart skipped a beat. I was expecting him to taxi down to the showgrounds with me. I most certainly was not expecting to solo my airplane anytime soon, even if only on the ground.
My mind racing. Would I be covered by insurance if something went wrong? Did I have a taxi diagram for the airport? Was there any special procedure for requesting or taxiing to a particular parking area? Was the tower prepared to handle clueless idiots of my caliber so far ahead of the actual event? Having been thoroughly caught off guard, I felt like a pre-solo student, nervously anticipating every possible mistake I might be about to make.
We parked at Gary’s workplace on the north side of the field. I thanked him for his generous assistance, and he headed into work, leaving me alone with my airplane. Lacking any of the printouts or paper charts I had used so regularly when I had last flown regularly, I brought up the airport diagram on my trial edition of Garmin Pilot. EFBs were entirely new to me, but it didn’t take long to acquaint myself with the interface and review my most likely taxi route to the vintage area.
Feeling simultaneously clueless and prepared, I started the engine, taxied to the edge of the ramp, and requested taxi clearance to vintage parking. Clearance was granted, and it was relatively uneventful … until I reached the warbird area on the actual show grounds. There, the gravity of operating my own airplane at the world’s greatest aviation celebration began to sink in. Fortunately, I was instructed to simply follow the aircraft ahead to the vintage area, and relieved of any more complex taxi instructions, I was able to look around and take it all in.
A Dream Realized
After years and years of dreaming of someday flying my own airplane to Oshkosh, it was finally happening. There, on the right, were some T-6 Texans parked in a neat line. Up ahead, there was one of the Douglas C-47s that came every year. And it looked like my beloved de Havilland Chipmunks had begun to arrive.
As I proceeded southbound on Taxiway Papa—the main north/south taxiway along the famous Oshkosh flightline—I recognized the homebuilt parking area and mused how it looked so different from this new perspective. A pair of photographers took turns aiming their cameras at me as I rolled past; ever the spectator, it felt bizarre to now be part of the show.
A few moments later, I taxied past Boeing Plaza, the large ramp that serves as the epicenter of the weeklong event. It was the first time I’d ever seen it from airside, much less from my own airplane. I gently nudged the brakes and slowed a bit. This was proving to be the single most triumphant taxi of my life, and I intended to savor it.
I easily located the vintage parking area, and turned off of the main taxiway and onto the grass. Despite it being so early, some dedicated volunteers were faithfully on duty. Seeing me roll into their area of responsibility, one of them signaled for me to stop and then carefully approached beneath my wing.
I popped open my window and received a hearty “Welcome to Oshkosh! Where ya headed?” I replied that if possible, I’d like to park among any other 170s in the meadow that was home to the Beech Staggerwings. With a quick nod, he instructed me to follow him and hopped onto his scooter. He then led me into that exact area and directed me to park in an available spot. Being several days early, it seemed, had its advantages.
My meadow of choice was nearly empty. I knew it was just a matter of time before all the Staggerwings, Stearmans, Howard DGAs, and Stinson Reliants would arrive. But for now, I had secured an amazing parking spot on the south end of those hallowed grounds. I hopped out of my airplane and into the warm breeze. There were only a small handful of airplanes present, and it was eerily quiet. The only sounds that could be heard were the faint whining of my gyros spooling down and the occasional tick of cooling metal.
As I began to unload my camping gear, some other early arrivals strolled by to say hello and introduce themselves as my new neighbors for the week. They gave me the lay of the land; the water fountains had yet to be turned on, but there was one hose that worked behind a certain small building not far away. “Be sure to tie your airplane down as soon as possible,” they counseled, as that’s one of the most rigid rules in place for campers. And I would also be sure to join the group for brats later that evening.
For decades, I had been attending Oshkosh as a spectator. But now, having arrived in my own airplane, I finally felt like I was home.