Sarah and I took the better portion of today to visit the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture 2005 exhibition in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
AirVenture is among the biggest airshows in the world. It routinely sees 10,000 planes fly-in and while the show is running, the Oshkosh airport is the busiest airport in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people attend the show every year. It is a really, really, really big airshow. Sarah and I arrived in Oshkosh early this morning and left around 16:30 because we needed to get home to let the dog out. During our time on the show grounds we walked by literally hundreds of aircraft and probably didn’t stop to look at more than a handful of planes for a significant amount of time. For all the walking we did, we probably saw or walked by less than a quarter of the planes on display. The number of warbirds on display was endless. If there was a warbird you wanted to see, and if it wasn’t at Oshkosh, it probably doesn’t exist in flyable form anywhere in the world.
Upon entering the grounds, we immediately encountered a field of P-51 Mustangs. Let me repeat that, a field of Mustangs. We’re not talking about one or two or even five. We’re talking about a whole field of P-51 Mustangs. We saw all sorts of warbirds, some so obscure I couldn’t even begin to guess at their names, numbers, or heritage. There were numerous B-17 and B-25 bombers on display. Supposedly, there was a B-29 somewhere on the grounds but we never found it. There were replicas of WWI biplane bombers, modern military jets, and everything in between.
Every afternoon, an airshow starts overhead. Today, the airshow featured plenty of formation flight by single-engine warbirds, numerous P-51 flybys, some P-51 formation flights, flights by various other sundry military craft, and a USAF so-called Heritage flight where US military craft from different eras fly together in formation.
For me, the highlight of the entire show was hearing Burt Rutan, the man behind SpaceShip One, White Knight, Voyager, the Beechcraft Starship, and the Verieze, speak on the future of manned spaceflight. For those who don’t know or remember, SpaceShip One completed not only the first private manned space flight in 2004, but two additional space flights that year, as well. That feat made Rutan even more of a star EAA attendees than he already was.
In his talk, Rutan repeatedly took NASA and the US Government to the woodshed for their lack of vision and courage. Rutan presented some startling facts and figures about innovation and safety in space (or the lack of both) that really brought home just how mismanged the US manned space program is. In Rutan’s view, the Space Shuttle (which coincidentally had launched earlier in the morning), is about the worst possible vehicle for space flight. It is complicated, prone to failure, extraordinarily expensive, and offers no advantages over platforms like the Saturn V. I wonder how the folks in the NASA tent, which was just 50 yards away, might have felt had they heard Rutan’s speech.
Rutan’s speech profoundly affected my thoughts and feelings about aviation. After hearing his speech and seeing SpaceShip One up close and personal, I started to perceive just how warped and ineffectual much of the aviation and space industries are. Instead of doing really bold, creative things and learning from our mistakes, we tend to do safe, boring things that don’t fail all that often. As Rutan noted, in just eight years (1961-1969), the US went to the moon. Where have we gone in the thirty-plus years since then? Well, we built a space station. No, that doesn’t count because we had Skylab in the seventies. Umm… We launched some probes? Well, we did that in the seventies, as well. Essentially, we’ve gone to Earth orbit. Oooooo….
In many ways, I started to feel as though the fascination with warbirds is really just a sick manifestation of airplane geekiness that lacks an appropriate outlet. You should have seen the crowds around SpaceShip One (SS1). There was a Dornier Do-24ATT across the flightline from SS1. There is exactly one Do-24ATT in the world. For all that anybody looked at it, the plane may as well have stayed at its home airport. Maybe people get excited about warbirds because they are rare; maybe people get excited about warbirds because WWII was among the last times that aviation was a grand and glorious affair.
Given something really new and really exciting, the aviation community came out in force to hear all about it and shower glory upon its creator. Ask almost any EAA attendee and Rutan not only can walk on water, he can repeal gravity and cure the common cold given enough time and money. I don’t feel that way about him, but I definitely drank the Kool-aid he passed around during his speech. The man is clearly a visionary and an asset to this country. In many ways, Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, is more valuable to the nation’s future success than all the oil under Alaska.
Look what the man did: he got a man into space twice in less than two weeks with a plane smaller and lighter than a C-141, without government money, without government tax breaks, and without government advice. Who else among us can say that? Who else among us has even tried that?