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Oshkosh and Beyond: Part 3

posted Aug 12, 2006

Day 2: Flying Cloud, MN to Oshkosh, WI

Track from Flying Cloud, MN to Oshkosh, WI

The blue line shows our ground track from Minneapolis, MN to Oshkosh, WI. The magenta line is our planned flight route.

GPSMAP 396 navigation in automotive mode

The Garmin GPSMAP 396 helps us navigate to Appleton, WI.

After checking out of our hotel on Sunday morning (July 23rd), we returned Elliott Aviation’s courtesy car and then rented a car from them to drive to Oshkosh, WI. Next we contacted ASI Jet Center (just a few buildings down from Elliott Aviation) to make arrangements for them to work on the Mooney on Monday when their maintenance staff returned to work. ASI had front desk and line people on duty on Sunday, so we could at least talk to someone in person to make the necessary arrangements. I left a write up of the starter issues with ASI, and told them of our plans to drive to AirVenture in Oshkosh. The people working on Sunday had no way of knowing whether the maintenance folks would be able to work on our airplane in time for our planned departure on Wednesday morning (July 26th). We crossed our fingers and headed out for Oshkosh at a much lower cruising altitude than originally planned.

Driving to Oshkosh, WI

One of the great features of our Garmin GPSMAP 396 is that it has a really good automotive mode in addition to the aviation mode we normally use. (It’s also got a marine mode, but we haven’t used that yet.) The 396 was able to help us navigate on the roads from Minneapolis to Oshkosh, WI. That was good because we didn’t have anything better than the Hertz map we got when we rented the car from Elliott Aviation. The GPS estimated the driving time would be 5 hours, which actually matched the guess I made the previous night based on knowing the flying time would have been 1.5 hours. I would have much rather had the GPS in aviation mode and be flying over all the lush green country, but at least we were going to make it to Oshkosh in time for our prepaid and non-refundable hotel reservation there.

Detail of the Oshkosh arrival area

Detail of the Oshkosh arrival area. View the larger image to see the details. The VFR arrival path starts at the city of Ripon (southwest of Oshkosh where the railroad tracks intersect). From there, the railroad tracks lead northwest to Fisk (near the FISKE intersection on the map) and then the tracks continue to lead the way to the airport in Oshkosh.

To avoid the crowds, many people choose to fly to the nearby airports of Appleton (to the north) or Fond Du Lac (to the south).

The Fisk Arrival

It was disappointing to be driving to Oshkosh instead of flying there, but we decided to make the best of it. We took a slight detour to the tiny town of Fisk, WI. Pilots who have flown to Oshkosh will recognize that name, because Fisk is part of the primary VFR arrival route into Oshkosh. Driving to Fisk would give us a great chance to see what the arrival into Oshkosh would be like.

Because of the sheer volume of aircraft converging on one airport, special procedures are used to approach and land at Oshkosh. The biggest change from arriving at a typical airport is that pilots are told to not transmit over the radio. Instead controllers identify aircraft visually (with binoculars) and issue instructions to pilots on the radio. Instead of transmitting a response back, pilots rock their wings to acknowledge.

The FAA controllers that work Oshkosh come from all over the country to help make this event possible. These controllers wear distinctive pink shirts to help pilots identify them. Controllers aren’t just at the Oshkosh airport control tower. They are also positioned at various places along the Fisk Arrival route to help coordinate the flow of traffic into the “world’s busiest airport.”

It wasn’t too hard to find the controllers working the Fisk arrival. We just told the GPS to take us to Fisk, WI (a place so small, I’m not even sure you’d call it a town) and then we spotted a bunch of folks in pink shirts with binoculars trained to the sky. We didn’t want to disturb the controllers, so we found a parking lot just down the hill from them where we could watch airplanes on the Fisk arrival. We both expected to see a conga line of airplanes in the sky as we approached Fisk especially after hearing stories from pilots that had flown into Oshkosh in years past. From the ground it seemed amazingly calm. Of course, we had the luxury to just pull over and watch which is not really an option you have in the air.

Controllers at Fisk

Controllers at Fisk use binoculars to spot airplanes on the VFR Arrival route. The orange things at the right of the picture are strobe lights to help pilots identify Fisk on the ground.

Controllers at Fisk

Another view of the controllers working at Fisk. The person second from the left is giving aircraft instructions over the radio.

Click the picture of the airplane on the right for a video of a few airplanes on the Fisk VFR Arrival. I had a handheld radio with me so we could hear the radio transmissions. I did the best I could to spot airplanes and keep them in the video frame, but I could probably use a bit more practice. The video gives you an idea of how busy the arrival into Oshkosh can be. A new airplane popped up over Fisk about every 30 seconds. In case you have a hard time understanding the audio, here’s what the controller is saying:

Airplane arriving over Fisk

Click the picture above to watch a video of airplanes arriving over Fisk. 2.9 MB / Windows Media format (.wmv)

Spacing looks great there. Thanks a lot.

Cherokee just southwest of Fisk, rock your wings. … Got that, thanks. Uhh. Pick your speed up if you can about 20 knots, 110 knots or so.

There’s another Cherokee about 2 miles southwest of Fisk. If you’re on frequency, rock your wings. I got that. Cherokee that just rocked your wings, increase your speed to 100 knots please.

Cherokee just overflying the strobes now, fly the runway 27 NOTAM. Over the railroad tracks, right traffic for 27 join the downwind at 1,800 and monitor tower now on 118.5. If you got all that rock your wings. … Thank you very much sir, have a good show.

Cherokee just over … uhhh … just inside the strobes now, monitor the tower on 118.5. It’s right traffic to runway 18. Follow the railroad tracks, 1,800 until you enter the downwind and have a good show.

Cessna just approaching Fisk, about a mile southwest, rock your wings.

[I never saw this Cessna respond — he may have been having radio problems]

Cessna just overflying Fisk now, rock your wings. Cessna a mile southwest of Fisk, if you’re on frequency rock your wings. Cessna 2170 just southwest of Fisk, rock your wings. Taildragging Cessna that’s just over Fisk enter a right downwind runway 27, monitor tower 118.5 if you can hear.

Cessna just past the strobes, monitor … uhhh … monitor tower.

We watched airplanes on the arrival for a while. At times airplanes were too close to each other, so the controller would instruct one to circle for a bit until he got them spaced the way he needed them. Most pilots were good about following the rule to not transmit on the radio. Some just couldn’t manage to keep their fingers off the transmit switch, which just made the controllers’ jobs more challenging.

Oshkosh or Bust

After we were done watching the arrivals at Fisk, we decided to drive to the airport where the week’s events would be held: the Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, WI. As we got closer to the action at Oshkosh, the ground traffic got thicker. Fortunately Nancy was driving so I could keep my full attention on watching airplanes, and listening to the Oshkosh tower controllers. After last year’s trip to see the San Francisco Airshow, we both discovered that Phil shouldn’t drive if we’ll be near an airport with lots of activity.

After the setbacks from yesterday’s mechanical issues it was a relief to finally see the airport at Oshkosh. We finally made it. This is the place virtually every pilot in the world was at least thinking about during this week. We’ve seen so many pictures, and read so many stories, but now we’d finally get a chance to see and experience what AirVenture was all about for ourselves.

By this point it was getting close to 7 pm, and the airport would be closed to arrivals at 8 pm. We decided we should probably head for our hotel so we could settle in and be ready for an early start the next day.

Hotel

Parkway Inn and Suites, Appleton, Wisconsin

“This place is a dump! We’re leaving and they won’t give us our money back!” Those were the first words we heard when we stepped into the dark lobby of the Parkway Inn and Suites in Appleton, WI. A very animated woman had just got done chewing out the front desk clerk, and wanted to make sure Nancy and I knew her opinion of the establishment we were about to stay in. This was definitely not the greeting that we were hoping for. She had her bags packed and family in tow, and stormed out the door shortly after sharing her hotel review with us. I didn’t really know how to react to her tirade. We were in the same boat as she and her family of four — we had also pre-paid for the room with no chance of getting a refund. I was just hoping she was just suffering from some sort of mental disorder which caused her to scream at strangers. She wasn’t.

We both got a sense that the in-person hotel review we just received was probably accurate as we took in our surroundings. There were two creepy looking guys sitting on a bench just outside the front door. The front desk clerk had more fingers than teeth (but she was very nice). Nancy had prepared me to set my expectations low for this hotel. I’m not sure either of us set our expectations low enough.

Why did we have to set our expectations so low? The population of Oshkosh, WI is about 63,000 and 750,000 people descend on this area for the EAA AirVenture event, so as you can imagine hotel rooms are hard to come by. Many people choose to camp, but we decided to go the hotel route for our first visit to AirVenture. Nancy reserved a room for us in January 2006 (almost eight months before the event). To get the reservation, we had to pay for the room in advance with no refunds given with less than 48 hours notice.

When I started the hotel search in January, most hotels in the immediate area were completely booked. We only planned to stay three nights but some hotels required a 5-7 night minimum. This hotel was the only option I could find reasonably close to Oshkosh on the dates we needed for less than $200/night. I read all of the online reviews, and yes, there were a few negative comments, but I convinced myself that they were from high-maintenance guests. Several guests commented that it was an okay place to stay as long as you weren’t looking for something fancy. I knew we were taking a chance with a two star hotel and no AAA rating, but it still sounded better than camping during a thunderstorm.

We picked up our keys and checked out our new digs very thoroughly. I was determined to stay here no matter what since we were paid in full with no refund possible. But I just couldn’t relax as I began to see the dust, hair around the sink, and cobwebs in the corner. The peach pit behind the nightstand was the final straw and I can’t even talk about the bathroom. The paper across the toilet seat read “sanitized for your protection.” That was a damn lie. The strip of paper was probably sanitary before it touched the toilet. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to tough it out since it was paid for and I didn’t know if we could find another hotel room. Luckily, the logical part of my brain said, “This is gross! Get out!” I started calling hotels hoping that someone had a cancellation. After three or four calls, we found one that had a room available for one night only, but not three. It wasn’t ideal to be hopping from hotel to hotel, but I’d rather sleep in the rental car than stay here.

Nancy was pretty upset about losing our money at the hotel. I was too, but I got over it — I was determined to not let this spoil our vacation. I told Nancy that basically we made a bet when we chose this hotel. The bet was that a 2-star hotel that wasn’t listed by AAA would be tolerable for three nights. We lost the bet and the house won. The house always plays with an advantage whether you’re in Las Vegas or Appleton, WI.

We found our new hotel and checked in. This new hotel had 3 stars from AAA, was less expensive than the Parkway Inn and Suites, and actually closer to Oshkosh. We really lucked out finding this place, even if it was just for one night. We immediately noticed the welcoming lobby, professional front desk clerk, clean sheets, fresh towels, clean carpet and most importantly a clean bathroom. All of the basic hotel accommodations that I took for granted before. I also didn’t realize how much I appreciate being able to walk barefoot.

We spent some time searching for a room for the following night without success. It was getting late, so we grabbed a simple dinner in the restaurant downstairs and then rested up for tomorrow: the opening day of AirVenture.

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