Cessna Ground Zero • Pilots make annual stop in Juneau

JUNEAU | They fly thousands of miles to meet here each year.

They camp amid mosquitoes, sleep in tents during rainstorms and lounge beneath aluminum wings for shade. They have a tremendous time and that is all before they arrive at the main event, because when it comes to the annual Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture, Cessnas 2 can’t wait to get to Juneau first.

“Fifty one weeks a year we plod through, waiting to come here,” said Rodney Swanson of Dothan, Ala., while chatting with other Cessna pilots inside the terminal at Dodge County Airport.

Swanson is the unofficial leader of the loosely knit coalition of owners, pilots and friends of Cessna aircraft that congregates in Juneau to fly as one to Wittman Field in Oshkosh. For a few days each summer, Wittman becomes the world’s busiest airport and the arrival of thousands of air enthusiast requires careful planning.

For Cessnas 2, that planning begins in Juneau.

Swanson said a full briefing for the flight to Oshkosh precedes the Saturday takeoff and all participants must go through a one-day training program standardized by him and offered at clinics throughout the country during the year.

Saturday afternoon, about 60 Cessnas carrying 105 people took off in triangular “elements” of three aircraft each, eventually creating a formation that would land in the same orderly fashion at Wittman Field.

About 125 earthbound airplane fans gathered at the airport fence to wave the squadron off and for two days prior to that people could stroll the grounds to meet those who had gathered at the airport.

“One danger is that some of these guys will talk your ear off,” said Gil Hamilton of Leesburg, Va., who by Friday afternoon had his Cessna 177 Cardinal fueled and ready to take off north.

“Wisconsin Aviation does wonders for us,” Swanson said, referring to the company that operates Dodge County’s publically-owned airport.

Swanson said it is a family event.

“We have a couple of kids who grew up with this event from age 12,” said Fil Valez, of Pitts Sound, N.J. “We have one who celebrates their birthday here every year.”

Valez said he works the other 51 weeks a year as a physician specializing in adolescent medicine. He said roughly 18 of the 60 Cessnas expected were newcomers.

“We have about a 60 percent recidivism rate,” Swanson said.

Steve Wolf of Fort Collins, Colo., was one of the first-timers. He arrived Wednesday.

Valez said the oldest Cessna on hand was a 1957 model 185. At about that point, Paul and Patty Nielsen of Kapowsin, Wash., dropped by having just landed. Valez confirmed they had arrived from the furthest away. By Valez’s reckoning, they outdistanced arrivals expected from 23 other states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario.

Wolf said that when his family moved to Fort Collins from New Jersey, they did so over AirVenture week and arrived at their new home via Oshkosh.

Swanson said the Juneau meet-up is like a family reunion.

“In 2005, we were looking for a geographically convenient staging base,” Swanson said.

Valez said Juneau is “Cessna ground zero.”

Still there are other airports within 30 minutes of Wittman Field where Cessnas could meet. But Valez said, “We stay here because the people are really, really nice.”

- Source:  http://www.wiscnews.com

Camping out under a wing Friday at Dodge County Airport are from left Lisa VanWinkle of Hershey, Penn., Chip Henkel of Ledyard, Conn., Robert Ahern of Northville, Mich., and Ted Beumer of Pensacola, Fla. The Cessna group meets annually in Juneau before flying as a group to AirVenture at Witmann Field in Oshkosh.