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Oshkosh Countdown--An Inside Look at Air Venture Air Traffic Control

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As you may have read in some other posts, over 10,000 aircraft visit each annual Air Venture in Oshkosh.  How do they all get there?  We asked Bob Everson, our Manager of ATC Systems for some personal insight.

Let's take a look at the Air Venture gathering in Oshkosh from an  ATC (air traffic control) perspective as air traffic controllers representing several air traffic control towers throughout the central part of the United States are converging in Oshkosh to make sure one of the world's largest aviation events is a success.  Every year, this small Wisconsin airport 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee becomes one of the busiest in the world overnight as it hosts the week-long EAA AirVenture – more commonly known as Oshkosh.

Controllers from Federal Aviation Administration facilities volunteer to provide air traffic control services at the show, billed as "the world's greatest aviation celebration" from July 26 through August 1.

Controllers guide a wide variety of planes at Oshkosh. Photo: EAA

The 77 controllers will have to handle a huge number and variety of airplanes--many experimental--flying at approach speeds ranging from 40 to 140 knots.  About 10,000 aircraft participated in the 2009 event. Indeed, on one day during last year's event, the traffic at Oshkosh surpassed a normal day's volume at Chicago O'Hare, and that happened in just 11 working hours.

When all those aircraft are arriving, usually on the first day of the show, Oshkosh uses special--and somewhat unusual--air traffic procedures to ensure safe, coordinated operations. Given the sheer volume of traffic, pilots are not allowed to respond verbally to the tower, and instead use "wing rocks" to acknowledge instruction. The FAA also gives Oshkosh permission to reduce the official minimum separation distances between aircraft.

The controllers — wearing the infamous bright pink shirts — are normally split into 16 teams of four. Each team typically includes two veteran controllers with a minimum of three years of experience at Oshkosh, one controller with more limited experience, and one "rookie." Two team members act as "spotters," another is the main communicator, and the fourth acts as the team leader. The arrangement is completely different from what controllers usually experience. There will also a number of supervisors.  Controllers are normally limited to volunteering for a total of seven years at Oshkosh to allow others a chance to work the event. 

While Oshkosh arrivals are cleared from the tower, departures are cleared directly from the runway by controllers stationed on mobile platforms. The platforms are equipped with a communications consul that provides instant contact with the tower and each other. These so-called “MOOCOWs”, or Mobile Operating and Communications Workstations, get their quirky name from Wisconsin's dairy industry.

About seven miles southwest of the airfield is the Fisk approach control facility for Oshkosh. Here controllers used binoculars to line up aircraft for approach and landing at the air show.

Fond du Lac Airport — usually a rural Unicom field with no air traffic services – sprouts a temporary relief tower for aircraft during Oshkosh week. This year the Fond du Lac tower has been upgraded.

The air traffic control teams rotate through the Oshkosh tower, MOOCOWs, Fink Approach and Fond du Lac relief tower

In 2008, a new Oshkosh air traffic control tower was commissioned.  The new tower is 121 feet at controller eye level, compared to the old tower's 53 feet.   The line of sight from the new Tower is significantly farther than the old Tower’s. 

The old                                    

The new

Looking forward to seeing you there.

1 Comment
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having some aviation history in my family tree and having had a friend that was a ATC over at bien hoa, viet nam , i am enjoying listening to the controllers at the airventure towers. all i can say is that you guys are doing a wonderful and totally professional job with as many planes as you have to work with. thank you for keeping all the pilots and public safe so they can enjoy another year of the wonderful airventure week. keep up the great work . wish someone would take movies of you all in the tower and post it on youtube for the rest of us to enjoy the work that you do. just a thought. thank you so much, marshall