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Oshkosh 2002
Contributed by: David Gelles, Staff Writer

   Oshkosh, Wisconsin - America's largest fly-in took over Oshkosh, Wisconsin this week, as nearly 750,000 people descended upon the Experimental Aircraft Association's headquarters for the 50th anniversary of the seven-day event.

In and under mostly sunny skies for the last week of July, aviation enthusiasts from around the globe met to do business, examine new technologies, and enjoy the wonders of the aviation world. 74 countries were represented, including Iraq, Israel, Iran, and Iceland, as well as visitors from all 50 states.

All day the exhibits and skies were abuzz. Over 700 exhibitors displayed their products in four massive hangars and several acres outside. Industry giants such as Cessna and Exxon had large promotion tents, while newer and smaller companies, such as Electronic Flight Solutions, a comprehensive electronic flight-training startup, were also represented.

Eclipse, the Albuquerque-based company that is advertising their $800,000 business jet, had a large tent with a display aircraft. The jet is attractive, if not a bit small, and supposedly quite powerful. Though not one test-flight has been completed, Eclipse has already processed 400 preorders for planes set to be delivered in January of 2004.

ARM Aerospace, which manufactures airplane lifts that double a tall hangar's capacity, were onsite with two new models, reporting good sales.

Indeed, most business seemed to thrive, despite the current recession. Tracey Cook at Cirrus Design was thrilled with show, saying "we've sold upwards of 20 planes." Smaller items were also in high demand. At the Icom booth, Rick Waedekin happily stated that his company had sold over 500 more radios than expected. All this was welcome news for an industry still reeling from the effects of last year's hijackings.

This year's EAA's AirVenture was also distinguished by an anniversary: The AirVenture itself is celebrating its golden year.

NASA was on hand at the show, exhibiting models of their latest projects in two large adjacent hangars. Featured were plans for an 800-seat passenger jet, developments in cheaper space flights, and a host of programs paying greater heed to environmental concerns. One program was particularly relevant to the general aviation community. The Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), a $69 million NASA research project, is aiming to provide an infrastructure for the greater usage of the nation's smaller airports with the promotion of charters and air-taxis. Link to article

At the northern edge of the airfield, close to the fly-in campers and the evening's moon-like beer balloon, the Warbirds area displayed dozens of both new and old military aircraft. The meanest of the 2,500 show planes on hand at the AirVenture, the Warbirds included a ferocious black Marine Corsair with a dozen Japanese kill-marks under its cockpit, and a perfectly restored B-17 Flying Fortress.

An English Royal Navy Fairey Firefly sat on the runway with one wing folded up, demonstrating its design for use on an aircraft carrier. A World War II plane, the Firefly, a heavy-looking, awkward single-engine, saw action in Ethiopia as late as the 1970s.

For the aspiring fighter-pilots, several Czech L-39 Albatrosses were for sale. With sleek features and a two-man cockpit, each Albatross boasted a G-limit of +8. Price? $250,000 each.

A walk away, past a squadron of restored P-51 Mustangs, was the main aircraft display. Towering above everything else, an Air Atlanta Icelandic Boeing 747 cast a welcome shadow over the sweltering crowd. Onlookers were dwarfed by even the landing gears, and fathers held their children up to sit in the bottom rim of the monstrous engines.

Smaller, but equally impressive for its beauty, the Lockheed Martin "Spirit of America" Constellation, was parked nearby. Perhaps the most elegant passenger-plane ever built, it's red and white TWA markings and soft, round features, created nostalgia for an era passed.

In the sky, jets, props, and helicopters swarmed above all day, every day. An old Ford Tri-motor gave the public short rides for $40. And besides the visitor traffic and the aerial news coverage, stunt and display aircraft were featured taking off and landing on the main runway all day.

As the week went on, more benign displays such as acrobatics gave way to a display of America's military might. By Friday afternoon, F-15s, their engines glowing orange, were booming through the skies. On Saturday restored P-51s flew in formation, and in a series of explosions that startled the crowd, Vietnam-era jets flew mock bombing runs as pyrotechnicians on the ground conjured up napalm-like explosions that stretched the length of the runway.

The highlight of the show came near noon on Sunday when an Airforce B-2 Bomber just back from Afghanistan made three slow passes over the AirVenture field. Minutes before the fly-by all other planes were grounded, a requisite condition for the public display of the $1 billion dollar plane. When the distinctive V shape was spotted banking on the horizon, an awed hush fell over the crowd. The B-2 itself was remarkably quiet, and besides the rumble of idling engines and the chatter of the commentator, there was hardly a murmur. In flight, the B-2 was both graceful and fearsome. Its unique tailless body was reminiscent of a bird in flight, yet its size and angular stealth body announced its aggressive purpose. After the B-2's final pass the crowd came back to life and let out a great cheer.

Not to be forgotten, experimental aircraft were also represented. Mort Taylor's split-tail Aerocar - an old convertible with a chopper propeller attached - was flown all week by the current owner, Ed Sweeney. Mr. Sweeney also showed off models for a modern design based on the Lotus Elise sports car. Other prototypes were also on display and in the air, such as the Carter Copter, which made its first public flight.

All-pervasive throughout the show was an air of general enthusiasm for aviation. Dick Rutan shared stories of his adventures in Vietnam and space, and Michael Martin, at Microvision, recounted his lifelong affair with aviation. Describing flight as his life's passion, he said, "It allows a whole new degree of freedom."

By week's end, with crowds and campers dwindling, businesses packing up, and the last props in the air, the mood at AirVenture was one of happy but exhausted success. Aviation fans had had their fill of products and planes, the GA community was once again thoroughly networked, and the skies had captivated our hearts and minds for another week in Wisconsin.

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