For those who like to camp and who love all things aviation, EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is heaven on earth. Each summer, the EAA grounds become home to about 40,000 campers who flock to the biggest airshow in the world. The pop-up city that results has a unique culture and rules—and a loyal “citizenry” that returns year after year.
David Leiting Jr., who started camping at AirVenture at the age of 3 and hasn’t missed a year since (except when the show was canceled in 2020 for COVID-19), likens it to an indulgent aviation getaway. “You’re in your own little world when you camp at the convention. You’re a part of the action from the moment you wake up to the moment you zip up your sleeping bag….You’re living in this little aviation bubble for a week and a half.”
Even though Leiting lives locally and now manages the Young Eagles and Eagle Flight programs as an EAA employee, he still camps for about 10 days during the airshow. “It’s such a tradition now with my family and my friends that I couldn’t imagine not camping with them, even though it’s a work week,” he says.
A Pop-up Mini-City
The EAA does its best to accommodate almost every type of camper. Camp Scholler, a mostly level, grassy area that can be expanded on demand—simply by mowing some more alfalfa—becomes a temporary home for tents, motorhomes, and recreational vehicles of all kinds. If you can’t sleep without air conditioning, it also has about 800, 25-by-50-foot RV sites with electric and water hookups. Organizers say campers seeking hookups should reserve early, as these sites usually sell out. Not to worry, though, there’s also a 24-hour generator area at Camp Scholler.
For those who prefer to fly in and camp with their airplanes, the North and South 40 campgrounds and the show airplane parking areas are “home away from home” during AirVenture—which many aviators simply refer to as “Oshkosh.”
Trams run campers from the campgrounds to the main event spaces on the property; but savvy campers will bring a bicycle and ride to the main gates. Shower houses, port-a-potties, and trash receptacles are plentiful throughout the camping areas and the property as a whole, and are serviced regularly.
“We’ve always taken pride in the cleanliness of the grounds,” says Dick Knapinski, EAA director of communications. “We have more than 1,000 port-a-potties on these grounds during the week. Some of them in the prime areas…may get serviced four to five times a day.”
There are multiple food vendors on the property for campers who don’t want to cook on their camp stoves or in their RVs. There are also two grocery stores for campers who need to replenish their supplies, free public Wi-Fi hotspots, and an RV pump station and portable pump-out service. For those who fly in, 100LL and jet-A are available for purchase, as well.
“We try to have as many amenities as we can,” Knapinski says. But it’s a balancing act because the population at the airshow is fluid, cresting and then declining as the week progresses. “You have to try to balance the amenities you provide with how much they’re going to be used,” he says.
According to Tom Moule, who serves as the director of information technology for EAA year-round and is the staff liaison/oversight for camping at AirVenture, managing the campgrounds is like “being the mayor of a mini city.” It includes coordinating security, transportation, food, camper registration, sanitation, and weather events, which can sometimes require emergency evacuation of campers to buildings on the property. “My role is to make sure that all this functions smoothly; we try to have as few issues as possible, and then people can enjoy what they do here,” Moule says.
Where Cultures and Nationalities Unite
With nearly 1,000 local chapters spread across the U.S. and in 20 countries, EAA chapter leaders regularly organize camping trips to AirVenture for their members. Camp Scholler hosts from 40 to 60 chapters each year, Moule says.
Up to 20 members of EAA Chapter 245 from Ottawa, Canada, travel to Oshkosh each year to pitch their tents at Camp Scholler. Phillip Johnson, former Chapter 245 president and vice president who now serves as the webmaster and membership coordinator, says going without air conditioning and other conveniences for a week is well worth it—and to him, it’s just part of the AirVenture experience. He says some people will stay at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, which has rented rooms in its residence halls to airshow goers, while others will get a hotel room or rent a house in town and drive in each day. “[But] you lose that community spirit when you do that….At the campsite, you meet people,” Johnson says. “We found it was a whole new life in Camp Scholler that went beyond the airshow.”
Each year, Chapter 245 fills up six, 20-by-30-foot spots (the maximum number of spaces chapters can reserve) near “the big [blow up] movie screen…and close to the red barn.” Some of the chapter members fly in, while others drive and haul the camping equipment, but they all meet up in their coveted camping area—which is close to several campground party sites. Johnson, who built and flies a Cozy MK IV, is particularly fond of the annual spaghetti dinner the Cozy Girrrls (Chrissi and Randi) put on at “Camp Cozy,” and the Swine Fest, a dinner held at one of the Wisconsin EAA Chapter’s campsites. “There’s nearly always a party or something going on one night or another,” he says.
Johnson’s popup tent and an adjacent 10-by-10-foot screened enclosure usually become a de facto meeting place of sorts for the collective campsite and visitors from other campsites and chapters. “It’s kind of like a big family reunion,” he says.
Neil Bowden, who travels from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Oshkosh each year to camp with 150 or more fellow members of EAA Chapter 322, says the camaraderie at AirVenture is unparalleled. “We get to meet EAA-ers from all over the U.S.A. and the world. Oshkosh is not only about the show, the campsite at night is half the fun of Oshkosh! Plus, we are right there amongst all the action, we never miss a thing.” According to Bowden, who’s camped at AirVenture 24 times since he discovered the airshow in 1997, there are no airshows in South Africa that can even compare. “A big show here in South Africa maybe attracts 200 aircraft, Oshkosh [has] over 10,000.”
Camping with Your Airplane
While Camp Scholler is known for its parties, the most iconic Oshkosh camping experience is to camp with your aircraft. Just fly in and show the volunteers on the taxiway a marked-up 8-and-half-by-11 sheet of paper with your preferred parking/camping area, e.g. vintage, homebuilt, general aviation, etc., and the attendants will direct you where to go—for GA it’s usually somewhere in the North or South 40 campgrounds.
Coyle Schwab, EAA chairman of the Type Club Coalition and the volunteer parking chair this year for the Cessna 195s, has camped at AirVenture both at Camp Scholler in an RV and with his vintage airplane. “There are certain advantages to being in the motorhome, but I really enjoy camping by the airplane more,” he says.
For Coyle, who has pitched a tent in the vintage showplane parking area for 25 years near his 1948 Cessna 195, camping at AirVenture is not only a reunion with fellow EAA members and the Cessna 195 Type Club, but also with family. He and his daughter, Lori Schwab, started camping together there when she was 10. Now she brings her husband and their four young sons with her.
“We drive in from Colorado and we meet up with my dad, and we camp under his wing,” she says.
Lori clearly recalls her first AirVenture experience. “I remember camping in my dad’s old canvas tent from the military. We were way down in the boonies, and as is typical for most years at Oshkosh, a wicked storm hit. We woke up to being flooded in our tent. Dad just kind of handled it all in stride, and we tried to dry out as best we could. And I thought, this is kind of miserable, but it’s still fun cause I’m with my dad, and I’m around all these airplanes, so who cares?”
After that first year, Lori and Coyle were hooked. Camping at AirVenture became an annual tradition for them, and it fed Lori’s growing passion for aviation. At age 13, she started taking glider lessons. She soloed at age 14 (the minimum age allowed by the FAA for glider pilots) and continued to soar through college, serving as president of the University of Illinois’ Illini Glider Club. Lori says her AirVenture experiences gave her a sense of empowerment and independence.
“There weren’t a lot of women pilots. To be in an area where women pilots were celebrated and where young girls, especially being at Oshkosh, were also celebrated, I think that was a really neat exposure,” she says. “Most of my peers just didn’t understand…why a girl was interested in airplanes. It was a place where I felt like I fit in, and not only fit in, but where those passions of mine were celebrated instead of kind of looked at side-eyed.”
‘The Great Oshkosh Landrush’
AirVenture has a somewhat unique campsite reservation system. The only camping spots with numbers that can be reserved in advance are RV sites that have electric and water hookups in Camp Scholler. All other campsites are basically “secured” on a first come, first served basis. A site is “secured” when a camper physically arrives, retrieves their camping credential, and ropes off their camping area on the grounds—and/or sets up their tent/RV/aircraft and occupies their spot. People can reserve a general campsite online in advance, but their specific 20-by-30-foot camping spot is not assigned until their arrival.
Some people come early, rope off their site and then go back home until the day the airshow starts, Moule says. They will, however, pay a daily rate for every day the site is staked/secured. “We say you can secure the campsite early, but you’re going to pay for it,” Knapinski says.
The first day you can reserve a camping spot for AirVenture this year is June 24. “We try to set it up as the last Friday in June,” Knapinski says. This year, the airshow begins Monday, July 25 and runs through Sunday, July 31.
According to Leiting, the interesting thing about camping at AirVenture is that because so many people come year after year, they tend to want to camp in the same general area as they always do. Keeping “their spot” in the campground is important to them, so they try to secure it early.
“They will fly in to stake their spot when camping opens or they will call someone local and say, ‘Hey, my camping credentials are at the window, can you pick up my credential and rope off my spot for me.’ They call it the Great Oshkosh Landrush, the day the campground opens,” he says.
Despite the landrush, Knapinski says there are typically plenty of “dry”/unimproved camping spots to accommodate everyone who arrives—even if they show up on opening day. In fact, EAA recently expanded its South 40 campground to allow more aircraft camping. In all, he estimates there is space now for 3,500 to 4,000 airplanes to camp on the property—in a dry year. He explains, if there is heavy rainfall prior to the airshow, it can flood certain areas of the campground, making them inaccessible. In this situation, Knapinski says it’s important for people to be patient. Local businesses and the county fairgrounds have let campers park on their properties temporarily in the past until the campgrounds dry out a day or two later.
“Oshkosh is the largest city in Winnebago County; we create the second largest city in Winnebago County every year for one week,” Knapinski says. “What we say is everybody is here for a week, everybody likes airplanes, let’s all try to be neighborly. Remember your courtesy, remember your manners, and everything else,” he says. “We call it the Oshkosh rules, and by and large, people abide by them and we appreciate that.”
Camping at #OSH22: By the Numbers
|Dry camping cost
|$30 a night (tent, airplane, or RV); three-day minimum required
|Improved camping cost (water and electric hookups)
|$75 a night
|Max RV length with tow vehicle
|Campground population (all sites)
|3,500 to 4,000
|More than 1,000
|Total daily airshow attendees
|80,000 to 100,000
|Volunteers (volunteers of 40-plus hours during AirVenture can earn camping privileges for the subsequent year.)