The Volunteers of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

by Harold Green
Published In Midwest Flyer Magazine Online October/November 2021 Issue

This year was a watershed year for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021, following the Covid hiatus of 2020. Not only did attendance reach very acceptable heights, the attitude of attendees, by all accounts, also reached new heights of friendliness and enthusiasm.

In trying to decide what to report on this year’s event, it came to me that there are several things that make this event the unusual success it has become. Among these, of course, are the number and types of airplanes that are on display, but also, the number and capability of volunteers who actually make the show work. 

As you stroll around the grounds, you see people parking planes, driving “follow me” carts, providing directions, driving trams full of people, cleaning up the place and more. People who visit AirVenture for the first time almost universally exclaim over the cleanliness of the area. In addition, there are those volunteers who are less apparent, but who are also key to operations. They judge airplanes, coordinate specific airplane categories, teach special sessions and conduct many more activities. These folks don’t get the public credit they deserve. Therefore, it seems appropriate to get their viewpoint on the event and their description of what they do and why they do it.  After all, we owe all of them our gratitude, for without them, the event could not go on.

I selected a small group of individuals I know to discuss their roles in the event. They include a senior A&P mechanic working with the seaplanes whose wife also volunteers…a husband-and-wife team working with the warbirds… and a very experienced individual performing key leadership and support to the Vintage Aircraft group, while his wife manages a store on the grounds. Hopefully these people I’ve chosen to interview fairly represent the 5,000 volunteers at AirVenture.

One of the unexpected things uncovered was the fact that all three of these individuals are part of a husband-and-wife team, and when their children were old enough, they too became involved. This seems to indicate that AirVenture is truly a cultural phenomenon.

In conducting these interviews, I learned something about the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) I did not know before. That is, there are organizations separate from EAA that function in partnership to the benefit of both. These groups are 501c3 non-profit organizations that have their own fundraising activities and set their own rules consistent with EAA’s philosophy.  They each have their own management organizations and publications. Three of these groups have a governing board and include the Vintage Aircraft Association, Warbirds of America, and the International Aerobatic Club (IAC). While I was aware that these groups existed, I did not know they functioned separate from EAA.            

First, Mike and Heather Kugel of Oregon, Wisconsin, have been parking cars and providing security for six years in the warbirds area. Their days can be long, but they enjoy meeting the people and being part of something that preserves these airplanes. Heather is a dental hygienist and Mike is an IT manager and a Private Pilot and owns two older airplanes — one of which is experimental, which he flies as frequently as he can. Heather’s father was an airline pilot, so she grew up exposed to airplanes. The opportunity to volunteer came through an uncle of Mike’s who was retiring from volunteering. Heather became interested and they began volunteering together. Heather’s father was not only an airline pilot…he was also a Navy fighter pilot, so working the warbirds area connects her with her late father. Two children, one now in college and one finishing high school, wanted to be part of the fly-in, so they now also volunteer with the warbirds.

A couple of years ago, Mike saw a camper for sale and realized it would be ideal for camping at AirVenture, so he bought it. He confesses that he uses the camper for other activities during the year, but the impetus for buying it was AirVenture. Mike and Heather are both happy with their work at AirVenture and have no intention of un-volunteering. In fact, Mike intends to extend his membership to the Vintage Aircraft Association because of the Volksplane and Aeronca Chief he owns and flies, although that won’t change his volunteering with the warbirds.

Al Barger of Windsor, Wis., is director of maintenance at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin. He is an Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic (A&P) with Inspection Authorization (IA) with 37 years of experience and has been attending AirVenture for three decades. Early on Al volunteered at various areas at AirVenture, until he landed at the seaplane base. In fact, it was Al’s wife, Lori, who was the reason he got involved in the seaplane base. Lori started volunteering because she was at loose ends, while Al was wandering the grounds and doing other volunteer work. So, she looked for something to keep herself occupied and wound up at the seaplane base. Lori then convinced Al that he should volunteer there as well. At one point Lori was the “dock boss” at the base and still has significant responsibility there. Because of his expertise in aircraft maintenance and restoration, Al judges seaplane quality. Their two children also volunteer at the seaplane base. The seaplane group is rather an orphan not being affiliated with any of the 501c3 groups.  Their primary fundraiser is the “Watermelon Social” during AirVenture.

Dan Knutson is a private pilot from Lodi, Wisconsin, and the sales manager at a large automobile dealership in Madison. His late father became involved with classic airplane restoration and Dan followed in his father’s footsteps. Dan first attended AirVenture in the company of his father when he was 12 years old and has been volunteering for 30 years. He currently owns several vintage planes and has 3700 hours of flight time.

Dan and his wife, Mary, spend the entire week at AirVenture, but have activities during the year in preparation for the event. Dan is chairman for vintage aircraft judging, and this year he became vice president of the Vintage Aircraft Association. Mary is a hospital nurse, and chairman of the Red Barn store in the Vintage Aircraft area.

There are two items of particular note relative to this year’s AirVenture and the Vintage Aircraft Association. First, there were 1,420 vintage aircraft on display, the largest of any group of aircraft attending. In fact, airplane parking was a big problem. Second, the Red Barn sales this year were $105,900 in comparison with 2019 sales of $63,000. In both instances, an indication that AirVenture 2021 was a success! By the way, the Red Barn is the main means of fundraising for the Vintage Aircraft Association.

There were common threads among these three interviews. First, these couples, and for some, their children as well, have no intention of not volunteering at AirVenture. Second, they all stated that they really liked meeting and interacting with the people who attend and participate. Third, any problems they encountered in operations were quickly and effectively dealt with. Fourth, most attendees are cooperative, pleasant people who are great to work with.

In closing, I can think of no better way than to quote Dan Knutson’s response to my question as to what he liked most about his job at AirVenture:

“Participating in the largest aviation event anywhere and walking away at the end of the show hoping that in some small way, I made it better!”

With volunteers like the Kugels, Bargers and Knutsons, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh indeed has a bright future!

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2022 will be held July 25-31. For additional information on volunteering, contact Cassie Bruss: 920-426-4856 (cbruss@eaa.org).

Also see volunteer opportunities at https://www.eaa.org/eaa/support-eaa/volunteer.

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, “Where Your Passion Finds Purpose!”

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