A week at OSH

I know a few people who read this blog have wondered why TBM hasn’t emerged yet.  I made a decision to work intensely for the first two weeks of July because a great event was on the horizon.  The formal name is EAA Airventure Oshkosh 2015, but everyone just calls it “Oshkosh” and it’s the greatest aviation event in the world.

OSH tower airshowThat’s no exaggeration. You can mention “Oshkosh” to any pilot around the world and they’ll immediately know you are talking about this event. About half a million people come to visit from 70 countries, and something like 8,000 airplanes fly in for the event, making the otherwise average airport at Oshkosh the busiest airport in the world.

I flew into OSH back in 1996 with Steve and Eric (the same guys who now are my companions on motorcycle trips in the summer), in the family Piper Arrow. It was quite an adventure flying in from the east through thunderstorms, and then camping next to the plane in tents for a few days, something I’ll always remember. Back then we were active members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and so every days we’d run into fellow pilots and friends who were building their own planes, or with who we’d had many a pancake breakfast in a cold airplane hangar over the winter.

Earlier this year Brett and I found a business reason to come to Oshkosh again, so Brett stashed his motorhome in Milwaukee after Alumapalooza 7 (in early June) to await our return in July.  He flew in a day before me to get the motorhome ready (fridge cooled, stocked with food, fresh water tank filled, etc), and then I walked out of the General Mitchell Airport and found him waiting in the short term parking lot with an ice chest filled with refreshments.

That’s a very nice way to be received after a flight, kind of like being met by a limo, and I highly recommend it.

Wisconsin is a great place to visit in the summer. It has a lot in common with my home state of Vermont, with better weather.  I like the green rolling hills of corn, the out-of-the-way restaurants with German names, the obsession with cheese, and the oh-so-friendly almost Canadian attitude and accent of the locals. Lots of uncrowded spaces, really good custard everywhere … and did I mention a mind-blowing annual aviation event?

For someone deeply engaged in the Airstream world, Oshkosh offers a substantial side benefit: it’s also one of the biggest RV gatherings in the world. Nobody seems to make a big deal out of that, I guess because the RVs don’t fly and are thus much less interesting to the OSH crowd. But for me it was a strangely thrilling moment to pull up to a few hundred acres of mowed grass and see a thousand or more recreational vehicles all parked together in a giant ad hoc community. If you miss the old days of the really big rallies, this is one of the places you can still find the experience, and under my idea of ideal conditions too: grass, no hookups on most of the field, lots of smiling people, and few rules.

Of course “no hookups” meant boondocking all week. Brett’s motorhome had just 50 gallons of water on board, but we are both experienced boondockers and so it wasn’t really a problem to make it last.  For $30 we could have had the water refilled but it became a point of pride not to need that service so we executed our very best “Navy shower” technique every day. Brett rigged up 100 watts of portable solar panels to keep the battery charged, and two or three times a day we’d turn the panels to face the sun to optimize power generation.  We managed seven days and we still had some water and full batteries on the day we left.  Yes, for those of you who have never tried boondocking, it can be done.

OSH Airstream motorhome camped

There were a few Airstreams scattered around the field, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Perhaps someday we’ll organize a gathering at OSH. I know there are a lot of pilots and ex-pilots in the community.

OSH Airbus A350 flybyOSH B-29

Airventure is huge and features everything that flies. We saw seaplanes & amphibs, ultralights, warbirds, current military jets including the remarkable F-22, the Goodyear blimp, helicopters, gyrocopters, vintage aircraft, homebuilt, passenger jetliners, executive jets, drones flying in a dedicated UAV demo cage, powered parachutes, and gliders. There were hundreds of vendors, dozens of workshops and demonstrations, amazing airshows daily, and so much more that I can’t do justice to it here. Two days are barely enough to scratch the surface; after seven days we still had things on our list to do.

So perhaps it’s just as well that our original plan didn’t work out. Instead of working the show on one particular project as we had expected, we had time to explore for new opportunities—and found them. We ran into Airstream friends from both coasts and spent time with them. We found new products that might make the cut for the Airstream Life Store. We had time to talk about the next Alumafandango, which will be in northern California in September 2016.

OSH airplane parking

OSH Rich weldingAfter a few days we fell into a routine that started around 6:30 a.m., once the sun was pounding at the windows too loudly to ignore. We’d slather on the sunscreen and walk to the bus stop to catch one of the school buses that served Camp Scholler. We’d roam the exhibitions, checking out the aircraft of our fantasies (a HondaJet or perhaps a Velocity homebuilt) or talking to vendors about their products. One morning we took a free workshop and tried our hands at TIG welding.

Around noon we’d head back to the motorhome for lunch and an afternoon of watching helicopters fly overhead. At 6:30 p.m., the ultralights would take over, buzzing directly over us in the traffic pattern.  You can’t go to Oshkosh for quiet. You have to love the sound of aircraft because there’s rarely a daylight moment without something roaring, buzzing, screaming, or pounding overhead—from drones to the new Airbus A350 xWB. I happen to enjoy sunny days with the awning out, parked in a grassy field, with a warm breeze and the sound of flying machines, so I took the opportunity to make the helicopter periods my siesta. Very relaxing.

There are a lot of “only at Oshkosh” moments. For example, only at Oshkosh would you find yourself picnicking under the nose cone of a B-52 while listening to Gary Sinise & The Lt Dan Band.  Only at Oshkosh will you get to try your hand at welding and then flying a drone helicopter in the same day, and think that it’s nothing unusual. It’s the kind of event that people cherish so much that they have been coming for decades, and pass the tradition to their children.

OSH drone camera

We got some great ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza while we were here. We had already planned to make a full day of music during next year’s program. Now we are thinking of developing another full day of hands-on workshops, where participants will be able to actually try basic repair and maintenance techniques using their own hands and tools we supply. Very different from prior Alumapaloozas, but I think it will be a lot of fun, especially with some contests and prizes.

So it turned out to be one of the better business trips Brett and I have had, and a great TBM activity too.  I highly recommend a week of Oshkosh for anyone with an RV. Maybe I’ll see you there in a future year?

The standard to beat: 1948 technology

I don’t know if it’s a matter of getting older, but my perspective on modern stuff continues to warp to the point that I am starting to despise all new consumer products.  A trip to Best Buy still gets me a little excited about all the shiny new gear, but at the same time I have a mental reservation because I know that most of that cool stuff will fail far too soon, or be technologically obsoleted in just a few years.

My Vizio television doesn’t just turn on; it has to “boot up.”  Periodically it tells me to wait because it’s downloading a software update. Sometimes it “crashes” like a computer, spontaneously shutting down and re-booting. My Sony Blu-Ray player will hang occasionally if it is connected to the wrong type of wifi network, even though I don’t actually use the wifi features.

I’m lucky to get three years out of a cell phone before it goes wonky or the battery ceases to hold a charge.  Microwave ovens: maybe 4-5 years before they cook themselves. By adding electronic control panels, manufacturers have even managed to make it likely that a traditional oven or a washing machine will need a $200 repair after a few years.

All of this technology has a short life span, and we just accept it as part of the rapid pace of consumerism. We aren’t really buying tech anymore, effectively we just rent it by virtue of our expectation that it won’t last. Thinking that any technological device we buy today could be handed down to the kids as an heirloom is a laughable prospect, even with high-end kitchen appliances. Instead, we are encouraged to buy extended warranties to perhaps eke out another year or two before the device heads for a landfill.

The idea that once upon a time you could buy an electric appliance and use it for decades is probably bewildering to most people born after the era of Compact Disc. Why wouldn’t you want to toss that old dinged-up thing after a few years, and buy the latest version with new programmable features, for a cheap price?

Ah, but what they don’t know is the heartening feeling of a trusted old tool, whether in the garage workshop or the kitchen. Eleanor’s Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9 is a great example. Originally owned by her father, she has owned it and used it as long as I’ve known her. That wonderful old machine just keeps going and going, because the Mixmasters were made in an age when you had to build a product that lasted, if you were going to convince people to spend money on it.

What a strange philosophy in today’s world, eh? Mercedes-Benz used to be that way—I remember the parents of childhood friends who bought a Mercedes at considerable cost back in the 1970s and justified it because the car would last longer than what was coming out of Detroit at that time. It did too, until the Vermont road salt finally consumed it. Now people buy premium cars for reasons other than longevity, because hanging on to a car implies you can’t afford a new one. Many buyers ditch the car at the end of their lease, so the manufacturers have less incentive to build a car that lasts longer than the average car payment.

A few months ago Eleanor’s Mixmaster seemed to be running a little warm. After 67 years of use, it had a right to, I suppose. We were concerned that the motor might burn out, so I suggested she switch to the other vintage Mixmaster I bought back in 2013, while I disassembled the Model 9 and refurbished it.

As part of this, I offered to completely clean up and repaint every component of the Mixmaster. I would even source replacement decals, so the finished project would look like a brand new 1948 appliance. But Eleanor didn’t want me to go any further than cleaning up the dried bits of dough that were stuck to it, and I immediately understood why. A “new” Mixmaster wouldn’t look like the trusted old family friend she’s known for decades. Losing the patina would be like erasing memories. The value of the Mixmaster wasn’t how good it looked after all these years, it was how worn it looked.

Now, I could probably find another Model 9 out there in good working condition for fifty or sixty dollars. They aren’t particularly rare, and they don’t have a ton of market value. But this was the one her father touched, and which they used together, and that provenance gave it sentimental value. Sentimental value trumps market value every time.

Some parts for the old Mixmasters aren’t available anymore, so I bought a working donor for parts. I bought a new power cord, and found a guy who sold the old service manuals so I bought one of those too. Then I took the Model 9 apart, ran out of time, and put all the parts in a box. Eleanor’s Mixmaster sat there for months, disassembled, until last week when I finally had time to tackle it.

Mixmaster service manual sampleThe service manual was a strange thrill all by itself. Typewritten pages, only two sketches, and meticulous instructions on how to diagnose, repair, lubricate, and adjust every little mechanical component. I could imagine some engineers in a post WWII office, writing and revising the manual in longhand before finally handing it over to the secretarial pool to be typed up and proofread. You just don’t see manuals like that anymore for most products, because they’re not worth fixing.

IMG_4616

The interior of a vintage Mixmaster is a brilliant bit of design, almost like a watch, with dozens of carefully crafted bits that work together in mechanical harmony. Part of my motivation for taking on this project was to learn; inside the Mixmaster are spinning governors with breaker points, a resistor and capacitor, calibrated springs, carbon brushes, and gears—none of which I understood before I removed the first screw. I was fascinated to delve into the world of 1940s engineering and see how it was done before integrated circuits and microprocessors took over.

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What really impressed me was the incredible durability of the design. This thing is old enough to collect Social Security, and yet once I had it apart I found no significant wear on any of the components. I felt faintly ridiculous for having bought a parts donor; all the Model 9 needed was some ancient dough cleaned out from the air vents, a new power cord, fresh grease, and a minor adjustment to the “armature thrust screw.” It’s now re-assembled and working as good as new.

Good for another sixty years?  Perhaps so. All I am sure of is that it will turn on instantly every time we twist the dial, and it won’t ever need a software update, and it won’t report what we’re mixing to any social media sites or the NSA, and it will never be worthless. Manufacturers of modern technology: there’s your standard to beat.

Farewell to the Interstate

After that epic hike to the Keet Seel cliff dwelling in Navajo National Monument, our little Airstream Interstate adventure was more than half over.  We had one last thing to do: visit the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM, about 2.5 hours drive east.

For those who don’t know the International Rally was for many years “the” big thing to do in the Airstream world.  Back in the heyday a few decades ago, these rallies would attract over 3,000 Airstreams—essentially creating entire temporary towns, like Burning Man does today. Lately, with the general decline in clubs, the International Rally has brought in about 300-400 Airstreams, which still makes it the largest Airstream event in the world.  (By comparison, Alumapalooza brings in about 125-180 Airstreams, and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota was the second largest Airstream event in 2014 with 250 trailers.)

The day of the giant RV rallies is past.  I think everyone has realized that it’s not about sheer volume anymore, it’s about quality of experience. The WBCCI International Rally is an important event for the club members whether it brings in 100 or 100,000. People go to conduct club business, meet their old friends, and maybe trade in their Airstream for a new one.

That’s why we were there. Our mission was to show off the Interstate Grand Tour and hopefully find someone who wanted to buy it, because Airstream didn’t need it as a “media loaner” any longer.  Brett put on his best sales attitude and within 36 hours of arriving he had found a couple who really wanted it.  Mission accomplished.

Petrified Forest ranger horse Airstream

After the weekend we had to get the Interstate back to Arizona so it could be made ready for sale.  Monday morning we saddled up for the final drive, 400 or so miles back to Phoenix where Brett would catch a jet home.

But hey—why just drive straight home?  Northern Arizona is loaded with cool places to visit, and we had a $152,000 motorhome to play with for one more day.  So we detoured through a few spots …

Petrified Forest Airstream Interstate

… like Petrified Forest National Park, off I-40 in northern Arizona.

Holbrook AZ wigwam Airstream Interstate

… and one of the famous wigwam motels, this one in Holbrook, AZ right on “Historic Route 66.”

Airstream Interstate reflection milk truck

… and finally down in elevation from the cool piney Mogollon Rim (75 degrees with light showers), along the twisting Disney ride they call the Beeline Highway, and into the scorching heat of the Phoenix metroplex (111 degrees).

We picked a small RV park in Mesa mostly because it was the close to the airport and the only amenity we wanted was 30-amp power to keep the air conditioner cranking. There was a swimming pool but even a splash in the water doesn’t seem terribly inviting when it’s that hot. That night we walked one block to dinner (a very poor choice of restaurant despite high ratings—curse you, Yelp) and then walked straight back to the air conditioning in the Interstate before we melted into the pavement.

Hmmm…what to do now? Trapped by the scorching heat outside, there seemed only one option, and that was to break out a “guy movie” (e.g., one with science fiction, action, violence, and a bare minimum of romance or gentle emotion) and settle in for Movie Night. The only problem is that the noise of the air conditioner blowing on High made it difficult to hear the audio. Fortunately, being frequent travelers, we both had our Bose noise-reducing headsets handy. We plugged them into the back of the bedroom TV using a splitter, put on the movie, and the background noise of the air conditioner vanished as we reclined on our individual twin beds. It seemed like we were watching in a private theater, with ice cream bars handy in the freezer and comfortable pillows under our heads.

I highly recommend the noise-reducing headset solution to other RV’ers who hate the noise of the air conditioner—or, you can trade in your current RV for a new Airstream with ducted air.  I’m sure my friends at Airstream wouldn’t mind that.

The next morning I dropped Brett off at Sky Harbor and zipped down I-10 to Tucson to get away from the rapidly-building heat of the day.  In Tucson it was a mild 88 degrees, not bad for unloading all the stuff into the house.  I discovered that the Interstate, despite being tall, fits into my carport just barely so it could be kept in the shade and plugged into 30-amp. I think all the signs are telling me that I should have one of these things.  Perhaps I should launch a GoFundMe campaign to see if everyone wants to chip in to get me one?  (Just kidding.)

Now I’m Interstate-less (Under-stated?) and I don’t have a tow vehicle for the Caravel, so it’s time to switch gears for a few weeks.  I’ll dig the TBM gear out of the closet and start exploring Tucson’s hidden gems, when I have time away from work.

But if you crave reading about travel adventures, don’t lose faith. Later in July I’ll be heading to Oshkosh WI for the amazing EAA Fly-In, staying on-site for a week in an Airstream motorhome. That should be a very interesting week if you (like me) want to see lots of cool airplanes.