A History of AirVenture Oshkosh: 1953-2012

Way back in 2000, Jill Rutan Hoffman, the daughter of Dick Rutan, put together a book of essays written by pilots calledOshkosh Memories: Reflections of the World’s Greatest Fly-in.  At that time, the Fly-in averaged 12,000 airplanes (about 2,000 on display, the rest flown in by folks wanting to attend the Fly-in as spectators), 750 exhibitors, and 500 forums. Today, twelve years later, the numbers are holding steady rather than increasing – but considering the lousy state of the economy for the last five years, to hold steady at such a high level of achievement is no mean feat.

Patty Wagstaff, who contributed a couple of essays to the book, had this to say about the attendees at Oshkosh: “For a performer, flying Oshkosh is special and unique. At most airshows we figure about 20% of the population are pilots. At Oshkosh, it’s like 100% of the people are pilots or at least enthusiasts.”

It all began in January, 1953, when aviation enthusiast Paul Poberezny and a group of his friends formed the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). Its original purpose was to help people who wanted to build their own aircraft – kitplanes and the like.  At that time Poberezny lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and so when he thought of the idea to hold a Fly-in Convention, it was held at Curtiss-Wright Field in Milwaukee.

This EAA Fly-in was so successful that it continued to be held every year, with attendees gradually growing from just pilots to include those folks simply interested in aviation and its history as well, but the EAA did more than just hold these conventions. They published a newsletter, “The Experimenter” and encouraged the formation of EAA chapters around the country. In 1958, the name of the newsletter was changed to “Sport Aviation”. (EAA eventually will publish a half-dozen newsletters, each showcasing the various classes of airplanes from ultralights to warbirds.)  So popular did the Fly-in become that in 1959 it was deemed to be too large to be held in Milwaukee, and was moved to Rockford, Illinois.

Five years later, in 1964, the EAA headquarters, which had been in the basement of Paul Poberezny’s home, got its own building in Franklin, Wisconsin. By 1966 a new museum and office complex was built to accommodate the organization.

In 1970, the EAA Fly-in Convention has become so huge, and so popular, that yet again more room is needed. Since the headquarters of the EAA was in Wisconsin, it only made sense that the Fly-In Convention be held there as well, and the city of Oshkosh was chosen to be the new, permanent host.

For the next 42 years, the Fly-in grew to almost mythic proportions, with attendance from aviation enthusiasts (as well as pilots) increasing every year. The EAA organization itself continued to grow and expand its own activities to proselytize aviation and to do their best to protect it from damaging government over-regulation (in particular after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.)

Below are a few highlights of the Oshkosh Fly-ins since 1983.

  • In 1983, the Fly-in shattered records, becoming the largest and most successful to that date. 1,521 show planes were on display, and more than 40,000 visitors came to see them.
  • The 1985 Fly-in was highlighted by the appearance of the British Airways’supersonic jet Concorde.
  • In 1986, visitors to the Fly-in saw the first North American performance given by the Italian precision military jet team, the Frecce Tricolori.
  • In 1990, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was honored. The F-117A “Stealth” fighter, the B-1B Bomber and the Concorde made appearances.
  • In 1992, the Fly-in had tributes to several World War II groups, including the Tuskegee Airmen.
  • In 1998, the Oshkosh Fly-in Convention was renamed Oshkosh AirVenture, reflecting the greatly enlarged organization – with its museums and forums as well as the planes on display.

At the end of 2011, Tom Poberezny retired as chairman of AirVenture Oshkosh, marking the first time since the organization’s inception that it was headed by anyone whose name did not begin with Poberezny.

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