OSHKOSH, WISCONSIN. — For one week each year the Wittman Regional Airport here is the busiest airport in the world, with up to 12,000 landings and takeoffs each day. More than 14,000 planes were tied down in the green fields around the place.
It was the week of the annual Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In Convention. More than 800,000 people were here, spectators and pilots alike, some of them staying a week, living in hotels as far away as Milwaukee, 100 miles down the road, or just camping under the wings of their aircraft.
The Fly-In has been going on for 40 years. It began as a weekend get-together planned by a fellow named Paul Poberezny for a few flying friends who, like him, had built little homemade airplanes. They had a fine time and organized the Experimental Aircraft Association for pilots with ''home-builts,'' the jargon for planes built from blueprints or kits. It had 40 members in 1953.
Now, the group has 130,000 members, though only a thousand or so flew here in planes they had made in their basements, their garages or barns. There were also more than 2,000 ''classics'' here, restored Stearman biplanes, tri-motored Stinsons, and ''war birds,'' P-40s, P-51s, B-17s and B-25s from World War II.
The energy level was fantastic; the people power here was at least as high as the horsepower as one plane after another, every few seconds, roared or whined into a bright sky. It's very American, all these people doing their own thing alone -- building a plane, even with a kit, takes $30,000 or so, plus thousands and thousands of hours -- and then organizing themselves into this impressive enterprise.
How can the national dynamo, this kind of people-power of a vast free country, not prevail at any endeavor? How can we be in decline, much less fail?
I wish I knew the answer to such paradoxical questions. Certainly there are, indeed, signs of decline everywhere around here. The main street of Oshkosh, and of Appleton 20 miles down Highway 41, looks as if all the people have flown somewhere else -- empty department stores, blank and dirty shop windows, one after another, doorways sealed with plywood.
Though unemployment in Wisconsin is relatively low at 5.2 percent, the population of places like this is in decline. The
people in the streets, the very few of them, are mostly old (or too young to flee), using walkers, holding up what little traffic comes through anymore.
The Fox Valley, as this area is called, is served now mainly by United Airlines, shuttling back and forth from Chicago. And United, one of the few survivors of the deregulation of U.S. airlines, has just ordered dozens of new planes to get it through the 1990s -- it ordered them from Airbus, the European government-subsidized manufacturer of commercial airliners.
U.S. plane makers will be the next American industry going down the tubes. The U.S. government will blame it all on ''socialistic'' subsidies. The French, the British and the German governments created a consortium to develop the Airbus as a state-of-the-art airliner to compete with the products of Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas.
So what? The U.S. government subsidizes aircraft manufacture, too. The American subsidies, though, are not for planes like the Airbus -- because you can't bomb and strafe people with an airliner. The United States subsidizes warplanes and little black Star Wars boxes. On the civilian side, American plane manufacturers are still selling modified versions of airliners the basic design of which is 20 to 30 years old. Worse, there is no guarantee of American research and development, private or public, of new-generation commercial transportation. You would think the plane men in Washington and Seattle and Los Angeles would have learned something from the humiliation of the auto men in Detroit. But they haven't.
The rise of home-builts, the planes displayed in Oshkosh, also has something to do with American ways: Cessna and Piper and other U.S. general aircraft manufacturers went or are going the way of Detroit, selling designs that, in this case, are basically 30 to 40 years old, and being forced to raise prices by $20,000 and up per unit to cover the rising costs of liability insurance. In the land of the free, the litigious, and generous jurors, when a doctor has a couple of drinks and flies his four-seater into a mountain, his widow sues the manufacturer of the aircraft and of the vodka, too.
What are we doing to ourselves? I would argue that the anti-government rhetoric and policies of the last 10 or 20 years have done terrible things to the government and to the nation itself. First, the government no longer has the will or the credibility to offer advice, direction and resources to assist the private sector as it stumbles blindly into fiercely competitive worldwide markets. Second, the government has been disconnected from the greatest of the nation's strengths, the energy and creativity of the American people.
So, some of us are building planes in our basements for the fun of it, rather than in factories for the prosperity of our children.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.