AirVenture Reflections: Contraction, Consolidation, and Concentration

By Scott Spangler on August 4th, 2014

“What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen at AirVenture this year?” For the past 15 or 20 years, this is the question I dread because I never have an answer for my interlocutors. Don’t get me wrong, I find many things interesting at AirVenture every year, but it’s been some time since I’ve seen something that’s sub-zero awesome.

TextronWhat’s most interesting to me are the changes that come with time. AirVenture is the showcase for all aspects of aviation. It is the international stage on which industry and consumer alike must appear to be considered among the the aviation faithful (and hopeful). The scope and diversity of their participation is, for me, a good measure of aviation’s vitality.

Light-sport aircraft (LSAs) celebrated their first decade of existence at AirVenture 2014. Since their introduction 134 different makes and models have been introduced at Oshkosh. In their early years they lined both sides of the diagonal road that connected the main gate to the forums area.

Not this year. But that’s not a bad thing because the LSA manufacturers that have survived now exhibit with all the other airframe OEMs in the outdoor exhibit areas. Tecnam was across from the new TBM 900. Flight Design greeted people at the main gate, with the Beech and Cessna airplanes (and the lonely Bell 407 helicopter) of Textron Aviation on the other side of Main St. AirVenture.

Words cannot describe my visceral reaction at seeing these iconic aircraft comingled in the same exhibit. This wasn’t the “coolest” thing I saw at Oshkosh this year, but it was the most poignant.  It’s but another step in the contraction through consolidation of the industry. It began some time ago with the commercial and military markets. Back in the first century of powered flight who would have guessed that Boeing, which this year sponsored the West Ramp, would affix its nameplate to aircraft synonymous with McDonnell-Douglas, which itself was the consolidation of two previously independent companies.

The concentration of aviation activity has also grown more dense at Media Headquarters. In years past, news conferences were evenly distributed throughout the week. Not this year. Counting the events on the board that lists their time and location, there were five on Sunday, the day before AirVenture’s official start. There were 23 on Monday, 19 on Tuesday, 21 on Wednesday, and 11 on Thursday.

MVPWith the presentations outnumbering the available slots, many of them were held at the company’s exhibits. Hoping to attract some media participation, they were often scheduled 15 minutes after a Press HQ briefing. Like the two briefings held on Friday, three on Saturday, and two on Sunday, I doubt they were well attended, unless they enticed journalists with food.

Among the announcements was the introduction of this year’s aviation dreams. One regret I have is never acting on the idea of cataloging these debuts and noting their passing. Most interesting this year was the MVP, for Most Versatile Plane, which is competition for Icon, which introduced its A5, an amphibious LSA, in its production configuration.

While I wish them both sustaining success, I wonder if their appeal will sustain new pilots through the training necessary to earn a sport pilot certificate and float rating. And I wonder, where they will fly? It seems to me that the marketing of these airplanes is akin to the terrestrial RV market, where advertising teases customers with solitary escapes in idyllic, waterside destinations, but reality is crowded RV “campgrounds” bathed in the din of air conditioners.

Aviation’s contraction was also evident in the four exhibit hangars. Several years ago EAA reduced the number of booths in each of them to make the aisles wider to improve traffic flow. This was also about the time that nonaviation exhibitors that usually resided in the Fly Market started moving inside. Among them this year was a company selling guards that protected a home’s gutters from leaves. More noticeable, however, were the number of empty booths. On the north side, there were three empty booths in Hangar A and two in Hangar C. On the south side, there were 12 vacant spots in Hangar B and 10 in Hangar D.

1wwDespite the overall evidence of contraction and consolidation, there were signs of resurgence and growth. The Ultralight area has been in decline for years, and when I went that way on Sunday after the press conferences, Windsox was the only prominent exhibitor. On Monday, the site was full, and the ultralights were flying almost nonstop. Among the exhibitors I’d not seen for some time were a number of new ones, and there seemed to be more helicopters than in years past.

EAA started as an educational and support organization for amateur builders of experimental aircraft, and it is returning to its roots with a vengeance.  This effort extended well beyond the the One Week Wonder, where volunteers, passers by turned into participants,  built a Zenith CH-750. Every time I passed this show-center activity, the crowds were five to 10 deep, either watching others work or waiting in line to pull a rivet or two. EAA has also continued to increase the acreage dedicated to homebuilt parking and camping. And announcement and forums made it clear that building one’s own airplane was an affordable path to recreational aviation open to everyone regardless of skill or experience.

coll pkNot ignoring aviation as a profession, EAA turned the area once filled with new LSAs into College Park. One large tent was filled with colleges and universities large and small, each explaining the opportunities and benefits of their aviation degree program. In another fabric pavilion of equal size, companies such as Alaska Airline and Lockheed-Martin were promoting the careers those degrees made possible.

The annual reflections of aviation consolidation, contraction, and concentration is not an indictment of good or ill tidings for the industry. It is a measurement of progress, random indicators of progress and maturity. For those so inclined, it is history repeating itself, as it must in any free market economy. The path aviation is following at this stage of its second century isn’t much different than the one it took a century ago.

After the birth of powered flight in 1903, the number of aviation companies and aviation interest grew rapidly, accelerated by the technology developed for war and then adapted for civilian use. There were hundreds of airframe manufacturers, and some of their work still flies each year at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. But only the sound and lucky survived the economic stress test that was the Depression. And so it will be in the years and decades following the recession of 2008 and the ever increasing fight for people’s discretionary time and money. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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