Podcast: Report From Oshkosh 2021, The Year's Biggest Air Show By Any Measure

The Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture always draws more people than any other air show. The mood is optimistic as people see the economy rebounding. Humanitarian organizations that use aircraft to support their mission also have a large presence. Listen in as Aviation Week editors on the ground discuss what's caught their eye this year. 

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Rush transcript:

Molly McMillin:             Well, good day, wherever you are. And welcome to Aviation Week's Check 6 and Business and Commercial Aviation podcast. I'm Molly McMillin, Managing Editor of Business Aviation for Aviation Week. Joining me today is Lindsay Bjerregaard, MRO Editor, and Michael Lavitt, Director of Editorial Production. The three of us are here in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the world's biggest air show, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. And it is the 68th show this year. It's also the first one in two years, since last year's show is canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And tell you what, the organizers say that in a normal year, on Sunday before the show, there's about 5,000 airplanes that fly in. This year, the number is almost 8,000. And they're saying that attendance is back to 2019 levels and the mood seems very enthusiastic and excited to be back. Mike, this is your first time here. And Lindsay, this is how many?

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         This will be my second one. My first one was 2019.

Molly McMillin:             Right. And Lindsay, you had an exciting morning today at the show.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yeah, yeah, I did. I got to ride along for my first ever aerobatic flight with the Phillips 66 Aerostars. So we flew in three Extra 300 series aircraft. They're very lightweight and they're good for aerobatics. And yeah, I got to go upside down on the aircraft. And it was a whole lot of fun.

Molly McMillin:             So did you do the maneuvers that they'll be doing in the air show?

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Some of them, yeah. So we did loops. We did barrel rolls. At one point, one of the aircraft flew underneath another one, one of those maneuvers. And I spoke to them afterwards and the current team of three has been flying together for five years, but apparently two of them, Paul and Harvey, have been flying together for 20 years. So collectively, between the three of them, they have been flying as the Phillips 66 Aerostars for 100 years.

Molly McMillin:             Oh goodness. And Mike and Lindsay, you both have been involved looking at humanitarian flights. I think that's one of the themes of this year's show, is humanitarian efforts and humanitarian aircraft. Mike, you had some experience with that the last couple of days?

Michael Lavitt:              I did. I was really struck just by the number of humanitarian providers who are here. Lindsay toured the Orbis-

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. Yeah.

Michael Lavitt:              And that's probably the top of the line, because they have an operating room right there.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yeah. Yeah. So it's an MD-10 aircraft that was donated by FedEx. And they have converted the inside completely to be a combination classroom and actual eye hospital. So they fly to middle and low income countries to deliver sight saving surgeries and procedures, and then also training to local medical professionals there. And so they have the capability on that plane—because it's equipped with a bunch of different cameras in the various rooms, the operating rooms and recovery rooms and all of that—to actually broadcast the surgeries live to both people sitting in the classroom seating area on the plane and also around the world to different people. And so they were able to still continue doing their mission during COVID-19 through their Cybersight telemedicine platform. So it's pretty cool. But yeah, the aircraft itself was really cool. All of the hospital areas are basically a module that's been put inside the aircraft, so they'll be able to take it off for easy maintenance. And they actually have not done it yet. They're scheduled to do that for the first time coming up soon this year. So I guess we'll see how that goes.

Molly McMillin:             Yeah. It is quite an incredible looking aircraft. It's out of Boeing Plaza. And it's just a real spectacle.

Michael Lavitt:              Yeah. I'm actually hoping to go through it, because I went through their last aircraft, which was an L-1011, and that was pretty advanced, but that was probably 20 years ago.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Oh, wow.

Michael Lavitt:              So it's even more so now. The real strength of what they do is they train the local doctors how to do these procedures too. And so much blindness is preventable or reversible. So they do that.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yes.

Michael Lavitt:              Some of the other organizations that I saw, one is Samaritan's Purse, which has their DC-8 combi here. They have a total of 17 aircraft. The DC-8 is the largest. They can carry, I think it's 32 people plus 10 pallets of cargo on what they call cookie sheet pallets. And they have a roller system under the deck. And then the DC-8, it's an old airplane, but one of the captains was telling me they can fly into virtually any place in the world with the upgraded avionics they have in the cockpit, which still looks like an old cockpit, but with those avionics, they can fly anywhere. So that's really impressive. And they can mobilize in about 24 hours and move all different kinds of cargo. They can set up a mobile field hospital that covers about an acre. They did that in New York Central Park last year to treat COVID victims. They've been to Haiti after the earthquake there, and many, many other places. They do a lot of hurricane and flood and earthquake relief and then other things as needed. So that was really incredible.

                                    And then right next, very close to them was Samaritan Aviation. And I, at first, thought it was just another... they have a caravan here, and I thought it was just another aircraft that Samaritan's Purse have brought in. It's actually a separate organization that... it's much smaller. They have three or four aircraft, and they provide aid in Papua New Guinea. And the people who live in this region are on a river. And they're about a five-day canoe ride from any kind of medical treatment. And the aircraft can get them from all the way up the river to a hospital in an hour and 20 minutes.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Speaking of the Caravan, there were a few different Cessna Caravans on display that had various humanitarian mission special interiors. So at the Textron booth, they had one that was outfitted where they take one side of the seats out and they'd put in an EpiShuttle pod for patient transport and isolation. And this actually, I believe, is the same isolation pod that's used in Lufthansa Technik's medical conversion that they came out with last year. I don't know if it was fully in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or if it was something that had already been in the works, but it's also being used by big companies as well, so that was pretty cool to see. And then I believe there was one other one. The Remote Area Medical non-profit had one as well.

Michael Lavitt:              Right.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Right, on Boeing Plaza. So apparently, smaller aircraft are good for that purpose as well.

Molly McMillin:             That's a good segue, talking about the Caravan into Textron Aviation Sky Courier, which came to Oshkosh this week for the very first time. It's the first time it's been on public display, I believe. Certainly the first time at AirVenture. Got a lot of attention on Boeing Plaza. FedEx officials were here along with the Textron officials because FedEx is the launch customer for that aircraft. They have 50 on order. They were also a partner in helping to design and develop that aircraft because it will be configurable for passenger or for cargo. And of course, FedEx is interested in the cargo side of it. It has a 6,000 pound payload. So it received a lot of attention.

                                    Staying with Textron Aviation for just a minute, the Denali's engine, the catalyst engine was on display at GE today, so they're expecting certification on the engine in 2022, which then will mean paving the way for certification for the Denali. And that engine is developed and assembled in Europe. That's the first time that GE has designed an engine such as this in Europe. It's in Italy, Germany, and the Czech Republic. So everyone is looking forward to that particular project. There's a variety of other aircraft news and updates.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yeah.

Michael Lavitt:              Yeah. Stratos was here showing off their 716X kit built jet aircraft. They're looking for three buyers to start. And they're planning to sell a total of 10 to 12 kits. And as they sell the kits, they're not going to have a backlog of more than three orders at a time. And they only want... no rookies need apply. They're looking for experienced kit built aircraft builders who can do this well and do it safely. It's two and a half million dollars. And when it'll be about a million dollars more when they... What they eventually want to do as they sell these 10 or 12 kits, they're further developing the 716 that will be a fully certifiable aircraft, which is really what Cirrus did in the beginning when it had kit built aircraft and eventually developed a certified model. So they're following a path that's been followed before.

                                    And that's one of the things about Oshkosh, is t's a lot of small airplanes, home built aircraft, but they really pushed the technology too. They were building carbon fiber aircraft for display at Oshkosh and flying displays at Oshkosh before any of the major aircraft manufacturers were using carbon fiber in production aircraft.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         And speaking of technology and flying displays, Mike, you and I had some fun today watching a couple of the eVTOL flights, electric vertical takeoff and landing. The first one we saw was Volocopter. They performed what they say is the first public crewed test flight of a full eVTOL air taxi in the U.S. with their 2X model. And they also had on display their VoloCity eVTOL for the first time that I've seen in person. And that's pretty cool. It's certainly the first time I've ever seen an eVTOL actually fly. I've seen them on display before, but never an actual test flight.

Michael Lavitt:              There aren't many people who have.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Maybe Graham Warwick our colleague, but...

Michael Lavitt:              Well, there are a lot of people here who saw it today though. So you've never had that many people see one of these things fly either. And that wasn't the only one that flew.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yeah. Mike, why don't you talk about the Opener BlackFly as well?

Michael Lavitt:              Yeah. The BlackFly is an ultralight, so it only carries one passenger and it's very lightweight. An ultralight class can only fly about 62 miles an hour. And that it takes off in a very unconventional manner, sort of like the Volocopter. It has a number of independent electric motors. And each propulsion unit has a motor, a battery, and a controller. And this is different from the Volocopter. Each of those is independent. They're not connected in any way, but the thing takes off and it takes off in this crazy nose high attitude that looks like it's going to stall, but it takes off and then it levels off. And it does not look anything like a conventional aircraft. I will say that.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         It's very science fiction looking. And actually, I don't know if we have any Star Wars fans listening in, but it honestly reminds me of Boba Fett's aircraft from Star Wars. The way that it goes from a horizontal to a vertical configuration and really quickly flips right up. It's certainly something that I've never seen before, but it was really cool to see today.

Michael Lavitt:              But that, again, it was mostly carbon fiber aircraft.

Lindsay Bjerreg...:         Yeah. Yeah, indeed.

Molly McMillin:             Just real quickly, I just wanted to mention that I went around to some of the flight schools or the universities that offer flight training and the flight schools just to see how the demand is for airline pilots. And I was really told that... well, going into COVID I was wondering, "Does this mean with airlines furloughing pilots and that, does this mean the pilot shortage is over?" And the answer is no. It's coming back with a very hot market for pilots. University of North Dakota, one of their flight instructors was telling me, as soon as things started opening back up, their certified flight instructors were just picked up by being hired like crazy. The opportunities out there are just amazing.

                                    So they are down now, flight instructors, because there was this pause and now things are back. So they're hiring flight instructors and they're having students. And that was the general feeling across the schools. And there's an education center that has different folks that are looking to hire pilots. And they're like, "Yes, we're looking for pilots now." And they've been going through during COVID. If they were getting close to retirement, they may have decided go ahead and retire, or they are coming up for retirement, or they've gone on to another airline or another opportunity. So it's out there. And we had a fun experience today, Mike, with the RedTail Flight Academy.

Michael Lavitt:              Yeah, that was great. The Piper Aircraft delivered the first new Piper-

Molly McMillin:             Piper Pilot 100i.

Michael Lavitt:              ... Pilot 100i. So it's designed from the start as a training aircraft. And it was the first one they delivered to the RedTail Flying Academy.

Molly McMillin:             The RedTail Flight Academy is actually operated by the Tuskegee Airmen, Incorporated, which is in honor of the original Tuskegee Airmen. And it's to provide minority youth with the opportunity for flight training, and with scholarships, so it's paid for. And it's a, I believe, 10-month program. And they are taking six students this year and they're hoping to grow it to about 30 students a year several years from now. I don't recall which year, but it's a wonderful program. One of the organizers, her father was an original Tuskegee Airman, and so it was a very emotional day for her.

Michael Lavitt:              It was. And one of the very few remaining Tuskegee Airmen was here yesterday, General Charles McGee. So it was great to meet him.

Molly McMillin:             All right. I think we're out of time. That was a great discussion. And thank you, everyone, for joining us. And I especially want to thank Lindsay and Mike for your insights today. If you have any comments, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. You can also subscribe and download this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, and Google Play. So thanks for listening, and for joining us. And we hope to see you in Oshkosh this year or next. And have a good day. Thank you.


Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.

Michael Lavitt

Michael O. Lavitt, Director of Editorial Content Production for Aviation Week, has extensive experience in both traditional print and new media. He began his career as a reporter with daily newspapers, worked on developing online services in Chicago and New York in the mid-1980s and then joined Aviation Week & Space Technology as a news editor.

Lindsay Bjerregaard

Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.