Thoughts from Working the EAA

The world’s largest anything is worth seeing. That is my bit of folksy wisdom for today, and also one reason I spent eight days this summer working security at EAA AirVenture. The other reason is that one of the great perks of being a college professor, having the summer off from a full-time teaching load, also means I have a three-month vacation from a full paycheck.

Overall, my experience working AirVenture was a positive (though tiring) one. First, it is a remarkable thing that Oshkosh, a city of about 66,000 people, annually hosts this event. Working gate security, I had the opportunity to chat up people from all over the country, and the world. I spoke with commercial pilots, military pilots, reporters, students, professors, village managers, air traffic controllers, politicians, retirees, inventors, business executives, and people working just about any other profession you can think of. And the vendors. I came to realize after my first day the air show is a big business opportunity for anyone selling anything aviation related. Given this, I have no doubt that the plan to turn the area into an aviation hub is a smart and viable economic development strategy.

I also couldn’t help but marvel at the logistics of the event. Even managing the security, a tiny piece of the overall business of running the world’s largest airshow, was remarkably complex. I often tell my students the key to a successful organization is a combination of healthy group dynamics and leadership credibility. These things take time to develop…which of course cannot really happen when a job is temporary. Instead, the organization ran a brief but effective training session, and worked to move people into postings where they were most effective. It made the first few days a bit confusing, but it worked very well in the long run. Management fully understood they were not going to change people’s strengths and weaknesses in a week, the key was putting them in the best spot to be effective.

Now, the logistics of keeping tabs on the airplanes was another story. I was reminded of my first visit to Lower Manhattan. I looked around and thought, why the heck would anyone drive a car here? When I looked up at the skies around EAA, I counted 52 different flying objects, and thought, why the heck would anyone fly here? To answer my own question, EAA pilots are a different breed. This was never clearer than the morning I saw a plume of black smoke rising in front of me. It was eerie. But thankfully, it was not a fatal accident. However, it would have been enough for me to stay on the ground for a while. Not this crowd, the whole event was rolling again by early afternoon.

My actual duties consisted of ensuring people had the proper credentials to enter the show, and knew where to go once they got in, i.e. it was mostly customer service. However, each day around noon I helped switched the main road from one-way traffic to two-way traffic. This duty was a study in human behavior. I would stand in the road and direct traffic into the correct lane in order to prevent a head-on collision. Some drivers would tentatively think about ignoring my directive, creeping into the wrong lane in hopes of getting out of the grounds a bit more quickly. I would basically mean-mug them back into their lane. But on occasion, I would be helping someone with directions, and a car would enter the wrong lane. That opened the floodgates; one car doing it meant five cars doing it. The lesson? All it takes is one person taking an action, no matter how misguided (remember they were turning into oncoming traffic) to signal to the group that the action is acceptable.

Like I said, it is remarkable, and awesome, that Oshkosh hosts this event. Being just a small part of it was quite the experience, and something I hope to do again next summer.


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