Experimental results on flow-field statistics are presented for turbulent oscillatory flow in a circular pipe for the range of Reynolds numbers Reδ = U0δ/ν (U0 = amplitude of cross-sectional mean velocity, δ = (2ν/ω)½) = Stokes layer thickness) from 550 to 2000 and Stokes parameters Λ = R/δ (R = radius of the pipe) from 5 to 10. Axial and radial velocity components were measured simultaneously using a two-colour laser-Doppler anemometer, providing information on ensemble-averaged velocity profiles as well as various turbulence statistics for different phases during the cycle. In all flows studied, turbulence appeared explosively towards the end of the acceleration phase of the cycle and was sustained throughout the deceleration phase. During the turbulent portion of the cycle, production of turbulence was restricted to the wall region of the pipe and was the result of turbulent bursts. The statistics of the resulting turbulent flow showed a great deal of similarity to results for steady turbulent pipe flows; in particular the three-layer description of the flow consisting of a viscous sublayer, a logarithmic layer (with von Kármán constant = 0.4) and an outer wake could be identified at each phase if the corresponding ensemble-averaged wall-friction velocities were used for normalization. Consideration of similarity laws for these flows reveals that the existence of a logarithmic layer is a dimensional necessity whenever at least two of the scales R, u*/ω and ν/u* are widely separated; with the exact structure of the flow being dependent upon the parameters u*/Rω and u2*/ων. During the initial part of the acceleration phase, production of turbulence as well as turbulent Reynolds stresses were reduced to very low levels and the velocity profiles were in agreement with laminar theory. Nevertheless, the fluctuations retained a small but finite energy. In Part 2 of this paper, the major features observed in these experiments are used as a guideline, in conjunction with direct numerical simulations of the ‘perturbed’ Navier–Stokes equations for oscillatory flow in a channel, to identify the nature of the instability that is most likely to be responsible for transition in this class of flows.