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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“They were looking for people who could speak foreign languages, or anybody who had ever lived in an English-speaking country like Australia or South Africa,” recalled Nancy Martini, who had lived Down Under and—following her interview with the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce—became the IVT’s first chair.

The Aussies must have enjoyed the welcome. In 1981, they filled a Qantas 747 for the first of their periodic “Oshkosh Express” charter flights and landed at the town’s Wittman Regional Airport with more than a dozen experimental aircraft in the cargo hold to display.

If the Australians represent the largest overseas contingent, the South Africans have a reputation for being the most boisterous. Their prime spot at Camp Scholler—a tent city of 40,000 that springs up during AirVenture—is the scene of nightly revelry, complete with a stage show and live music. South Africans first started traveling to Oshkosh in the early 1980s.

“We thought maybe we could get a free ticket to Oshkosh if we got enough people,” said Neil Bowden one evening, explaining how the annual pilgrimage began.

Signifying their special status, the South Africans have the only permanent structure at Camp Scholler—a garden-shed-size hut to store their tents and camping gear. During the gathering, the hut becomes the temporary office for South African Pilot, a handsome glossy magazine. “The magazine was started right here,” said publisher Athol Franz, hunched over a laptop computer inside the hut.

Of course many overseas visitors find their own way to Oshkosh. South Africans Mike Blyth and James Pitman flew here in a Sling, a light-sport aircraft they designed. The journey from Johannesburg took them 11 days.

For do-it-yourselfers, the last few miles can be the most difficult. International airline flights leave many in Chicago or Minneapolis, both more than 150 miles away. Oshkosh has no commercial air service, and commuter flights into Appleton, Madison, and Green Bay are limited and sometimes delayed or cancelled due to summer storms. Unfamiliarity with the area and the language has resulted in several hours on the road instead of at the show. The friends from Portugal, for example, booked rooms in Milwaukee, and each day were commuting three hours round-trip. “We didn’t know this part of the United States,” said one. “By seeing maps, we thought Milwaukee was close to Oshkosh, because in Europe, everything seems closer.”

Almost all Brazilians travel to Oshkosh in a group, joined by South Americans from neighboring countries. The year after his first visit in 1982, lawyer Claudio Candiota began arranging Oshkosh travel packages. The Brazilians’ bivouac at the University of Wisconsin dormitories—open for AirVenture participants when the facilities would otherwise be empty—is the scene of lively nightly “meetings,” as Candiota calls them.

“The dorms don’t have TVs, no telephones, so people get together and become friends,” he said. “We talk about what we saw that day at the show while having a few beers—a typical pilot’s daily chat.”

Such has been Candiota’s contribution to the number of visitors to Oshkosh that during AirVenture 2010, Oshkosh Mayor Paul Esslinger proclaimed a “Claudio Candiota Day.” The official recognition hints at another important impact foreign visitors have at Oshkosh: an economic one. Many arrive with a shopping list and most leave with more than just memories. Though there are no statistics available on the economic boost generated by international visitors alone, they were part of a survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh in 2008. The survey estimated that the event brought $110 million to the area that year. Event vendors also benefit.

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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