This week Oshkosh hosts the largest gathering of aviation enthusiasts in the United States. The annual convention of the Experimental Aircraft Association, dubbed AirVenture in these brand-conscious days, will bring as many as 800,000 visitors to the city and make the usually drowsy Oshkosh airport the busiest in the world.
The EAA began in the Milwaukee suburbs in the early 1950s, the creation of World War II generation men and women led by Paul and Audrey Poberezny. Paul was an Army Air Force veteran, as were many of the Association’s founders. Others were GI-Bill pilots who had taken advantage of the veteran’s program funding for flight instruction after the war.
They were also of that generation of Americans, perhaps the last, who assumed that men should and could work with their hands, either by vocation or avocation. They were the guys who believed in doing it themselves. They clipped plans for home improvement projects out of magazines like Popular Mechanics. The stocked garage workshops with new-fangled power tools, if only to “finish” their basements with knotty-pine paneling. A few of them, like Poberezny and his friends, built their own airplanes.
Homebuilding was the heart and soul of the EAA from its earliest days. It has since grown to be the leading educational, historical and lobbying organization for “general.” i.e. non-commercial aviation, in the United States. Accordingly, Boeing will show off its new 787 Dreamliner in Oshkosh, Navy and Air Force jets will awe visitors, celebrities, politicians and aviation administrators will show their faces to the crowd, but the heart and soul of the event will be in the thousands of lovingly-crafted homebuilt airplanes lined up row upon row in the grass along side the runways.
It’s appropriate that a giant flock of homebuilts appear in the skies of Wisconsin in 2011, for this is the 100th anniversary of the first airplane built in our state that was capable of “sustained, controlled” flight. In other words, it was the first machine that could take off, maneuver as directed through the air, and land without the pilot breaking his neck—usually.
The first flight took place in Wausau in June 1911. The builder/pilot was a young man who loved motorcycles and autos that moved fast. His name was John Schwister.
He got the flying bug after reading about the breathtaking exploits of the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss, the other American father of the airplane. With financial help from his employer, C.J. Winton, Schwister started to assemble a copy of the Curtiss Model D in St. Paul in the fall of 1910. In early 1911, he moved to Wausau, completed assembly, and rolled his “Minnesota-Badger” machine out onto the grass in what is now Rothschild.
He taught himself the basics of piloting by hooking a towline from his plane to the fastest auto in town and kiting himself aloft. After a few mishaps requiring radical reassembly he mastered the acrobatics of controlling multi-dimensional movement and was ready to fire up the motor he had special ordered by mail.
Schwister’s first flight was successful. He took off, maneuvered the plane up, down and around, then landed without breaking his neck. It was the third airplane flight anywhere in Wisconsin and the first by an airplane made in this state.
Many more Wisconsin homebuilts have followed. Many of them will be parked in the grass at Oshkosh this week.
By coincidence, the US Navy will be displaying a replica of the Curtiss floatplane that made the first takeoff from a naval vessel also in 1911. Except for the floats, it’s all but identical to the plane John Schwister completed in Wausau one hundred years ago.