What do a half a million people come to see?

I keep hearing that we need to get kids involved in XYZ. Most recently I’ve heard this uttered in regards to aviation.

Actually, I hear it as:


I hate that. Stop saying that. It’s a recipe for condescension. Just do awesome stuff. Kids like awesome stuff. Hell, so do adults.

The annual trip to AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI just came and went as it has for the last 50+ years. This year the numbers were again impressive.

Airventure Facts and Figures
Go here for the numbers.

So if we “have to get kids into aviation,” what does the largest attendance in history mean? Does it mean interest in Aviation is dying? Doesn’t seem like it. What’s going on here?

AirVenture has demonstrations ranging from Drones to Modern Military Aircraft and everything in between. It has the opportunity to help build an airplane, and the chance to listen to true war stories in front of flying museums. Some of the greatest airshows in the world can be found there- day and night. Hot air balloons, sea planes, sky divers, 11,000 aircraft landings, and some amazing summer bbq. (shout out to the folks at Parker John’s!) This is just scratching the surface.

Some things are truly unique. For example, more than once a B-1 Lancer overflew the campground at full afterburner. If you’ve never been overflown by a B-1, you can replicate this part of the AirVenture experience at home by pressing your teeth against a car engine while someone revs it up. It’s that intense.

img_4489On Thursday evening we sat with thousands of families in the grass at sunset to watch a night airshow. My wife Julie and I were between two old DC-3s, and I was struck by how magical the setting was. Some moments make you stop and try to make sure you can take it all in because you know you want to remember exactly how something feels. This was one of those moments.

And the reason we were sitting in the grass was because we were waiting for the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen. Better than Disney World. Maybe it was just me, or the setting, but that’s not an exaggeration.

There’s a camaraderie at AirVenture that I don’t experience many other places. Especially amongst complete strangers. I could recount dozens of long conversations with people we didn’t know over the week. Where else does that sort of thing happen?

So if more than half a million people trek up to central Wisconsin for this crazy event, you have to ask yourself why, if aviation as a passion is supposedly on the decline.

In my house, we jokingly call AirVenture “DisneyWorld for airplane nerds,” and this is a good comparison, except they are really not alike at all.

Disney World is about pretending. Imagination is king at Disney Parks. You get to pretend to be someone or something you’re not. From a passenger on a runaway railroad to a princess in a fantasy land. You can even pretend to tour the world in the Epcot World Showcase.

Pretending and imagination are great. I’m not saying they aren’t. In fact, unless you suspend reality for a little while, your experience at Disney will be disappointing.

I like pretending. I read a lot of fiction, and have consumed enough TV and Movies to fill 6 lifetimes. I’ve had the good fortune of many trips to Disney World, and I always have a fabulous time if I let myself get caught up in my imagination.

And you can’t argue that kids aren’t into imagination at Disney. It’s why it’s so popular and why many of us go back over and over.

AirVenture is the opposite of Disney Parks in that the people, what they are doing, and the machines they do it with- are all real.

Real isn’t better, it’s just a different way to enjoy yourself.

It’s hard to look at the lead aircraft in the D-Day invasion and not be in awe while you’re standing under it. You don’t need to pretend much next to it. The aircraft was there on D-Day. The lead plane. It is history.


Military pilots fly in working airplanes and talk to people about their job, and its importance. These aren’t actors in a Goofy Suit, they’re the real thing.

(For the record, Goofy is the best Disney character. There’s no question, although Woody from Toy Story comes close.)

What people come to see at AirVenture doesn’t require imagination. It’s real. Real people are building, innovating, and flying through the air.

Why does this place matter for so many people? Maybe it’s that humans are not really meant to fly. We wanted to fly, but we’re not built for it. The magic is that we figured out how to do it. This is what captures the attention and passions of young and old.

Airventure is A LOT of people doing cool things.

Do cool things. People will come.

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