The excitement of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture convention seems very far away in the frigid temperatures of January in the Midwest, but the FAA’s Estela Ponce knows from long experience that it is never too early to start planning for the FAA’s participation in general aviation’s premier event. As the Regional Executive Programs Specialist, Ponce leads a team that is overseen by the Great Lakes Regional Administrator to pave the way for another successful year of the agency’s participation at OshkoshTM. Ponce coordinates not just with the EAA planning team, but also with the numerous FAA “lines of business” (LOB), who support and participate in AirVenture each year. We recently caught up with Ponce, who gave the FAA Aviation News a behind-the-scenes look at the work she and her team do in connection with this event.
Exhibit Hall. The Exhibit Hall in the big blue and tan building, known as the FAA Safety Center, is a showcase for FAA’s national initiatives. “This is where the FAA comes together,” notes Ponce. The FAA planning team keeps three main goals in mind when reviewing each year’s list of possible exhibitors, which averages around 20. The first is to provide representation by all major FAA organizations that interact with the general aviation community. Exhibits by organizations, such as the FAA Civil Aviation Registry and the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI), are examples of how the planning team meets this goal.
The second goal is to offer exhibits that underscore special emphasis areas for safety and pilot education. Reducing the potential for runway incursions and runway collisions is a top priority for the FAA, which aims to reduce the severity, number, and rate of runway incursions by mitigating errors that contribute to collision risks. The Exhibit Hall displays offered by the FAA’s Office of Runway Safety are thus a good example of meeting this goal.
A third goal, according to Ponce, is to “showcase the FAA’s national initiatives through exhibits that communicate the agency’s newest and best ideas.” A key exhibit in this category is the display associated with the Next Generation Air Transportation System, also known as “NextGen.” The Aviation and Space Education (AVSED) team, which participates in each year’s KidVenture EAA events, is involved as well. Look for AVSED in the special exhibit area located near Pioneer Hangar. Ponce hinted that there may be a few out-of-the-ordinary exhibits as well at AirVenture 2008, so be sure to tour the entire Exhibit Hall, if your travel plans for this summer include a trip to Oshkosh.
Coordinating the budget, production, shipping, and setup of exhibits is always a huge task for Ponce and her team. To ensure that all of the FAA’s exhibits meet appearance standards and share a common look and feel, the FAA’s Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, works with Ponce, as well as the individual lines of business, to design and produce the signs and displays that visitors will see in the Exhibit Hall. Ponce also notes that new “industrial strength” overhead fans in the Exhibit Hall will make the space more comfortable for those walking through, as well as for the people staffing each display area.
Still another coordination task is acquiring accommodations during convention week at Oshkosh. This year Ponce is reminding participants to consider houses that can be rented (listing maintained by the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce). So if you’re thinking of Oshkosh in July, check www. airventure.org for lodging suggestions.
FAA Safety Forum. To organize the safety education programs offered in the forum part of the FAA Safety Center, the team turns to Rich Mileham, Great Lakes FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Assistant Manager. Now in his tenth year of organizing events and presentations for the FAA Safety Forum, Mileham is also responsible for coordinating and managing the Flight Standards Service’s displays in the Exhibit Hall. Like Ponce, Mileham’s preparations for AirVenture start in January, when he sends a message soliciting ideas for Safety Forum topics and speakers. “We aim to address subjects tied to the FAA Flight Plan, [strategic plan]” notes Mileham, “as well as areas targeted by the FAASTeam for accident prevention.” With six forums to run each day of the convention, he also works to offer Oshkosh audiences a broad mix of speakers. These include representatives from FAA headquarters in Washington, Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs), FAASTeam members, and general aviation industry groups. Mileham also maintains close contact with King Schools and organizations, such as the Aviation Speakers Bureau, which facilitates participation by speakers such as aviation educator and humorist Rod Machado and former NTSB accident investigator Greg Feith. Mileham notes that Safety Forum audiences this year will benefit from several improvements made to the FAA’s “big blue and tan building” since 2007. The Safety Forum has been air conditioned and equipped with a better stage, new screens, a satellite link, and facilities for streaming video. Although AirVenture still sees the greatest use of the Safety Forum, Mileham indicated that plans for year-round use of this facility are well underway.
“Command Center.” A third major part of the FAA’s AirVenture effort is running an office facility, which Ponce’s team calls the command center. “We have anything and everything,” states Ponce, who stresses that the FAA’s Oshkosh command center is visible and accessible. The command center, site of the coordination and check-in meeting that Ponce runs early each morning of the AirVenture convention, includes meeting and hospitality facilities, secure phone lines, a computer section for FAA employee use, and a myriad of other items that go into facilitating participation in Oshkosh. “It’s all about service, and making it look seamless. Our collective efforts promote the FAA as an agency that is responsive to the needs of the aviation public,” Ponce observed. “Our office team manages the meeting rooms, golf carts and cars used for transportation, passes, a message center – we even keep a stock of umbrellas on hand! We do whatever coordination is needed before the show and any troubleshooting required during the show.”
As you might imagine, security is another part of the command center’s responsibility. There are daily meetings with EAA, and security planning includes such items as an up-to-date evacuation plan, and keeping track of who is working in the Exhibit Hall and Safety Forum areas. “Our aim is to expect and plan for the unexpected,” says Ponce. Although the command center and its meeting facilities do serve as gathering areas for FAA officials who come to Oshkosh for AirVenture, Ponce is quick to clarify that one task that does not go to the FAA’s Great Lakes Region planning team is the FAA Administrator’s schedule. “We do keep track of schedules, of course, and help as needed, but the EAA folks are the ones who develop and coordinate the AirVenture meeting and event schedules for senior agency officials.”
Air Traffic Control. Air Traffic Control (ATC) is one of the most visible and vital parts of the AirVenture fly-in, and the lead organizational role for this function falls to Wanda Adelman, air traffic manager of the Milwaukee (MKE) tower. “It really is a continuous process,” she notes. “We are constantly reviewing how it worked last year, and planning how to make it better next time.”
Staffing efforts start around December, when interested controllers from the Air Traffic Organization’s (ATO) Central Service Area bid for one of the 64 slots available. “We’re working O’Hare-level traffic with pilots whose experience is all over the map, so we’re looking for the best of the best,” says Adelman. The application process requires various recommendations and experience counts, too. The team tries to select half of the controllers from the “veteran” category, which requires at least three years of AirVenture experience. Controllers in the “limited” category have one or two years’ experience at AirVenture and fill 25 percent of the slots. The remaining 25 percent are “rookies.” The 16 AirVenture work teams are composed according to these proportions as well. The aim is to include two veterans, one limited, and one rookie on each four-person team.
The controllers selected for Oshkosh receive a detailed training manual, plus online training that starts about two months before the air show. Part of the training includes aircraft recognition. “We have such a wide variety of aircraft at this event, so there’s a lot to learn,” says Adelman. Controllers then get one day of classroom training at Oshkosh before the show begins. The hands-on training continues throughout the week for the “limiteds” and “rookies.” Oshkosh normally is a contract tower, but the FAA takes over on the Friday before AirVenture starts. The tower teams this year will have the advantage of the new Oshkosh air traffic control tower, which opens this summer. The placement and greater height of the new tower will greatly enhance visibility and safety for everyone.
And, speaking of visibility: that’s the reason for the bright pink shirts Oshkosh controllers wear each year. Though some might prefer a different color, Adelman observes that the pink shirts are a proven safety measure because they are so distinctive. “The shirts make it really easy for everyone, including other controllers, to spot our teams.” Controller teams rotate through several different areas. “Everything starts at our `VFR approach control’ at Fisk,” observes Adelman. “That’s where we `untangle the gaggle’ of airplanes headed for the show and get everyone lined up for an arrival runway.” It would be hard to overstate the importance of the work done at Fisk. “We like to say that `as Fisk goes, so goes Oshkosh,'” she notes. The teams working the Oshkosh tower clear arriving aircraft to land. Departures are handled by controller teams working from mobile platforms colorfully known as MOOCOWs (MObile Operating and COmmunications Workstation).
One of the many details that Adelman and her team handle each year is the necessary process of getting waivers from normal ATC separation requirements. These include waivers to allow less than standard separation on runways, as well as the “look-and-go” procedures that controllers on the MOOCOWs use to clear departing traffic. “Safety is paramount, but with so many airplanes, there just isn’t time for the normal radio coordination,” notes Adelman. “That’s why it is so critical to have highly experienced controllers.”
Pilot preparation is essential as well, and Adelman stresses that anyone planning to fly to AirVenture should be totally familiar with the event’s Notice to Airmen (NOTAM). “There are several changes this year,” she observes, so please don’t assume it’s business as usual. Among the changes pilots should know about is a reconfiguration of airspace last February that shifted the Oshkosh area, formerly controlled by Chicago Center, to Milwaukee Approach Control. You can find the AirVenture NOTAM at www.faa.gov/. Adelman notes that it is also available in the ATC section of the AirVenture Web site, which also includes more information on ATC’s role, as well as links to the aircraft recognition training materials that controllers use.
Enjoy the Show! As Ponce stresses, planning for and then running the FAA’s annual participation in the EAA’s AirVenture event is a major task that requires months of preparation by many FAA entities – but one well worth the effort. “With approximately 800,000 annual visitors, AirVenture Oshkosh has grown to be an international gathering place for aviation professionals and enthusiasts. As dedicated and proud FAA employees, our hard work brings the FAA’s Flight Plan to life at Oshkosh. I can think of no better place to convey what our agency is about. Not only do we make America fly, at Oshkosh we really are spreading our safety message around the world!” (FAA Aviation News – JulAug 2008)