OSHKOSH, Wisconsin_Michael Sparks, thinking he had seen it all, planned for this year to be his last as an air traffic controller.
Then the 26-year veteran came to "AirVenture," the nickname for the U.S. Experimental Aircraft Association's annual Fly-In Convention.
Handling incoming and outgoing planes at the event is unusually challenging.
For one week a year, typically the last in July, tiny Wittman Regional Airport becomes one of the world's busiest airports. With thousands of planes taking off and landing each day - and nearly 3,000 on the festival's last day, Sunday - Wittman rivals Chicago's O'Hare and Atlanta's Hartsfield.
"I've worked in busy facilities, but there's nothing like this," said Sparks, 47, one of 64 controllers selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to help planes take off and land at the world's largest recreational aviation festival.
Thousands of planes fly in and out of the airport - 18,000 times last year. The job is especially difficult because radar and radio are used less due to the volume of planes. Air traffic controllers have to identify planes with binoculars. And pilots must affirm commands not by saying "Roger," but by wiggling their wings.
Sparks, who is based in Little Rock, Arkansas, says he is thinking of delaying his retirement: He wants to come back to the air show next year.
At the convention, the FAA has to grant special waivers so landing space is shortened from 3,000 feet (914 meters) to 1,500 (457), just to keep the flow of planes moving. As many as three planes land at one time.
Some 600,000 people are expected at this year's AirVenture, which started Monday in Oshkosh. While the aviation enthusiasts view the 10,000 planes on display from the ground, air traffic controllers such as Sparks are at work.
They are in towers, on the ground and on hills miles (kilometers) away to make sure landings and takeoffs are seamless. They wear bright pink shirts so they are visible from the air, and the shirts have become badges of honor.
"It's the most fun, hard work I've had all year long," said Wanda Adelman, air traffic manager at the fly-in and at Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport.
AirVenture dates back to 1953. This year, 145 people applied to work at the event. Sixty-four were accepted as air traffic controllers and 13 as supervisors, according to the FAA. When controllers are selected, many return for years.
About half of the controllers have at least three years of experience, one-fourth are first-timers, and the other fourth have a year or two. They are placed into groups of four, so experience levels are distributed evenly.
Controllers liken their regular work to putting together a puzzle or a game of chess, because they have to anticipate movements and outcomes. But in AirVenture, the puzzle is more difficult.
Controllers are working with types of planes they have never seen before, such as military planes from World War II, ultralights hand-built by owners, and all sorts of propeller planes that look like something out of a history book.
Standing inside Wittman's air traffic control tower, you can hear the quiet hum of a dozen controllers pointing at planes and talking to each other and to pilots:
"Green Black Mustang, are you up?" one asks.
"I think that's a flying monkey," another says, using code for an ultralight plane.
"Rock your wings," says another.
During their week in Oshkosh, air traffic controllers continue to be paid by the FAA. They are given food and lodging at area hotels and time to tour the grounds after they have worked their eight-hour shifts.
NOTAM outlines procedures for aircraft that fly to Oshkosh for the event, as well as aircraft that land at nearby airports.
Planned items include "Year of the Antique Ultralight" recognition and an ultralight parts consignment area.
The NOTAM, which is in effect July 25-August 3, outlines procedures for the many types of aircraft that fly to Oshkosh for the event, as well as aircraft that land at nearby airports.
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