Suzie Parish is all buckled into her P-40, about to take off. Her World War II War Bird is outstanding in its field: Bubble-gum pink, with grinning shark's teeth and red lips painted under the prop. It sports a pair of hubcap-size, unblinking green eyes with foot-long eyelashes that would bring Tammy Faye Bakker to tears. The tower gives Mrs. Parish the OK for takeoff, but not before she applies a little matching Bonnie Belle pink lip gloss. ``I have to keep my lips soft,'' she said in slow-motion, breathless Marilyn Monroe fashion.
Parish taxies down the runway and roars into the cloudless blue yonder. She takes her War Bird straight into the air at a 45-degree angle. For 10 minutes she streaks through the sky in a series of rolls and flips, while the thousands below gasp, and cheer.
``They always cheer when I come out of a roll,'' she says after her fly by. ``I think it's because they know how old I am,'' said the svelte, attractive grandmother of 12. I wouldn't ask the fighter-plane pilot her age, but she admitted that her instructor's pilot license was signed by Orville Wright!
She explained the pink color of her aircraft. ``In the early war in the Libyan desert, planes were painted a reddish-tan. The lead in the paint caused them to fade to this shade of pink.'' She asked the authorities, ``If I paint my plane pink, would it still be `authentic'? They said, `Yes, but must you]' Well, as you can see, I did!''
Parish is one of more than 850,000 aviation enthusists from 61 countries who poured into this quiet Midwest farming town of 50,000 last week. Each year, Oshkosh opens its doors, airport, and skies to host the Experimental Aircraft Association and Sport Aviation Exhibition Convention (EAA).
President, founder, and ``Top Gun'' of EAA, Paul Poberezny started the organization 36 years ago to bring experimental aircraft enthusiasts together. Since then the group has grown to an international membership of more than 120,000. The organization now embraces antique planes, restorations, warplanes, ultralights, and sport flying.
As one member put it, ``The EAA takes an active interest in anything that flies.'' A Concorde and a B-1 bomber even dropped in for the Oshkosh show.
At one end of Oshkosh's Wittman Airfield are the antique planes. Row upon row of old, good-as-new biplanes line up like brightly colored dragonflies. Bill Watson piloted probably the oldest fly-in aircraft here. His green 1928 Kreider-Reisner Challenger shone glossy as a wet frog on the parched, 100-degree field.
``When I bought this plane in 1973 it was a basket case. It took three years to rebuild it,'' says the retired corporate pilot, brushing a speck of dust from one of the cotton fabric wings. ``Found it in an old barn in Allentown, Pa. Paid $6,500 for it. Today it's worth, maybe, I dunno, $45,000?''
Mr. Watson gets something of a spiritual high from flying his ancient aircraft. ``Sunsets and sunrises are beautiful. I don't care if you're a pure atheist. I could take anyone up in this plane and convert them to Christianity in 15 minutes.''
In the category of ``Hello, I'm Larry. This is my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl,'' meet the Hay menfolk. Three slightly eccentric entrepreneurs.
``HAY - I'm Steve.'' ``HAY - I'm Jim,'' scream the yellow business cards of the three men, who build airplane prototypes and models. ``My dad's name is Steve, too,'' says Steve the younger. ``We share the same card.''
While Jim and Dad were working up a sweat trying to start a replica of the Wright brothers engine they had built, Steve was showing off his ornithopter.
``Ornithopter?'' someone queried. ``Look it up in the dictionary,'' he said with a toothy grin, as the three-wooden-wheeled contraption chugged, flapped, shook, and backfired. ``It don't fly yet, but it moves,'' he shouted over the noise like a circus barker. ``She started out as a car first. I sat around and watched it run. That got boring, so I turned it into this.''
The crowd just stood around scratching their heads.
A bit more serious about their mission are Bill Montagne and Bill Wakida from San Ramon, Calif. They were showing off, trying to raise money to get their Mach Buster 1 into the air. This two-seat 34-footer was designed and built by Mr. Montagne to be ``the world's first propeller-driven, piston-engine aircraft to break the sound barrier.''
By 3 p.m. crowds are pouring in, setting aluminum and plastic-webbed lawn chairs along the runway to see the air show. The day will draw a record crowd of more than 300,000. Now, this is real `hang' gliding
In the ``As God made 'em, He matched 'em,'' category, there are Pat and Bob Wagner from Dayton, Ohio. Pat and Bob are ``wing walkers.'' Actually Pat walks, hubby drives.
Pat makes her living strapped standing up on the top wing of a 1940 biplane. Bob takes the plane through a series of acrobatic manuevers, flying upside down, doing rolls, and bringing the plane within a few feet of the runway. Pat just stands on top smiling and waving away.
What started this rather average-looking couple on a career in wing-walking? ``When I bought this plane it had wing-walking capabilities,'' explained Bob as he tugged on the final zipper of his black suit with white stripes and red stars. ``The harness didn't fit the first volunteer I got, but it fit Pat.'' That was 18 seasons ago.
Pat describes wing-walking as ``like being on a motorcycle, but going twice as fast, only in the air. Your cheeks flap real fast. Everything flaps!''
Wouldn't she rather have husband Bob catch the bugs in his teeth, flying upside down at 150 miles an hour?
``Bob doesn't want to switch yet,'' she says as she climbs on the red-and-white wing to harness up for the show.
Poor cousin of the air
As far away from the other exhibitors as possible are the Rodney Dangerfields of the aviation. These guys don't get no respect.
``Me? In an ultralight? I've got more respect for my various body parts than to get on one of those,'' says the owner of a T-28 Navy trainer.
This group of rather self-proclaimed eccentrics is unconvinced.
``You don't need a pilot's license to fly one of these,'' says Dan Grunloh, a research chemist at the University of Illinois. ``And I wouldn't have one if you paid me,'' he scoffs, ``because then they could always take it away from you.''
Mr. Grunloh is watching people circle and giggle at Sky Pup, his barrel-shaped, snow-blower engine, homemade ultralight. He bought the plans ``for 50 bucks. I built it in my two-car garage. Cost $2,200 and took two years. It's just what I was looking for - a giant model airplane I could fly [in].''
You can't fly over towns, carry passengers, or fly at night in an ultralight. ``You can't fly anywhere where you could endanger others, but you're perfectly free to endanger yourself,'' Grunloh says.
``Here's how I make a turn when I taxi,'' he says, grasping one of the yellow-plastic, kid's bicycle wheels. ``And here's the brakes,'' he says, feet sticking out from the cockpit on the ground. ``It's kinda buckboard technology, isn't it?''
Some share Dan's interest.
``Hey, why not?'' said one owner of a home-built Long E-Z.
``It's where it all began, right?''