The Story of the AirVenture Seaplane Base
By: Richard A. Steeves

As the visitor strolls through the woods from the parking lot or bus stop and encounters the tranquility of the seaplanes resting at anchor or taxiing slowly through the slot, a palpable peacefulness descends, one takes a deep breath of woodland air, and the true ambiance of a seaplane summer holiday begins.

The AirVenture seaplane "sanctuary" is unique for the following reasons:
1 - It is open to seaplane pilots just during the AirVenture convention.
2 - A small cadre of dedicated volunteers provide a great atmosphere.
3 - The natural surroundings offer outstanding seaplane protection.


INTRODUCTION

On July 28, 1989, I first flew over what was then called the Brennand Seaplane Base in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I looked down and saw just what you see in Jim Koepnick's photo. There were dozens of seaplanes anchored in the combined estuary of Reinke and McClarin Creeks. They looked so safe and secure, like a flock of ducks all pointing into the wind, well shielded by John Moon Island (at upper right, above) from the waves of Lake Winnebago. After landing out in the lake I taxied slowly through the "slot" and into the quiet lagoon toward the docks. I felt as though I had been magically transported back in time to a bygone age. Questions began to form in my mind: How did this wonderful place come to be associated with the EAA? Who is Bill Brennand? Who organized all these volunteers who are fueling and anchoring my plane?

Suddenly I became aware of my own ignorance about this forgotten corner of EAA activity. Like so many people who are preoccupied with selecting a particular design or building an aircraft, I had been limiting my focus to Wittman Field during the EAA conventions of the late 70's and early 80's. My time there had been filled with visiting the exhibits, buying aircraft parts, and talking with other aircraft builders. It wasn't until I had finished building an amphibian aircraft (a Coot) and had flown off its restriction hours, that I asked myself if it wouldn't be more fun to fly my plane to the Seaplane Base and keep it there for a few days. The answer, of course, was a resounding "YES!" Since that day in 1989 I've discovered a remarkable volunteer spirit, as well as a trove of photographs and stories, so I'll try to introduce them to you here.

 
EARLY HISTORY
Back in the mid-1800's a corduroy road passed across the area where the seaplane base now exists. It was an old road to Perryville, a now-extinct sawmill village where steamers came in from the lake to take on lumber. Eventually, the land was acquired by Ezra C. Fahrney, son of Dr. Peter Fahrney, who sold many elixirs of presumed medicinal value. Since 1931 the Vette family has owned over 27 acres of this land along the shore of Lake Winnebago. John Vette Jr. was one of the "Early Birdmen", who flew and owned quite a variety of aircraft, including the amphibious Duck for the navy during W.W.II. After the war, he opened a business south of Oshkosh, near the family farm. Among his employees, an engineer named Al Ziebell developed a friendship with Bill Brennand, with whom he enjoyed fishing for walleyes along the lakeshore. By 1949 they decided it would be much easier if they had a boathouse near the shoreline for storing their gear, so Bill bought 1.9 acres of Vette land around the inner harbor. In 1957 Bill bought a Piper J3 on floats, and with help from Al and others, built some ramps for seaplane storage when they were not off on fishing trips to Canada.

John Vette Jr., 1942
Bill Brennand
Al Ziebell

When EAA moved their convention site to Oshkosh in 1970, a few members, including Bill Pratt from Winnipeg, flew their floatplanes here, and managed to get rides to Wittman Field as needed. By 1973 Paul Poberezny negotiated with Bill and Al to begin a seaplane base operation for EAA visitors during the convention. As EAA helped with improvements to the grounds and transportation to and from Wittman Field, attendance rose steadily, especially after Norm Petersen began to write aviation articles about the unique aircraft and high spirits here each year.
 
Year
1981
1987
1991
1993
1996
1998
1999
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
Registered Aircraft
35
70
120
120
114
148
102
104
108
121
129
140
130
129
119
134
101
 
In 1995 Bill Brennand retired, selling his 1.9 acres around the seaplane base to John Vette Jr's descendants, John Vette III and his sister, Burleigh Blust. They are holding it in trust for their respective children, who are interested in keeping it this way, and we hope that the Directors of EAA will continue to make it such a perfect part of AirVenture!

John Vette III
Burleigh Blust

VOLUNTEER EFFORTS
Anyone who knows anything about the EAA knows that it thrives because of the efforts of many dedicated volunteers. The group at the seaplane base is small, but what they lack in number is more than compensated for by the level of their commitment. Perhaps their cleverest addition to the natural setting of the base is the placement of mooring buoys in rows and along the perimeter of the bay. Every year on Memorial Day weekend, volunteers gather to carefully place cement weights with stainless steel cables that secure these mooring buoys. Their task is made easier by rigging a boom on one end of a floating dock and a Mercury outboard on the other end for power. This unit, coupled with the use of a transit from shore, allows the crew to raise or lower the heavy cement weights with complete accuracy.

Other volunteers restore the docks (Bruce Buksyk above), rake and mow the grass, or remove potentially dangerous rocks from along the shoreline (Scott Statz below).

 

Among the visually rewarding improvements are the flower arrangements, as shown in the lovely example to the right. These raised beds of petunias and other annuals are strategically placed to enhance the natural beauty of the seaplane base. Many volunteers have contributed their horticultural skills over the years, including Mary Bowman, Ede Williams, Lucy Hartl, Mary Beth Jackson, Anna Swan, and Elaine G. Nanke.

But all these efforts don't just happen without direction. It is one thing to provide for over 100 seaplanes and their occupants, and quite another to accommodate up to 50,000 people who arrive by car or on the seaplane base bus each year during the week of AirVenture. Thus, while the beautiful wooded campground is reserved for seaplane pilots and their guests, the food, toilet and washing facilities must be available for the crowd of "day-trippers", who come each day to get relief from the heat at Wittman Field and sample the cool shade and relaxing atmosphere.

Fortunately for EAA, after the retirement of Bill Brennand and Al Ziebell, two young enthusiasts stepped forward to coordinate all the volunteer efforts. Mark Wrasse (Oshkosh WI) and Scott Statz (Madison WI) have been volunteers themselves at so many different jobs, they know how to supervise them all!


Mark started volunteering at the Seaplane Base at the young age of 12. Bitten by the aviation bug back then, Mark is now a Captain with American Airlines, seaplane owner and advisor to the volunteers of the AirVenture Seaplane Base.
Scott began to volunteer at the Seaplane Base soon after Mark. Now he is CEO of Piers-Lifts Inc., and is an advisor to the volunteers of the AirVenture Seaplane Base. He lives in Madison with his wife, Sue, and children, Chad and Corinne.

ACTIVITIES
Every year the EAA promotes seaplane awareness by sponsoring a "flyby" of floatplanes and amphibians past the crowds at Wittman Field. This is usually performed around noon on Saturday, when the greatest number of people at the show will have an opportunity to see a magnificent variety of "water-birds" in flight. Judging of the craftsmanship of restored or homebuilt seaplanes and amphibians is also encouraged by EAA, and this is directed by Ric Henkel. "Lindy" awards for the winners in various categories (fabric-covered or metal) are usually announced on Monday evening at the main airport.

Perhaps the best-known activity at the AirVenture Seaplane Base is the Watermelon Social on Saturday evening (5:30 PM). In the photo vast numbers of brats and wieners are being cooked on a steel grill built by Dan Vavra. In more recent years a pig is roasted all afternoon in a luau-type pit, and by the time it has been sliced and served on jumbo buns with baked beans and coleslaw, a long line has formed across the lawn in front of the big tent. Beer or soda in monogrammed glass mugs (courtesy of Wipline Floats Inc.) are provided as well, but the highlight of the meal is watching the machete skills of John Knapp as he carves up dozens of watermelons, all the while balancing a parrot on his right shoulder! This is followed by the announcement of awards and door prizes, plus acknowledgment of the many volunteer efforts each year. Sometimes there is an evening speaker as well, such as the famous Dale De Remer and Jay Frey (of Edo Floats).

Evening festivities begin a little earlier on Thursday, in time to catch the air show at Wittman Field. The Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) sponsors its annual corn roast in a nearby field with an excellent view of the aerobatic displays, and the corn is always fresh and tender. One can always meet new friends or banter with old ones at the SPA corn roast!


VINTAGE WET-FOOT VISITORS
One of the greatest aquatic thrills each year at AirVenture is to witness the arrival of unusual seaplanes. Perhaps the oldest one to arrive so far was in 1996, when Larry and Ilse Harmacinski showed up in their 1930 Waco CSO biplane. They had taken off 4 hours beforehand in South Bend, IN. Their plane was mounted on a set of 1930 Edo 2665 floats, so they had to lift off the runway from a dolly on wheels. These particular floats are thought to be the oldest ones still in operation, and their Waco biplane had not had a water- landing in 32 years!

Imagine the stir they created by landing at the AirVenture Seaplane Base right during the Saturday evening Watermelon Social! Suddenly a set of navigation lights crossed over the trees in the evening twilight, and many observers thought they saw a biplane on floats heading offshore. Awave of fast talk and finger pointing rippled through the crowd. All eyes were on the set of lights as they slowly turned back toward shore.

Before long, out of the twilight, came this beautiful old Waco on floats, taxiing into the lagoon and up to the waiting volunteers on the dock. Larry and Ilse sure made air-show history, but in a daring manner.


Another venerable seaplane came to AirVenture in 1992. This 1933 Curtiss-Wright 16E on Edo 2425 floats is owned by Willie Ropp. Hank and Alice Strauch flew it down from Drummond Island, MI. Shown left, they have just passed through the slot, and they are approaching the docks at idle power.

In 1998 Buck Hilbert brought this 1938 Fleet 10F to Oshkosh. Powered by a 145 hp Warner engine swinging a Hamilton Standard G/A metal propeller, it is mounted on Edo 1835 floats that were manufactured in 1930. This aircraft saw military service in Nicaragua from 1938 to 1955 before entering the civilian market.

Another unusual floatplane is this Piper J-2 on Edo 1070 floats. Owned by Dick and Jeannie Hill of Harvard IL, it was the first seaplane to arrive at the AirVenture Seaplane Base in 1997. With only 40 hp in its Continental engine, Dick had to use all his aviation skills to coax it into the air.


Some floatplanes owners are recognized by being presented with awards for their skills in aircraft restoration. Two examples in one of these categories, the Best Fabric Seaplane award, are shown here: (Left)First is the Piper J-3C-85 Cub owned by John Eckert (McHenry IL). Here John holds his plaque while standing on a float of his yellow beauty.

Another example is this Aeronca 7DC Champ, owned by Mark Wrasse (Oshkosh, WI). Mark's volunteering efforts at AirVenture over the years are inspiring.

But not all visitors to the AirVenture Seaplane Base are fabric-covered. Some larger amphibians often venture into the outer harbor, and their appearance is always welcome.

This winner of the Champion Seaplane Award is a Grumman G-44 Goose owned by Bill Rose. Pictured here (by Dekevin Thornton) with its Pratt & Whitney R-985 engines just ticking over and the retractable wing floats down, the Goose is ready to start its takeoff run away from the seaplane base into Lake Winnebago.

SAFETY & RESCUE
On rare occasions spectators at the seaplane base are treated to an unexpected display or daring feat. Such was the case in 1996, when Bill McCarrel was step-taxiing around the bay in his Volmer Sportsman. Suddenly, as he circled out into Lake Winnebago he almost disappeared from view, with just the engine and wings visible! DNR-staffed rescue boats left from the dock almost immediately, and those with binoculars were able to admire the speed and dexterity of the workers as they placed tire inner tubes around each wing-tip. This prevented Bill's engine from getting wet, as shown in the lower right part of the photo below.
Several minutes later I took this second photo. Fortunately, Bill was completely unhurt, and his plane was soon drying out on shore.
Every year the local sheriffs, firemen, emergency staff, Coast Guard and Civil Air Patrol have a day of practice drills before the Air Venture Convention begins. The procedure begins with an emergency call on 121.5 MHz, and after the rescue teams converge, they move the final stages of the rescue to the outer harbor so the public can observe and learn.

LOCAL INDUSTRY
Several businesses in the vicinity of Oshkosh have made a generous and significant contribution to the success of AirVenture by freely offering some of their equipment. For example, Mercury Marine donated outboard motors for use in securing aircraft to buoys, John Deere gave tractors for thousands of uses during the convention, and ICOM donated radios so crucial for effective communication.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
During the other 51 weeks of the year this 27 acres of lakeside woods and fields reverts to the total serenity that you see below.
It will always be important that this little "paradise" at AirVenture be properly maintained and improved. For example, many of the tall trees shown above are approaching their natural life span and could easily blow over during a strong wind. We must ensure that new trees are planted regularly and that the grounds are well cared for, so it will keep its natural beauty.
Another goal is to develop improved parking space on land for some of the smaller amphibians that fly in to AirVenture. This would enhance interactions among pilots of various seaplanes, and would provide a richer variety of aircraft on display.
Perhaps the most important key to ensure a good future for the AirVenture Seaplane Base is to help all visitors understand its heritage, its dependence on a motivated volunteer spirit, as well as a congenial relationship between the Vette family, the EAA and the Volunteers. Teenagers and seaplane pilot "wannabees" are encouraged to assist with the many interesting jobs to be done around the base during the Convention. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer should contact . The Co-Chairman are listed in the Seaplane Base Info link above. They are readily available during AirVenture week, should you need further information.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I thank Norman Peterson, John Vette III, Bill Brennand, Al Ziebell, Mark Wrasse and Scott Statz for their support and assistance in providing information for this web site.
 

Richard A. Steeves, born in the USA and educated in Canada, learned to fly small floatplanes in 1959. All through the '60's he looked for the ideal airplane, and finally discovered Molt Taylor's Coot. While building his own Coot, he edited Molt's construction notes in 1974 and in the following year he began a bimonthly newsletter for over 100 Coot-builders. Recently, he wrote two books about the Coot, The Coot Story and The Coot in a Nutshell.