The United Nations of Oshkosh

Flying. The other universal language.

Two things you will find every July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin: The DC-3 Duggy and planeloads of international tourists. (Arnold Greenwell)
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“When I first started, people would just show up,” said IVT chairman Michel Bryson, who volunteered 10 years ago to assist French speakers. “They wouldn’t have arranged a place to stay, and of course every hotel room within 30 miles was booked. We’d put people in whatever spare bedroom or on whatever couch we could find.”

Every year Bryson paints her fingernails with the flags of the 10 countries represented by the most registrants at the previous fly-in, so her fingertips reveal major migratory patterns: More than 100 citizens of France and of Germany always attend. South Africans number 200 or more, and some 250 Brazilians travel here each year. Predictably, Canadians form the largest contingent, with more than 500 registrants. But the second spot always goes to the group from farthest away: the Australians, who field 350 or more attendees, and were the first in appreciable numbers to make Oshkosh international.

“They find a way to get past any language barriers, anything religious or political,” said Bryson, of the global villagers inside the cavernous tent. “Any issues that are major problems off the grounds don’t even exist at AirVenture.”

With so many foreign visitors returning every year, the activity in the international tent sometimes feels like a family reunion. One afternoon, Nuri Balsari, a private pilot from Turkey, rushed into the tent and made a beeline for volunteer Sylvia Fisher, seated under a sign listing the more than half a dozen languages she speaks, including Arabic, Greek, and Turkish. “I had to see her,” Balsari said, relinquishing the 90-year-old translator from his embrace. “Now I am happy.”

Fisher moved to Milwaukee from Cairo 60 years ago. Her brother, a pilot who remained in Egypt, visited her every summer, and one year, he asked to go to the big airshow he’d heard about. Fisher has returned every year since. “I’m looking forward to going again this year,” she said. “It will be my 41st.”

Some of the rarer languages can be handled by people living nearby, like Fisher (who long ago moved from Milwaukee to a town about 30 minutes south of Oshkosh), but now and then a visitor will require a language that stumps the cadre of volunteers. To find an interpreter, Bryson starts by calling local universities and translation services. She has also gotten help by contacting the local court system, which has a roster of volunteer interpreters to help at hospitals and police stations.

Not every international traveler has the means to make the trip to Oshkosh each year. Some, said Bryson, “have to save for an entire lifetime to make that one trip.” She met such a visitor recently. He had been in the French air force and had served in the French Indochina war, the conflict that ended in 1954 and divided Vietnam in two. At Oshkosh, he ran into a fellow veteran. “They hadn’t seen each other in 20 to 30 years,” she said. “That one made the local news.”

What is today the world’s largest airshow began as a gathering of “experimental,” or homebuilt, aircraft enthusiasts in Milwaukee in the early 1950s, led by EAA founder Paul Poberezny. By the early 1970s, enthusiasts in other countries were also forming associations for homebuilding and sport aviation. Australia had a community of enthusiasts, but its Civil Aviation Safety Authority wasn’t as accepting of homebuilt aircraft as was its U.S. regulatory counterpart, the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It wasn’t legal [for an individual] to build an airplane in their country, so I was asked to help with explaining it to their government,” Poberezny said. He made several trips to Australia to help win CASA approval of homebuilts, “and when the sport aviation group learned more about our organization, they wanted to come to our national fly-in convention.” That’s how the International Visitors Tent began.

In 1974, the fly-in, by then relocated to Oshkosh, prepared an official welcome for a delegation from the Sport Aircraft Association of Australia, as well as guests from other nations. Eager to make them feel at home, the EAA advertised for volunteer hosts in the Northwestern, the local newspaper.

About James Wynbrandt

A longtime contributor to a number of aviation publications, James Wynbrandt has flown his Mooney M20K 252 on assignments throughout North and Central America.

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