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‘This is our Super Bowl’: Half a million visitors expected in Wisconsin for EAA AirVenture

The Experimental Aircraft Association celebrates 70 years of fostering enthusiasm for aviation

People walk on a wide walkway. A white airplane can be seen in the distance.
Crowds of attendees explore the grounds Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

This week, the control tower at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh will be the busiest in the world, as it’s set to welcome 10,000 flyers for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture.

The event is billed as the world’s largest air show and fly-in convention, and is expected to draw over half a million visitors to the Fox Valley. The week-long festivities include daily air shows, pyrotechnics, feature films at a fly-in theater, forums, workshops, demonstrations and more.

Beyond celebrating aviation, AirVenture has grown to become a major economic development tool for Oshkosh and surrounding communities. A 2017 UW-Oshkosh study found the event’s economic impact was $170 million spread across Winnebago, Fond du Lac, Outagamie, Brown and Calumet counties. Adjusted for inflation, that number is now north of $200 million.

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People walk inside of an airplane to see the inner workings.
The inside of an airplane is open for spectators to observe Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“This is our Super Bowl. This is our biggest tourism event of the year,” said Amy Albright, executive director of Discover Oshkosh. “Having 600,000-plus people coming to an area — the economic impact is just incredible.”

During the event, Albright said all the city’s hotels are full, and local businesses from restaurants to gas stations see a major boost.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced EAA to cancel AirVenture in 2020. But 2021 and 2022 both saw more than 600,000 people visit Oshkosh, with 2022 setting a new record for attendance at approximately 650,000.

This year’s event will celebrate EAA’s 70th anniversary. The organization was founded in Milwaukee in 1953 as just “a little local airplane club,” according to Dick Knapinski, EAA’s director of communications.

A navy blue plane with
Planes roll on the runway as spectators watch Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

EAA has since expanded from just airplanes to anyone who enjoys aviation in any form, as the organization hosts events year-round to help foster an interest in flight, Knapinski said.

AirVenture started as a small “fly-in” at what’s now the Timmerman Airport in Milwaukee with only a handful of airplanes and less than 150 registered visitors. By the end of the 1950s, the event outgrew the Milwaukee airport and moved to Rockford, Illinois. It stayed there for about a decade before moving to Oshkosh.

Now, AirVenture has become a worldwide event with about 70 percent of its visitors coming from outside Wisconsin, Knapinski said.

“It’s not just state residents exchanging money with one another, but it is outside money coming into the state and people discovering Wisconsin,” he said.

A dad sits with two small boys in lawn chairs underneath umbrellas. A large silver airplane can be seen behind them.
Til Sunar of Stevens Point, Wis., sits next to his two sons as they watch airplanes take off on the runway Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

One of those out-of-state visitors who routinely makes the trek to Oshkosh is David Glassmeyer of Cincinnati, Ohio, who’s been coming to Oshkosh since 1979. He said the sense of community between aviation enthusiasts is part of what keeps him coming back.

“Everybody here has the same interest: aviation. It’s a wonderful place to be, and you just can’t get enough help here,” he said. “I had two guys who helped me put my big tent up the first day I got here, and it was great.”

Another out-of-state visitor is Brian Stemo from northern Illinois. He attended the event regularly throughout the 1980s and ’90s, but slowed down in the 2000s before taking a break until 2021.

“My daughter got me interested in coming back again,” he said. “This is our third year in a row now because she’s interested in learning how to fly, and said she would be interested in coming to Oshkosh. I thought, ‘Heck, I hadn’t been here in quite a while. It’d really be nice to get back.’”

A man walks through a field where many airplanes are parked.
An attendee looks at airplanes parked Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

His daughter, Sarah Collins, said she loves camping at AirVenture as well as getting to know the other aviation enthusiasts.

“The air shows are amazing, especially the night air show on Wednesday,” she added. “That’s my favorite thing. That’s why I’ll keep coming back.”

While many have been coming to Oshkosh for years, others are getting their first taste of AirVenture this year.

Jerry Olson, along with his wife, made the trek to Oshkosh from North Carolina as part of a larger vacation with their grandkids. They’re camping at AirVenture before heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“It’s a great area,” he said of his experience in Wisconsin so far. “It was gorgeous yesterday, and I’m amazed that they’re so well prepared for hundreds of thousands of people.”

A man sits in a lawn chair and looks up using binoculars.
Porter Estesen of Fairbanks, Alaska uses binoculars to watch planes take off Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. He traveled from Alaska to Wisconsin to attend the event and visit with family. Angela Major/WPR

Because AirVenture is a destination for many aircraft enthusiasts from around the world, Albright said the event has helped put Oshkosh on the map internationally.

“One of my favorite parts of AirVenture is that most of the guests say they’re going to Oshkosh — and they don’t mean the city — they’re talking about Oshkosh as an event, a destination,” she said. “We have this amazing international name recognition when you talk about Oshkosh, having people from all over the world coming here.”

Two men look up close at a small white airplane.
Charles Hayter, right, and Andrew Hayter, left, look at airplanes on display Monday, July 24, 2023, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wis. Angela Major/WPR