|Wanda Adelman has been the tower chief for AirVenture Oshkosh since 2003. She retires from wearing the pink shirt, and from her 32-year career with the FAA, later this year. (photo by Phil Weston)
By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
July 31, 2013 - After 10 years serving as the Oshkosh tower chief during AirVenture, this is Wanda Adelman's last show. The 32-year FAA veteran is retiring later this year, after an agency career born in the aftermath of the 1981 PATCO strike, in which more than 11,000 controllers were fired.
A certificated pilot, Adelman primarily has worked at control tower facilities throughout the FAA's Great Lakes Region - many attendees probably have talked with her on the frequency without knowing her role in helping make AirVenture happen. When not herding the pink-shirted controllers - there are 87 of them this year, total - she serves as air traffic manager at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.
AirVenture Today caught up with her during a quick break this week to chat about her career, what it's like to run the World's Busiest Control Tower, and her plans for the future.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was originally in pre-vet school - I wanted to be a veterinarian. The science classes just did me in.
My dad was a contractor and had a Skyhawk, and he let all seven of us kids learn to fly. Only three of us got our licenses, but I'd been flying and heard about air traffic control. I thought if I can't be a vet, maybe I can be an air traffic controller.
I graduated from the University of North Dakota, one of our top aviation schools in the nation, and then got hired by the FAA. I went from a controller to a staff specialist to a supervisor to a manager and then to a hub manager.
When did you join the FAA?
I got hired as a controller in August 1981, when 11,000 controllers got fired. I was one of the replacement controllers. I was flight instructing right up to that point, and then when the agency started hiring, I got hired right away, in August of 1981.
I started out in Bismarck, North Dakota, then I went to Aurora, Illinois. Then I went to the regional office in Chicago, then down to Springfield, Illinois, out to Toledo, Ohio, then up to Milwaukee.
What was it like at regional?
At regional headquarters, I was a 540 specialist, so I was involved in a lot of staffing and labor relations stuff in the region.
I was there for a year and a half. I learned a lot, and had a lot of fun, but I wanted back out in the field. I loved it - every minute that I was there - but I got all the experience I felt like I needed for a while. Then I got back out in the field where the airplanes were.
This is your 11th year at AirVenture and your 10th as the person in charge. What are some of your fondest memories?
I just love everything about AirVenture - it's so much fun. I tell all my friends this should be on every single person's bucket list. It's like Disneyland with airplanes.
You can see more different type aircraft here than any other place in the world, just looking at all the warbirds, the homebuilts, the antique classics - just the whole gamut of aviation. There's such a variety, and getting to see all of them in one place and getting to be a part of making sure that it's all safe.
I do have a responsibility, but everybody has a part - I'm just one little part of this great big machine that works. It's not just me in the tower - everyone works hard: the controllers and the supervisors and the operations managers.
We're all one big team. I'm just here to support them so they can do what they need to do.
What about the low points?
There always are. If we get really bad weather, or if we have an accident. The year we had all the rain and had no place to park airplanes, or the years when we have really hot weather and the controllers are out there for eight hours at a time are probably the worst.
What are your plans for retirement?
There are a few things I want to do as far as volunteering: I like Habitat for Humanity. I like building things; my father was a contractor.
I also want to raise service dogs; I've got a really nice German shepherd. He's just a doll, and so calm. So bright. So, I'd like to raise service dogs with my sister, who just got a new shepherd.
I also want to work with an outfit in Milwaukee that takes disabled children on horseback rides. I might not be really good with the children, but I love horses and I love seeing how horses react with people; it's just amazing, and it can bring out the best in people, so I'd like to volunteer to do that.
Will you come back to AirVenture?
Absolutely. I'll come back and volunteer, maybe in vintage or flight line ops. There have been several people who have asked me to volunteer with them. So, I'll be back, and I'll be back as a volunteer.
I don't think so. There probably are times when I could have said something nicer or been a bit more proactive or could have remembered something I forgot. But I just feel really privileged.
On behalf of EAA, its members, and attendees, thanks, Wanda, for your service to AirVenture and to aviation!