Flying, Family and Fun at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Seaplane base
Experiencing the Seaplane Base at EAA/OSH for the first time was at once thrilling and relaxing. I have attended EAA AirVenture nearly every year since 2008. On Monday morning of convention, I found myself with a few “unscheduled” hours. So, I mentioned to my friend that I wanted to go to the Seaplane Base. A few minutes later we were pulling up to the parking lot having a good time teasing the gate attendants, who thought we were sisters, about whether they were brothers. After years of pulling into to various EAA parking lots, the vibe at the base was noticeably different. The area is lush and green; the trees were swaying in the breeze as we followed a bark path to the base. A few weeks before I had posted on Facebook that I was hoping to get a seaplane ride this year. I was pleased to get an offer from Don Smith to come out and get a tour and a flight in his 2015 Husky.
Once arriving to the base you are met with warm smiles and a great view of airplanes bobbing up and down at their tie-downs. Nearly immediately, we were asked if we wanted a pontoon boat tour of the lagoon, which we quickly accepted. During the boat, tour the history of the seaplane base was shared as well as the details about how the base comes together once a year through the labor of a team of dedicated volunteers. According to The Story of AirVenture Seaplane Base by Richard A. Steeves since the early 30’s the Vette family has owned over 27 acres of lakefront land along the shore of Lake Winnebago. “John Vette Jr. was one of the “Early Birdmen,” who flew and owned quite a variety of aircraft, including the amphibious Duck for the navy during W.W.II. After the war, he opened a business south of Oshkosh, near the family farm. Among his employees, an engineer named Al Ziebell developed a friendship with Bill Brennand, with whom he enjoyed fishing for walleyes along the lakeshore. By 1949, they decided it would be much easier if they had a boathouse near the shoreline for storing their gear, so Bill bought 1.9 acres of Vette land around the inner harbor. In 1957 Bill bought a Piper J3 on floats, and with help from Al and others, built some ramps for seaplane storage when they were not off on fishing trips to Canada.” In the early 70’s EAA’s Paul Poberenzy began negotiations to make the Seaplane Base a part of EAA’s annual convention. According to AirNav, the owners of 96WI continue to be the Vette family with John and his sister Burleigh.
Much like Burning Man’s 88NV Blackrock City Airport, 96WI the Vette/Blust Seaplane Base is active only one week a year and is created and maintained by volunteers. The rest of the year the Seaplane Base reverts to 20 plus acres of serene lakeside woodlands. Starting with a work party on Memorial Weekend and ending shortly after convention, the Seaplane Base welcomes hundreds of airplanes and visitors.
There are educational seminars daily including topics from the FAA, the Coast Guard, and the Department of Natural Resources. Women Soar You Soar also brought many aviation- minded girls out to the base for a tour and a ride. From karaoke night to the famous Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire, there is something going on at the base every day at AirVenture.
A quick walk around the grounds led us to Don Smith, a longtime volunteer. Don has an enthusiasm for aviation and the base that is just infectious. It was such a pleasure to be able to fly with someone that knew every detail about the seaplane base and Lake Winnebago. We taxied out past a controller in the OSH pink shirt. He waved as we came out of the lagoon area to the lake-proper.
The lake was a bit choppy which made take off a little bumpy, but within a minute or so, we were airborne over the lush landscape. I have flown in a seaplane only once before in Northern California. Don was quick to point out methods for determining wind direction and speed. Although he offered to let me fly, I chose just to be a passenger to soak up the sights and sounds. Flying over the water and the farmlands took me back so a simpler time. I could easily imagine what it would have been like to fly in the 40’s and early 50’s. On short approach to final, I could see folks sitting on the beach and under the trees enjoying the show. Don had a great landing and we taxied back to his spot buoy #1.
Later in the week, I had the pleasure to attend the Watermelon Social sponsored by Wipaire. I had been at convention all day where the pace is more hurried and busy. It was so lovely to be able head to the base and just relax and renew. It is hard to describe the vibe at the lakeside, I suppose the best way to put it is everyone operates on “island time.” I can say that I never met at stranger while there, from the fellow working the first aid stand who gave me a cold bottle of water on a hot day, to the folks working in the booths that dotted the path.
Rod Machado once said to me, “Airplane folks are the best folks.” I have to agree with that. The volunteers who annually build this paradise should be proud of themselves. Visitors are greeted warmly, educated, and engaged. The scenery is stunning and the warm camaraderie greatly appreciated. A big thank you to Don and the gang at the seaplane base. The memories will be with me always and I will be coming back next year.