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A festival that soars

They come by the thousands, from every corner of the United States and, last summer, from 71 other countries. They swarm into the little country airport here like an invasion of grasshoppers, though some more resemble dragonflies. The occasion is the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) annual Fly-In, at Oshkosh. Once a year, for a week, this becomes one of the busiest airports in the world.

For that week, Oshkosh's reputation as home to the famous Oshkosh B'Gosh clothing factory is overshadowed by the phenomenal Fly-In.

In late July or early August, for the past 20 years, EAA Oshkosh has drawn hundreds of thousands of airplane enthusiasts. They come to enjoy thousands of airplanes in all shapes and sizes. Last year, Fly-In officials report, there were 521 home-builts on display, 135 antiques dating to a 1911 Curtiss Pusher, 114 ultra-lights and light planes, 97 seaplanes and 273 war birds.

In all last summer, more than 13,000 planes were parked, nearly wingtip to wingtip, on the green pastures around Wittman Regional Airport. Visitors registered from every state in the union, and there were more than 500 from Australia.

Each year, Camp Scholler and other parks near the airport become home for up to 40,000 EAA campers at a time. The visitors make a week of it _ crawling around the fuselages, oohing and ahing at the stunt fliers, swapping tall tales and war stories, looking for carburetors and struts and tires for their own airplanes.

The visitors and pilots attend workshops and seminars to learn how to weld their aluminum air frames or cover them with fabric, how to rev their engines, work with wood and sheet metal.

And as night settles in, there's the glow and smoke from thousands of campfires, and homemade music.

Tens of thousands of the visitors also visit the EAA Air Adventure Museum, adjacent to the show area. Here are more than 90 notable aircraft, rare and historically significant. It is considered to be among the largest private collections in the world.

On display are war planes, the Curtiss "Jenny" that gained fame as a barnstormer, a Grumman J2F-6 Duck, a 1911 Curtiss pusher, the Stits "Skybaby," reproductions of the Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' Flyer, the Voyager that made the non-stop, non-refueling flight around the world. All reproductions are full-scale.

But the main draw is the air show. On a typical day, visitors might see mock dog fights featuring Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos against Messerschmitt 109s and Zeros. Or the Eagles Aerobatic Flight Team, parachute teams, a Concorde flyover or just a crop duster that skims along only inches from the ground before shooting almost straight up and nearly stalling its engine. There's lots of piston-engine noise and thrills. Nobody seems to walk _ or fly _ away disappointed.

David Grimm lives in Clearwater.

IF YOU GO

Oshkosh's Wittman Regional Airport is served by United Express and Midway Connections. Green Bay and Milwaukee airports are less than two hours drive time from Oshkosh; Appleton and Fond du Lac airports are about 20 minutes drive away. Most of the car rental agencies are represented here, and they will bring in extra cars for the week.

There are plenty of public campgrounds for RVs and tent campers. There are also several motels and hotels nearby. For the budget traveler, Wisconsin-Oshkosh College campus has 2,200 rooms available during the summer vacation that coincides with the Fly-In, and limited numbers of rooms can be found at nearby Ripon College, Lawrence University and Marian College.

For complete housing and accommodation referrals, call the Oshkosh Convention and Tourism Bureau, (414) 235-3007. If you plan to fly your own plane to Oshkosh, arrival procedures will appear with the July edition of EAA's Sport Aviation magazine. This year's EAA show is scheduled for July 26-Aug. 1.

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