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Two things you will find every July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin: The DC-3 Duggy and planeloads of international tourists. (Arnold Greenwell)

The United Nations of Oshkosh

Flying. The other universal language.

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Melvin Pereira, a plane spotter from Costa Rica, was on a photo platform at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, flanked by newfound friends from Australia, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Uruguay, and several other countries, when a photographer from Iowa turned to him. “Sometimes,” he said to Pereira, above the multilingual chatter in the background, “I feel like I’m not in the United States.”

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“We have invaded your country!” one on the platform shouted back.

Last year, 2,167 people from 66 foreign nations traveled to Oshkosh, an invasion that has grown in size almost every year since the EAA began registering international visitors in the 1970s. How did aviation fans from all corners of the globe learn about a mid-summer gathering in this small Wisconsin town? Many at the 2010 AirVenture can’t recall where or when they first heard about Oshkosh, but it seems as much a part of their aviation consciousness as knowing that wings produce lift.

South Korean aeronautical engineer Won Bok Lee was a senior vice president for aircraft maintenance and manufacturing with Korean Airlines from 1969 to 1980. “I have visited quite often L.A. and Chicago area for business,” he said, “and I heard about a big airshow in Oshkosh from the people I was working with.” He has been coming to the show since 1983 and is now one of the volunteer instructors at a workshop on woodworking. “This is the land of dreams,” he said. “Oshkosh is the best in the world!”

Fernando Perez-Canto, sitting next to the single-engine Maule he flew here from Venezuela for the second year in a row, termed the event “the Woodstock for our hobby,” and Sergey Ryabtsev of Russia, an aviation enthusiast who overcame an intense fear of flying to travel aboard an airliner to the event, proclaimed Oshkosh “the spirit of aviation itself.” One evening, as he prepared time-lapse photography of Elvis, the Eriksen Air-Crane heli-tanker, he said, “I’m ready to spend money, spend time, spend everything to be in Oshkosh.”

“It’s not like there’s a formal initiation process,” said Adam Smith, a transplanted Englishman and the EAA’s director of membership. “But when you get involved with aviation, people talk about this amazing event. And it becomes clear if one wants to be truly accepted as an aviator, one has to get to Oshkosh.”

As “the only international member” on the EAA’s headquarters staff, Smith recognizes the fly-in’s attraction for overseas visitors. “If I’m frank about it, America is not universally popular in other countries,” Smith allowed. “In my homeland, people’s opinions of America are generally cynical. And Oshkosh could be unique in my experience as being something about America that nobody is cynical about.”

Most foreign visitors have attended airshows in their own or other countries, but the events are typically small and usually maintain a frustrating distance between the fans and what they go to see. “They don’t let people get so near the airplanes,” explained Portugal’s Ivo Fernandez, while three friends did a giddy dance as the massive wing of a U.S. Air Force C-5A Galaxy being towed to its display spot passed over their heads.

Though visitors had all heard about the gathering before arriving, the reality—the size, number, and variety of events and activities, and seemingly endless rows of airplanes with owners happy to stop and chat (or use hand signals)—always trumps their imaginations. “It’s mind-blowing,” said Rodney Tink, a building contractor from Zimbabwe, on his third visit in as many years. “I knew it was going to be a big airshow. But I never, ever fathomed the magnitude of what it was.”

The size can be intimidating to newcomers, especially to those who can’t stop and ask just anybody for directions. To help foreign visitors find their way around, the EAA created in 1974 the International Visitors Tent, a hospitality center that is the first stop for many from beyond the borders. Some 30 volunteers speaking about as many languages greet and register visitors at the tent, and provide all the help a bewildered non-English-speaking first-timer could need.

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