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EAA AirVenture to feature full Thunderbirds team for first time

Even though EAA AirVenture is one of the world's largest aviation conventions, surprisingly the entire U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds has never performed at the Oshkosh air show.

AirVenture draws tens of thousands of pilots and aviation enthusiasts from around the world and occasionally a Thunderbird pilot shows up. But the entire team of six F-16s performing crossover breaks and reflection passes above Wittman Regional Airport? Never.

That's because the area where the Thunderbirds perform — called the aerobatic box — is larger than the typical space for air show performers at Oshkosh. But to accommodate the Thunderbirds, AirVenture officials will move the crowd line when the air demonstration team performs next weekend.

The weeklong event starts Monday with the Thunderbirds arriving some time on Thursday and performing what's known as a "practice show," a full dress rehearsal, at the end of the afternoon air show, about 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

With the cancellation of the Navy's Blue Angels performances because of dense fog during last month's Milwaukee Air & Water Show and the sequestration that grounded military flight demonstration teams last year, AirVenture officials are anticipating a large crowd to turn out for the Thunderbirds. Oshkosh will be the only stop in Wisconsin for the Thunderbirds this year.

"It's a very big deal. We know the Thunderbirds are a huge attraction for kids who want to experience aviation," EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said. "It also brings out families that may not be close to aviation. We think it will be a big draw for Wisconsin traffic."

Crowds who come to the afternoon air shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday will still be able to sit along the entire length of the airport's flight line but will be 120 feet further away from the runway than normal. Visitors will be moved back starting at 1 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and noon on Sunday.

"We had to work with a lot of neighboring businesses and residents to move out of their locations for the hour each day the Thunderbirds will perform. Previously we didn't want to take that on. I don't know if we want to do it on a regular basis but with no military teams performing last year we decided to try and schedule them," Pelton said.

Though the Thunderbirds will certainly be a big draw, there are plenty of other reasons folks visit AirVenture. All manner of aircraft ranging from antiques, amphibians and warbirds to ultralights, motorized parachutes and homebuilts will be on display.

This year EAA members will build a kit plane in one week, assembling a Zenith CH 750 aircraft in a project called "One Week Wonder."

Honor flight planned

An honor flight for Vietnam veterans will leave Oshkosh Friday morning and take more than 100 veterans for a free daylong visit to Washington, D.C. before returning to a heroes' welcome that afternoon.

A salute to EAA founder Paul Poberezny, who started the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1953, is planned on Monday with a missing man formation during the afternoon air show. Poberezny died last August at the age of 91. A program Monday evening will highlight memories of Poberezny.

The dispute between EAA and the Federal Aviation Administration over payment for air traffic control services was settled in May with a nine-year deal. Last year, during the budget sequestration, the FAA stunned EAA AirVenture officials by demanding more than $400,000 for the cost of air traffic controllers to come to Oshkosh.

FAA air traffic controllers and supervisors have come to Wittman Regional Airport for decades to handle thousands of planes at no additional cost to AirVenture. Air traffic control operations are funded through aviation fuel taxes.

EAA members and AirVenture officials were angry because of the sudden policy change two months before the convention that they saw as an attempt by the FAA to push budget cuts onto general aviation pilots and enthusiasts.

AirVenture paid the money in protest last year, lobbied Congress, collected petitions from EAA members and filed a lawsuit challenging the FAA's authority to demand payment for travel expenses and overtime for air traffic controllers. Air traffic control will cost AirVenture around $500,000 this year.

"We pushed them very hard through a lawsuit. We ended up settling to ensure we have their support for the next nine years," said Pelton, adding that the money for air traffic control will come from EAA budgets for educational programs. "Unfortunately we have to pay for those services but they'll be here front and center and support our (air traffic control) tower."

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