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Aviation heavyweights flock to U.S. grassroots air jamboree to fill pilot shortage

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By Tracy Rucinski

OSHKOSH, Wis. Aug 1 (Reuters) - The wings of a Boeing 737 MAX airliner swept over green fields populated by colorful small planes, lending a rare corporate touch to the world's largest grassroots air show this past week.

EAA AirVenture brought together more than half a million aviation enthusiasts and thousands of vintage or homebuilt aircraft and aerobatic showstoppers to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a celebration dubbed the Woodstock of aviation.

For one week, the annual summer event becomes the world's busiest airspace with well over 100 takeoffs or landings every hour.

With marquee events like the Paris Airshow cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Oshkosh provided a tempting showcase this year for corporate industry leaders like Boeing and United Airlines - a reminder of what's at stake for an industry still overcoming its worst crisis.

A year ago U.S. airlines were grappling with a pilot surplus. Now as travel demand snaps back more quickly than expected, they are rushing to fill hiring pipelines and woo youth to the industry, a change from the slow pace of recovery from previous crises.

"If you had told me last year that I'd be in this event, that I'd have an avenue to get to United Airlines, I would have told you, you were crazy," said John Pama, a 21-year old graduate of Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University.

Pama was among 30 prospective young pilots United flew into Oshkosh on a brand-new 737 MAX brandishing the "Aviate" logo for its pilot recruitment program.

The airline plans to hire 350 pilots this year, 1,500 by 2022 and 3,000 by 2023.

The Boeing 737, dwarfed by its larger 777 cousin at airports like United's Chicago O'Hare, stood out against the sea of small planes dotted about the Wisconsin countryside, many with pitched tents under their wings where spectators stay for the week-long event.

Elsewhere at the show, Boeing joined forces with rival Airbus for a presentation on efforts to prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19 during flight.

Yet unlike the prominence given to corporate messaging at the more widely noticed air shows in Paris and Farnborough, England, only a handful of people attended.

By contrast, packed forums nearby featured experts discussing topics for small planes such as "How healthy is your engine," all while war birds and stunt planes zipped above.

The jamboree, which was itself canceled last year because of the pandemic, wraps up Sunday after what organizers expect will be record attendance, despite a sharp decline in international visitors due to continued COVID-19 travel restrictions.

"The crowd this year is an overwhelmingly U.S. domestic audience," said Dick Knapinski, spokesman of the show's organizers the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). (Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; editing by Tim Hepher and Diane Craft)