The World’s Largest Airshow As Seen From Space

There is nothing like AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and the massive aviation gathering looks remarkable when viewed from orbit.

byTyler Rogoway|
Oshkosh Airventure satellite image 2023


A great migration happens every Summer in July. Thousands of birds make their way across the U.S., and some from much farther away, to the Cheese State. They descend in ordered chaos to a single plot of land that sits beside Lake Winnebago — Wittman Regional Airport.

This is the site Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture. An absolutely massive gathering for all things aviation. Nowhere on this blue marble do more aircraft of all types — including many of the rarest flying machines in existence — congregate in one place. While it's a bewildering event and heaven for any aviator or aviation aficionado alike, as viewed from space, the sheer concentration of aircraft is truly stunning to behold.

We tasked one of Planet Labs' satellites to capture a high-resolution view of AirVenture 2023, and the resulting imagery is fascinating.

Before we get into those images, let's just underscore just how big EAA's yearly bash really is. According to them, for the 2019 show, the data looked like this:

Attendance: 642,000

Total aircraft: More than 10,000 aircraft arrived at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh and other airports in east-central Wisconsin. At Wittman alone, there were 16,807 aircraft operations in the 11-day period from July 19-29,which is an average of approximately 127 takeoffs/landings per hour.

Total showplanes: 2,758 including 1,057 homebuilt aircraft (including a record 592 homebuilt aircraft campsites), 939 vintage airplanes, 400 warbirds (6 percent increase), 188 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 105 seaplanes (40 percent increase), 62 aerobatic aircraft, and 7 in other categories.

Camping: More than 12,300 sites in aircraft and drive-in camping accounted for an estimated 40,000 visitors.

Volunteers: More than 5,500 contributing in excess of 250,000 hours.

Commercial exhibitors: 863

Partially obscured image taken on July 25th, 2023. This is maximum density as the show is busiest with aircraft during the week. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)
An unobscured image taken on July 27th. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)

One of the tricks to safely bringing in so many planes in such a short period time — arguably the most challenging air traffic control scenario anywhere — can be seen in the imagery. See the large colored circles painted on the runways? Those are used to land multiple light aircraft on a runway simultaneously. The controllers assign those circles to different arriving light aircraft. Meanwhile, much larger and faster aircraft need to be brought in in-between recovering the light aircraft swarm. It's an incredible ballet and a bucket list item for many pilots.

Two of three of Wittman's runways adorned with colored dots. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)

The Royal Aeronautical Society gives a little more color on how it all works:

"The normally quiet Wittman Regional Airport (KOSH) is a hub of activity during the week, in fact 27% of its annual operations take place in the ten days that the AirVenture NOTAM is in effect. Even more impressive is that KOSH becomes the busiest airport in the world during the seven days of the event.

These mass arrivals are accommodated in a very simple manner, with pilots told to land on colored dots on the runways. Each measuring 50ft in diameter, the white, green and orange dots are on Runway 9/27 and blue, pink, yellow and purple dots can be found on Runway 18/36. The latter runway is also a dual strip, separated as 36L and 36R.

Rather than waiting for each incoming aircraft to land and exit the runway one at a time, the dots allow AirVenture controllers to land multiple aircraft at once. Normal FAA rules call for 3,000ft separation between landing single-engined aircraft but an exemption is granted to allow 1,500ft distancing at the event and it is common to see dozens of aircraft streaming in on long final to land on the dots.

They serve as both easy-to-spot reference points for pilots and the perfect way for controllers to gage separation. So, from arriving at Fisk, a typical AirVenture approach ‘conversation’ might sound something like:

ATC: “Red and yellow high winger, rock your wings.”
ATC: “Red and yellow high winger, cleared to land runway three six left, yellow dot”
Pilot: “Red and yellow high winger, three six left, yellow dot”

No further radio transmissions are required or expected but pilots are invariably greeted with a friendly “Welcome to Oshkosh” upon touchdown and you will occasionally hear a “great landing” or “nice airplane” acknowledgement from an enthusiastic controller.

Landing on the dots at Oshkosh is a rite of passage for many pilots, and something I have been lucky enough to on three occasions. It certainly makes for a treasured logbook entry."

Video thumbnail
Video thumbnail
Video thumbnail

Sadly, this year did see two deadly crashes. One was a midair collision between a helicopter and a gyrocopter and the other involved a T-6 crashing into the lake. You can read about these here.

The incredible mix of aircraft at AirVenture is like nothing else. This includes one-of-their-kind planes and many military aircraft — warbirds and active types alike. You can see how some of those active military jets share the central static display area with some heavy airliners below.

C-17, KC-135, MV-22, F-15E, F-15C, T-1, A-10, T-38s and more share the central 'plaza' static ramp with a 747 LCA, A350, and NASA's Super Guppy. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)

The long stretch of aircraft, vendors, and people along Wittman's Runway 36L/18R. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)

Then there are all the other military aircraft, both active and warbirds, that fly throughout the week. They are parked on the small central cross runways that are inactive and used as a hot pit area during the week.

One end of the small cross runways turned into a hot pit area for tactical jets that would fly during the week. The F-22 demo team can be seen parked across the runway on another apron. Many of the jet warbirds are parked on the top left runway area. (PHOTO © 2023 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION)

Then there is just the incredible sea of aircraft parked all over for the festivities:


Beyond all the action on the ground, including just being amongst so many other people who share the same passion, the performances in the air are huge in variety. This year a MiG-23 graced the skies, as well as Jared Isaacman flying formation in his MiG-29 with a MiG-17. So many other highlights as well that our friends at the always fantastic captured beautifully on their cameras, check them out below.

Video thumbnail
Video thumbnail
Video thumbnail

Contact the author: