Preparing For the Big Show: Volunteers Aid in Getting AirVenture Ready Every Year

story first appeared in the April 2019 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

Every year since 1970, thousands of people from across the United States and the globe have ventured to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, each summer to take part in the EAA fly-in convention, or as it’s been known since 1998, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Among the hundreds of thousands of visitors are thousands of volunteers who arrive for the World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration weeks — and sometimes months — in advance to make it all possible. While the 5,000-plus AirVenture volunteers receive much of the credit they readily deserve during the week of the show, the ones who come weeks beforehand also play an integral role in AirVenture’s success. Simply put, without the volunteers hard at work prior to the convention, AirVenture could not and would not happen.

it’s cutting grass, helping out in a hangar, preparing meals for fellow
volunteers, or just about any other task you could imagine, volunteers are
putting in countless hours behind the scenes to get the AirVenture grounds ready
before the area is flooded with people. Here are the stories of just a few of
the volunteers who arrive in Oshkosh well before the convention to prepare the
grounds for aviation’s best week of the year.

Phillip Blake

Blake, EAA 27663, affectionately known as “X-Ray,” has a long history with EAA
and the fly-in convention, dating all the way back to its days in Rockford,
Illinois, in the 1960s.

first fly-in was 1965 in Rockford, Illinois, which was basically 35 miles from
my parents’ house,” Phillip said. “My eldest sister and her husband were
actually the ones that got me involved with EAA. After attending in 1965 with
my father, they bought me a junior membership in 1966, and the next year I went
up and volunteered. At that time, they had cables sunk into the ground that
they’d tie the airplanes to. We’d have to go out and find these cables. I was always
concerned that when a wind storm came up, we might cause some damage, but at
least we’d keep all the airplanes in the same pile because they’re tied to the
same cable. I volunteered through 1969, followed [the convention] up here in
1970, where we camped up on the north side — which is where they park warbirds
now. I continued to volunteer through 1973.

Photo by Christina Basken.

I did some other things, went back to college and got busy for a while there. I
went back to school and lived in different parts of the country. I came back,
and the first year I brought my wife here was 1985, which was the year of the
Concorde,” he said. “That was basically the only thing that mattered to her
because she didn’t want to come here and see all these airplanes. She got
hooked, too, and we’ve been pretty steady coming back here since then.”

all his years of volunteer service, it’s no surprise that Phillip has had many
different responsibilities prior to and during AirVenture.

of the things I do (now) is I’m the chair of Audrey’s Park,” he said. “We have
a review group: four other people that are employees, [and] I’m the volunteer.
My job is to administer the park area. When the decisions are made where people
are going to park and given the spot, I’m the first contact. In past years, I’ve
been the chairman of the grounds for Vintage. Years ago I gave up the grounds
position and was transportation and information. I’ve just recently been
appointed as the new South 40 parking chairman. … In addition to that, I’m also
on the Volunteer Advisory Committee.”

course the week of AirVenture is an exciting and busy time for Phillip and the
rest of the volunteers, but in his opinion the weeks leading up to it just may
be the most enjoyable for him and some of the people he’s become close to over
the years.

people that come here as soon as the water’s turned on [at Audrey’s Park] and
leave when the water’s turned off,” Phillip said. “I’m hit and miss during that
time. I’ve been on-site since the end of June and will be through the end of
convention. I even come in the wintertime and spend some time overnight.”

Bonnie Fitzsimmons

won’t find too many volunteers at AirVenture who’ve been at it for longer than
Bonnie Fitzsimmons, EAA 814505. Originally from Neenah, Wisconsin, Bonnie has
been volunteering with EAA for 48 straight years — since just after the
convention moved to Oshkosh in 1970.

husband’s business brought him here for the radio side of communications, and
after meeting people the first year they were here, Bonnie and her husband
decided to come back every year since. Bonnie volunteered with the
communications area for more than four decades before she decided to change it
up about five years ago and volunteer with the print/mail center and merchandise.

starting to volunteer with print/mail, Bonnie is certainly busy in the weeks
leading up to the week of AirVenture.

“They give us different tasks every day,” she said just before the start of AirVenture 2018. “It depends on what they have that’s priority in the print/mail area. This week [before AirVenture] it’s been all the camper bags that are getting done for all the campers that are arriving on the grounds. That’s 15,000 camper bags that we pass out. It’s taken us a good three weeks to get those ready to go. Pretty much every week is a different project, and it changes from time to time. Right now we’re doing all of the membership cards for the month of July. We do that two and a half weeks after convention as well and mail those all out to the new members.”

Chris Marshall

Marshall, EAA Lifetime 788355, has been volunteering at AirVenture for a
relatively short period of time in comparison to some of the long-timers. However,
his enthusiasm for the work more than makes up for it.

started volunteering in 2011,” he said. “I’ve attended the show from 2006
onward. I came to the show because I was volunteering with the FAA safety team
out of Long Beach, California. While I was waiting for my sponsor to show up,
there was a group of guys over on the flightline setting up speaker poles, and
I just wandered over, and I said, ‘Hey, can I help you guys out?’

A man
who he later found out was named Curley handed him a cable to hold.

was my introduction into volunteering at EAA, and I’ve been volunteering here
ever since,” Chris said.

Photo by Christina Basken.

his introduction to volunteering at AirVenture eight years ago, Chris has
volunteered in a number of capacities prior to and during the convention,
including in the communications center, south maintenance, the carpenter shop, the
print/mail center, and at the Kermit Weeks Hangar: EAA Flight Research Center.
In his years volunteering and camping at Camp Scholler, Chris has made some
close friendships — and that’s truly a large part of the reason he comes back
every year.

of the things I enjoy the most is they tell you, ‘The planes bring you here,
the people bring you back,’” Chris said. “The sense of family that volunteers
have is really, really important. About one week a year, we get to see each
other. There are so many events that happen, from births to marriages, that you
get to know everyone as family. … I’ve developed some really great friendships
and relationships. The volunteers generally camp with each other every year in
Camp Scholler. Some of the best relationships I’ve made have been made on the
EAA grounds.”

Jackie Welch

she began volunteering with EAA in the early 1990s, Jackie Welch, EAA Lifetime
856583, has helped grow the EAA Flight Experiences program at AirVenture into a
can’t-miss attraction. Jackie, the recipient of the 2018 Dorothy Hilbert Award,
epitomizes the spirit of volunteerism present at AirVenture and is among the
hundreds of volunteers who arrive before the convention to prepare.

(duties) are focused strictly on the Ford Tri-Motor operation,” she said. “We’re
getting all the paperwork in place, we need to get over to the Ford shack to
get that in order and cleaned out from last year. All of the little mechanical
things we need to do to get ready. Preparing schedules, meeting with
volunteers. [The week before AirVenture] is my easy week. It’s my favorite week
because everybody is coming in, we’re seeing everybody. The week of AirVenture,
come Monday morning, we hit it. But there’s a lot that needs to be put in place
prior to that.”

Jackie worked in aviation for years prior to becoming involved with EAA, it was
her husband, Cody, who initially introduced her to AirVenture.

worked in an FBO in Pontiac, Michigan. It was a very small company and I just
kind of grew up there, did a little bit of everything,” she said. “I was an
accountant first. Then I managed a flight department, actually, where I had
20-30 pilots reporting to me. Then I moved into sales and marketing for the
company and actually retired at the sales and marketing level. It was my
husband, Cody Welch, who got me into this side of aviation. He was always
involved here, and I tell people jokingly that it was part of our marriage
contract. ‘Thou shalt go to Oshkosh.’ Originally we were just tourists; we
came, flew in, brought our little tents, camped out, and so on and so forth.”

far as what brings her and Cody back every year, apart from the friendships
they’ve developed, Jackie said she simply gets a lot of satisfaction out of her

satisfaction I get from achieving something so far out of the ordinary,” she said.
“All of us have responsibilities, jobs, and other cares, but you come here and
honestly, from when we start on Monday morning until we end on Sunday
afternoon, it is hands down the shortest week of my life. I turn around, and it’s
‘Where did it go?’ We’re on-site about 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. People start lining up
at 7. … Our Ford planes on a good day, we can average about seven flights an
hour. People on, people off, safety first, everybody happy. It’s just boom,
boom, boom. I often wonder about that, too. You’ll have people here that are
leaders in the industry in their regular jobs, and they come here and they’re
hanging with everybody.”

Judy Knight

As a
volunteer for the past 23 years and the current chairman of the Volunteer Center,
Judy Knight, EAA 1160817, has become a vital component in organizing the
volunteers prior to the convention.

become a catch-all spot,” Judy said of the Volunteer Center. “Any time the EAA
staff needs helping setting up for the dinners at the museum for example, we
try to find volunteers to cover that area. The area chairmen will need
volunteers. They’ll call and say, ‘I need three volunteers for the flightline’
at a certain time. We try to find the volunteers we can take over there. We
might be painting. … We just do about any and everything that needs to be done.”

Judy comes from an aviation background, so attending and volunteering at AirVenture has come naturally.

Photo by Christina Basken.

husband and I are both pilots,” she said. “Coming to AirVenture was an absolute
must. He was a flight instructor, so he does a lot of volunteering and I had
nothing to do. I first started out helping in the hospitality tent and then
from there, went to POP, which is Protect Our Planes, and did that for many
years. I was asked to come to the Volunteer Center, and through attrition, I
have become the chairman of the Volunteer Center.”

someone who sees on a firsthand basis how many tasks need to be completed prior
to the week of AirVenture, Judy has a unique perspective as to just how
important volunteers truly are to preparation.

volunteers that come early are very instrumental as far as getting the
carpentry done, the painting done, the signs up, whatever,” she said. “I direct
them over to [EAA Director of Facilities] Steve Taylor because he’s the one
that knows what needs to be done when and where. At the beginning of the show,
my emphasis is to send volunteers to him. When the chairmen come in, they want
volunteers to cover certain things that they need. We’re trying to fulfill the
area chairmen’s needs.”

Linda Warner

so many volunteers on the grounds prior to the show, someone needs to feed
them. Linda Warner, EAA 1258184 and chairman of the Volunteer Kitchen, has been
helping to do that for the past 22 years.

the chairman of the Volunteer Kitchen, my main responsibility is keeping the
volunteers happy and feeding them good, balanced, and healthy food,” she said. “There’s
probably 2,000 people that come early to set up things. They only get a half an
hour for lunch or breakfast. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They would
be having to go home, prepare their food, so it’s better for them to come in
here and have us take care of them as a thank-you for their volunteer service.”

Photo by Christina Basken.

to why she keeps coming back to volunteer and work long hours in a hot kitchen
in the middle of the summer, that’s an easy answer for Linda.

camaraderie,” she said. “The friends that we’ve made. We’ve made a lot, and we’ve
lost a lot. Every year we’ve made new ones. We’re at the point now where we’re
watching the people and they’re all getting older, as we are. It’s good to see
the younger people coming in.”

‘A Volunteer-Produced Event’

volunteers all come back to Oshkosh for similar reasons, such as the friendships
they’ve made, the enjoyment they get out of giving back, and, of course, their
love of airplanes, there’s no question that AirVenture couldn’t happen without
them, even if this is something they truly look forward to.

is a volunteer-produced event,” Phillip said. “If it wasn’t for the volunteers,
there wouldn’t be this event. I can’t be any plainer than that. There’s
thousands of volunteers, all giving just because they want to.”

added that for every job that needs to be done, there’s at least one volunteer
who can do it. “I’m talking about fixing a light switch to brain surgery,” he

simply could not happen without volunteers,” Chris added. “There are so many
functions, so many organizations, from carts to Seaplane Base, even to the
aircraft that are maintained in Weeks Hangar — the amount of work that goes
into putting on a show like this is incredible, and you can’t put a price on
the passion and the excitement that volunteers bring in making every detail of
the show happen.”

pointed out that the volunteers are invested in EAA and AirVenture’s success,
just like EAA founder Paul Poberezny envisioned, and that’s what sets the event
apart from many others.

is a member organization,” she said. “All of the volunteers here are also
part-owners, I guess. All of the volunteers have a vested interest in this type
of organization. That was Paul Poberezny’s vision when he started it.
Like-minded people doing something they all love, and it’s truly love that
brings everybody back. Everybody connects on the same level. It doesn’t matter
what you do in society, you connect on one level. It would not happen without
the volunteers. … You couldn’t pay people enough money; it has to come from
passion and love, and that’s really what it is.”

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