[Be sure to read Part 1 if you missed it!]
The good news about storms passing through is waiting them out. Our first night in Nebraska, my boss tells me it'll be a late start in the morning and to me that means sleeping in. Excellent! I set my alarm for 7am. Compared to the time I woke up to leave Watsonville, it was a significant improvement. I go to bed exhausted, and wake up to country music playing on the radio and the sun shining. I know the coffee left in hotel rooms isn't the best, but I get excited about it every time I travel. The novelty of miniature shampoos and soaps has worn off, but I can't help but be giddy about the complimentary coffee. I think it's the fact that I can have something warm and comforting to hold onto before I go out and face the world, even when I'm far away from home. But when did hotels get rid of their mugs? There's nothing like a cup of coffee in a plastic cup. And I don't mean that in a good way.
Well anyways, after my morning coffee and solitude, I go downstairs to meet everyone for breakfast. All three of my travelling companions are glued to either a laptop or phone….Dave and Tim checking weather and Darwin simply not wanting to waste a single second away from his new phone that he has to give up at the end of the trip. I fill up a plate of food and realize too late that there's biscuits and gravy, my favorite. As I'm eating what I wish were biscuits and gravy, Dave sums up the weather and mentions I should review the NOTAM for Oshkosh, since we'll be getting there in the afternoon. Naively, I'm expecting the usual abbreviated sentence, perhaps a paragraph. Instead, he hands me a binder. Really? The NOTAM fills up a binder? Luckily, I only had to review the arrival procedures for now, so that meant only reading ten pages or so on all the different scenarios of what runway to land on, what to do when they have to close the runways, where to hold, so on and so forth. And you're supposed to do all that without talking on the radio. Reading through it, I was amazed people flew in at all. To be honest, a lot of it was diagrams and maps, but still, it's a little intimidating for someone who has never done it before, and maybe even for someone who has. After breakfast, we head out to the airport. Somewhere up ahead along our route, the storm is still blowing over, so we relax at the pilot lounge. Still reading that NOTAM, I grab a wingback chair and ottoman and make myself comfortable. Shortly after I finish, it's time to forge ahead. The pilot that helped us the day before was there again to see us off, and to point out the fires burning from lightening strikes.
We could see the smoke before we took off, but flying by, the smoke was a thick cloud, like we were flying over a fog bank. For a moment, it was like being back home. After that, there wasn't much else going on for the next hour and a half. In fact, I was a little worried I'd get bored. It was the first time I've ever seen flat land as far as the eye could see, even several thousand feet up, although the visibility wasn't exactly unlimited with all the haze. The most exciting event of this leg was crossing the Missouri River, with Lewis and Clark Lake off to our left. We cross-referenced our position over VFR charts to identify landmarks along the way, as a way to entertain ourselves. The farmland was more scattered this leg. The land below looked more rugged and brown. Over time, though, the farms became more clustered and the land turned a lush green. They weren't the circular fields that I've gotten accustomed to seeing after crossing into Nevada. They were the familiar square fields like the ones around Watsonville and San Joaquin Valley. Eventually, we caught up to the remaining remnants of that storm we were trying to wait out, but were able to skirt around most of the rain. After that, the view cleared up significantly. We even passed over old fashioned grain silos. Hundreds were scattered all over the place.
Towards the end of the leg, we crossed into Minnesota and landed at the Austin Airport, home of the Hormel Foods hangar. A classic Midwestern boy, garbed in baseball attire, fueled up our plane and I went inside the FBO where I met Austin's greeting committee… a friendly yellow lab named Tex. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of Tex, one of the few times where I didn't think to snap a photo. Actually, I didn't know where we were until I looked on the map hanging in the FBO. I was reminded of the joke about the pilot who lands at an airport and tries to get the fuel attendant to tell him where he is without admitting he's lost. Thank God for maps! We grab the courtesy car yet again and head to a local diner and grill. I order a Rueben sandwich, something which Darwin points out I have a habit of doing, seeing how they are my favorite. We linger at the diner, trying to get a feel for the traffic heading into Oshkosh by listening to the updates on the ATIS. Dave decides to fly directly to Oshkosh, rather than to a nearby airport, since the traffic didn't sound too congested.
Back at the airport, Tim tells me I should fly right seat since I studied the NOTAM more closely than he did. I have to admit, I was hoping to fly in back since I have never gone into Oshkosh before and I just wanted to hang back and watch. Oh well! We tookoff for a much shorter leg, but also for a more hectic one. Over the green fields once again, I notice another shift in convention. Rather than square or circular fields, they follow the natural contour of the terrain. The fields here are more reminiscent of clover leaves or lace. It's like each field is a separate piece of artwork and they're sewn together into some kind of huge crazy quilt.
I know I've been talking a lot about farms, but let's face it, that's all there is over there. Or is it? Up ahead is something so monumental, such a figure in history, and yet I totally forgot about it…. the Mississippi River. I've always imagined the Mississipi as a vast gushing river with “river boat queens” as CCR calls them, rolling along up and down the river. Where we crossed, it was definitely vast but was also scattered with islands in the middle of it so that it looked as if it were contaminated with pond scum. I think next time I'll “hitch a ride on a river boat queen”, if I want to appreciate the river better. Get down in the trenches, so to speak.
With Oshkosh fast approaching, Dave, Tim, and I rehearse what we need to do and when to do it by: turn lights on and put transponder on standby 30 miles out, get ATIS and tune in the approach frequency prior to 15 miles from Ripon, be established at 90 knots at 1800 feet before Ripon, follow the railroad tracks to Fisk, listen for ATC instructions after Picket, do what they say, if we get this runway do this, if we get that runway do that, don't mess up… Nah, there was no pressure at all. During the initial stages of this dry run, naturally I forget just about everything I've read. When Dave first asked what to do with the lights, my response was something like” uuugh”, and fumbled through the binder once again, having never left the clutches of my hands. The good news is, we get everything together and do just fine getting in, despite the fact that when we got within range of Approach, we found out no planes were landing due to some mishap on the ground. The planes that were already on the published arrival had to end up holding around one of two lakes that was alongside the approach path. Since we weren't quite there yet, we ended up circling on our own, rather than joining the holding pattern.
Eventually, though, we continued toward Ripon and fortunately traffic started moving again, so by the time we came up to one of the holding lakes, we were able to merge in easily. What we didn't realize, is that we were closely followed by several other planes trying to merge in as well. First we were passed up by a biplane. Of all planes to pass up an RV, an antique biplane is the last plane I would've thought to do it. Dave's RV did not like flying at 90 knots either. We were passed again by a V-tail bonanza on the left, passed again by a Mooney on the right, and passed again by another biplane from above. All close enough to read their tail numbers practically. But we all fell in line single file, following the tracks on our way to Fisk where we would be told where to go from there. It turns out, as it is first and foremost an experimental aviation event, there are a lot of RVs on their way to Oshkosh ahead of us, and a couple of times we weren't sure if ATC was talking to us, or another RV. After a plethora of planes ahead of us were cleared to various runways, they finally called us up and uttered the most heraldic phrase of AirVenture… “Rock your wings.” I mentioned before ATC does not want pilots talking on the radio since, as it says on the first page of the NOTAM, it's the busiest air space in the world. There's no time for chit chat. So when I heard that phrase, it was like the trumpets calling, confirming that, no I haven't been dreaming, I did fly across country and I've made it to general aviation's greatest event and community. Oshkosh was here and it was just starting at that moment. It was such a thrill, I had to get the “Rock your Wings” T-shirt later on. And believe me, I don't need any more T-shirts.
We were told to head for Runway 36L and to switch to tower. We did a 90 degree turn to our right and followed a road parallel the runway. Tower cleared us to land on the yellow dot on 36L. It's so busy here, that ATC has planes landing on the same runway simultaneously. The runway has four dots along its length and the yellow one was second from the approach end. Good thing Dave was up on his short field landings. The NOTAM told us to exit as soon as possible, even if it meant taxiing onto the grass. Before we reach a lineman, I put a sign on the windshield to let them know we're going to experimental parking. Honestly, this part is a blur. Wittman Regional Airport is huge, and we are passed off by a myriad of linemen. It is the most packed airport I've ever seen, and it only gets fuller as the week goes on. Somehow we end up parked in a field and join the ranks of the other homebuilt and kit aircraft.
It's hard to believe that it only took nine and a half hours (Hobbs time, that is) to get here. If it weren't for the fact that we couldn't top off the fuel tanks, Dave said we could've gotten here in a day with only two legs instead of four. I've really got to get an RV for myself! Out on the ground, I can feel the heat and humidity. It's Saturday, July 21st, late in the afternoon. People started flying in the day before, but there's still plenty of space in the surrounding fields. We get the plane tied down and covered and flag down a courtesy truck. Fortunately, we got a ride right away, whereas other people weren't so lucky. It reminded me of people flagging down the fuel truck in Watsonville during the airshow… everyone wants fuel at the same time. We get dropped off where we thought our rental car would be waiting for us. It turns out Hertz gave our car to someone else. The nerve! Oh well. The FBO had free cookies so I was satisfied. Eventually, we solve our mishap by taking someone else's rental car and we go on our merry way to where we will be staying the first couple of nights: the University of Wisconsin. Those dorm rooms brought back memories, whether they're good or bad I'm still undecided, of my freshman year in college. We freshen up and meet back up again ready for dinner. Where is the best place to be in town, aside from the airport? The local brewery of course! We decide to walk the mile or so to the pub in order to compensate for the fact that we've been sitting down for the last two days straight. As soon as we get there, Tim runs into an old friend. I guess that doesn't surprise me. I've heard aviation is a small world, and I suppose you're bound to run into an acquaintance at Oshkosh. After the last two days, we sit down to a good meal, and even better, a good beer. Sure, I was still nervous as all hell about my presentations, but those were fears for another day. Today, I just arrived to the greatest aviation community and just concluded the greatest adventure I've had to date. Cheers to that!