Finding Fisk During AirVenture

By Scott Spangler on July 29th, 2022

For an unincorporated community in the Town of Utica and Winnebago County, Fisk, Wisconsin, is without a doubt the most well-known small town in the world of aviation. Also known as Fisk Corners, its concise Wikipedia page explains its notoriety in three words: Fisk Approach Control.

As “a temporary FAA approach control facility guiding planes visually toward the active runways at Wittman Field during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh,” over the years millions have flown over Fisk, but few have ever found their way to the small white trailer on top of a hill on the way into the center of town.

In the shade of the trailer’s blue awning sit three pink-shirted FAA air traffic controllers, two scoping the sky to the south with binoculars and the man sitting between them talking almost nonstop to the pilots of the planes buzzing overhead.

It’s like the three of them are connected by some Vulcan mind meld. Both lookers are voicing instructions to the separate airplanes they have in view and the talker conveys them over the radio.

Establishing the arriving airplanes in a line at the proper speed and with the necessary separation is the goal. “RV up high, rock your wings. Piper, too fast, too high; lower your gear and flaps and come on down; there’s no one below you.” A fourth member of the team follows the Piper announces that its gear and flaps are in transit. “Good job listening,” says the first looker, and “Good job listening,” said the talker, “Welcome to Oshkosh.”

Another pink-shirted is talking to a husband and wife who found their ways to Fisk from Oshkosh. Eavesdropping on their conversation I learned that he was the facility supervisor who, along with an operation’s manager, spends the week at Fisk. Everyday starts at 0630 so the team of four controllers is ready to go when AirVenture opens for arrivals at 0700. Without any numbers, he said “it’s been a record year, and Sunday was a big day!”

Getting ready for the shift change at 1230, keeping his eyes on the sky and ears attuned to the lookers’ and talker’s steady flow of instructions, he works in answers to the visitors’ questions and prepares the charcoal grill so the incoming shift can prepare its lunch. All of the controllers seem to have developed multitasking to an impressive artform.

As AirVenture volunteers, during the week, each of the four-controller teams rotate among the four ATC facilities: Fisk Approach Control, the World’s Busiest Control Tower at Wittman Regional Airport, the temporary tower at Fond du Lac Airport (the closest divert field), and the two “Moo-Cows” (pink-shirt shorthand for mobile operating controller). Stationed on platforms adjacent to the runways, these pink shirts flag pilots on their way home into streams of arriving traffic.

With moderate winds this Thursday, controllers were using Runway’s 9/27 and 18/36 and their parallel taxiways as runways. The Moo-Cows work with a waivered hold-short line that’s closer to the active runway, so departing aircraft can safely and efficiently fill the open space in the arriving traffic flow. If something big is arriving, like the C-17 or the Boeings and Airbuses hulking over Boeing Plaza, Moo-Cows keep everyone at the everyday hold-short lines painted on the pavement, and the tower shuts-down arrivals to the parallels so the bigger arrivals have the necessary safety space.

When this situation arises, or like it did this Thursday, and the tower dedicates a runway or two to shortening the line of departing aircraft, it is up to Fisk to adjust the flow of arriving aircraft so they find their way to the arrival runways at a constant rate. When a runway is dedicated to departures, the lookers and talker barely have time to take a breath, but their tone of voices doesn’t change or resonate with any sense of stress. But when departure backlog has shrunk and is again ready for arrivals, the pink shirts can again take deep breaths between their instructions to follow the railroad tracks to Oshkosh. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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