EAA AirVenture Oshkosh showcases every facet of aviation, making it an excellent indicator of aviation’s emotional and economic health. As a whole the industry has weathered a number of ups and downs since I first started wandering through its many venues in 1978, but never to the magnitude we now endure, which is why I approached this year with some trepidation.
EAA reported that attendance was up about a third over previous years, and the crowds in rearranged exhibit areas, which increased the available space by more than 10 percent, supports this. Exhibitors I visited with in the four main hangars couldn’t be happier with the traffic and sales, and most feel aviation has recovered from its deep economic stall and is slowly starting to regain its cruising altitude.
Eclipse Aviation folded its big tent at show center, but Hawker Beechcraft stepped up to fill the space. The LSA mall, relocated to the new north diagonal that leads from the main gate to forums is thriving, as is Fly-Mart, relocated off the south diagonal walkway, just west of Hangar D.
Wandering among the airplanes that carpet the surrounding acres, however, more than I ever remember before I’ve seen more “For Sale” signs in a cockpit windows and on props, their brightly colored flags flapping in the fresh breeze. Even more telling are the empty exhibit spaces at the far south end, in the ultralight area.
What was once a vibrant hive of activity is a community of aviators one step away from being a ghost town. Challenger, Titan, Quicksilver, Just Aircraft, Pipistrel USA, and Valley Engineering/Culver Props are all that’s left of the dozens of fixed-wingers that used to exhibit there. There are just two powered parachute companies, Powrachute and Buckeye, and three rotorcraft, Safari Helicopter, the Butterfly gyro, and the single-seat Personal Rotorcraft. Hirth engines is still there, and so is Windsok, its gay fabric fluttering in the wind over untrampled grass.
Some of the companies that used to live here have moved to the LSA mall, some of the UL area’s surviving residents said, but most couldn’t afford the trip. Many of them mom-and-pop companies, they can’t cut back in other areas because Oshkosh was their only public, face-to-face foray. No one would predict the future, but their unspoken attitude suggested that the end of an era was near.
But there was one bright spot, a glimmer of innovation at the Yuneec International booth. Next to its electric-powered E430 fixed-wing two seater was the the E-Pac, a 61-pound electric backpack paramotor with a carbon fiber frame and prop guard that breaks down and packs up in a compact duffle bag. The LiPo battery provides roughly a half-hour of power, and it recharges in 1.5 hours.
Turning toward show center, taking a shortcut through the empty ultralight exhibit spaces, unimpeded by the curious crowd that once filled this community, I wondered what I’ll find here next year, and if an improving economy will make a difference. — Scott Spangler