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South Africans Set AirVenture Attendance Record

By James Wynbrandt

July 21, 2018 - With their vibrant encampment at Camp Scholler, South Africans have long been among the most visible international visitors at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, and this year the contingent is almost impossible to miss: They’ve arrived with their largest group ever.

“Last year we set a record: 163 [people],” said Neil Bowden, who’s organized the annual AirVenture travel packages from South Africa since the first in 1997. “This year we have 237.”

Beyond South Africans’ longstanding love of aviation, Neil points to the country’s GA-friendly policies to explain the popularity of the annual migration. “There aren’t a load of restrictions [on flying], and our homebuilding rules fall under air club control,” said Neil, who is also a member of EAA Chapter 322 in Johannesburg. For those building aircraft, AirVenture represents a major opportunity to compare and select avionics, engines, and other gear for their projects.

A lucky few in the group make the final leg of their journey aboard a DC-3 from Kenosha and, “fly into Oshkosh and get here the proper way,” according to Neil. Two such flights of 16 passengers each were arranged for AirVenture 2018.

The South Africans established their permanent Camp Scholler location (at Lindbergh and 40th) in 2003, becoming the first group with a permanent structure on their site: a small shed for camping equipment and other essentials.

“It’s difficult for guys coming from South Africa,” Neil said. “You can’t bring an RV [recreational vehicle — not the aircraft], so if we’ve got the equipment stored; it’s a whole lot more comfortable for a week’s stay.”

The South Africans’ camp is also known as a convivial — if not boisterous — gathering spot, but Neil said that’s something of a misperception. “For a while we brought an entertainer to the airfield and we had quite noisy parties in the campsite,” he said. “[But] it was mainly local people.” Neil added that the South Africans were too jet lagged and exhausted from roaming the grounds to party and “were getting the blame and it wasn’t really us.”

The parties with live entertainment stopped about three years ago, and now you’ll find more socializing — along with their customary warm welcome — than revelry after hours.

This year the South Africans are looking forward especially to activities honoring the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, and seeing on static display a Sling 4, designed by hometown hero Mike Blyth and manufactured by South Africa’s Airplane Factory. Neil said he’ll be off exploring new territory at AirVenture. “I’ve been coming here 22 years, and there are still places I haven’t gotten to on the airfield,” he said.

If you’re planning to camp at AirVenture, Neil offers two pieces of advice: Get a good, stormproof tent (“dome tents are the best”), and get here early (“otherwise you’re going to be a long way form the entrance gate”). And whether you’re camping or not, if you want to know anything about aviation in South Africa, Neil said, “Come and talk to the guys,” at their home away from home right here at the fly-in.

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