When a Pilot Turns Salesman

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Mid-to-late-winter are the penitentiary days of an air show pilot’s calling.  

For at this time, he is unable to fly – perhaps because of weather, but just as likely because the entrails of his aircraft are strewn about a hangar in the midst of winter overhaul. And, in any event, he has nothing to fly at, the absence of air shows or other outdoor events in winter creating a most lamentable dearth of customers. 

He may, if his machinery is something modern which does not require too much strewing, resolve to stay in current practice over the winter, devoting perhaps a day a week to ensuring his skills do not rust over. Sadly, this simply does not work. You get weathered-off so many times that you get rusty anyway, so you learn to accept that, come March, you’re going to go through the usual nausea of getting back up to speed.  

And anyway, winter is your penitentiary time. For in winter, the air show pilot must become a salesman. 

A few pilots, who probably missed their real vocation as snake-oil purveyors, seem to be good at this; but the rest — myself very much included — are mentally unsuited to the sales process and are apt to become snarly…secretly so, because Rule One in business is Do Not Snarl At Your Customers, however asinine. 

There are, of course, many excellent organizers out there who are very far from asinine. But there are others who test you to the point of wishing to dance a particularly vigorous polka on their thick heads. 

Viz: a conversation I once had with the chief executive of a major agricultural show; a man I had spoken to every winter for a decade in a long-running effort to get him to book our act. 

This time, he said, “Nay, lad, we’re not doin’ aerobatics oop here again. We tried it last year, an’ it were crap. He were bloody miles away.” 

Through clenched teeth, I said: “Whatdya mean you tried it last year? I’ve been calling you for ten years. We’ve flown at The Royal Show. We’ve flown at Farnborough; why didn’t you book us?” 

“Nay, lad. This bloke were a third of your price, so we booked him. But it were crap, so we’ll not be booking aerobatics again.” 

I replaced the receiver gently – which sadly seemed to inflict structural damage on it – stalked out of the office, and seethed at the winter sky. 

I knew perfectly well who that pilot was. My only surprise was that he’d found the bloody show at all. Yet he had undercut us and screwed us for that show for evermore, or at least until that particular CEO suffered a brainstorm…an unlikely event since “brainstorm” suggests there is a brain present to actually storm. 

How could this man – this chief executive, fer Chrissake – not know that you get what you pay for in this life? Would he buy a Rolex Oyster on a grubby street corner and expect it to be the genuine article?  

An open letter, then, to air show organizers, county show organizers, pop concert organizers, regatta organizers, motor race organizers – any organizers who might require an aerobatic act. These here are the truths, because I don’t have to be polite no more. So, organizers: 

DON’T jump at the cheapest option. Don’t buy a Rolex from a man in a mac on a street corner. A solo piston aerobatic act at £1,500 or a duo at £3,000 might seem expensive for eight minutes, but behind that price lie the vastly inflated costs of all things with wings. God knows how God can afford to operate angels. 

If one person’s price undercuts everyone else’s by a huge margin, then he is either a wannabe who will fly a crap performance, or – more rarely – a new talent who feels he has to undercut to get established. But which? 

Well, this is the era of information technology. Check the Internet. Speak to a couple of the big air show organizers. Find out. 

DON’T fall into the trap of thinking: “Any aerobatic act will do because the crowd don’t know the difference anyway.”  

I must have heard this a thousand times, even from other air show pilots. “Why did you do an outside loop there when you could’ve done an ordinary loop? The crowd won’t know the difference…”  

I beg to profoundly and fundamentally differ. Further, I beg to suggest that if you, a pilot, or you, an event organizer, hold your crowd in such low esteem, then you must not be surprised if said crowd diminishes year by year by dint of a boredom which they themselves might not be able to define.  

Sure, the crowd will not appreciate all the nuances of any one air show act. But it is an article of faith to me that they will recognize the difference between the average and the good. The good will perform in the right place with an accuracy and rhythm which leaves the crowd with their mouths open. That crowd comes back next year… 

Never underestimate the crowd. The crowd is more intelligent than you think.  

And this does not just apply to aerobatics. Warbirds, fast jets, helicopters: it always applies. I have seen outstanding displays from Spitfires, Sukhoi Flankers, even – unlikely as it may seem, and all the more enthralling for that – Chinooks.  

Whatever the current financial hand-wringing, the fundamental economics of showbiz do not change. If your audience shrinks by 5 percent a year, you are doomed. If it grows by 5 percent a year, you are not doomed. Period. 

DO book your display slots early. The military take their own sweet time in allocating their nowadays ever-decreasing bank account of display flying hours, and a regrettable number of organizers refuse to book anything civilian until they find out what the military might be deigning to give them this year.  

This is deeply infuriating to the pilot-turned-salesman. He has just been offered a contract for two days at a big county show near Manchester for a weekend in July. Normally, he would accept this, base in Manchester for that weekend, and find one or two more shows within shouting distance to fill up his programme. Thus he will fly two, perhaps three acts each day. 

But… 

Two hundred miles away, a major two-day air show is taking place on the same weekend. The pilot expects to be booked for that, but he can’t be sure of it, because that show don’t book nuthin’ until their military participation is confirmed. So, the pilot says F*** it and accepts the county show. And, when the major air show finally rings up in April, takes a certain exquisite pleasure in saying sweetly: “Sorry old chap, can’t seem to fit you in. Now, if you’d confirmed in January…” 

In fairness, the best shows have hoisted this on board and do book early. Others presumably live in a hazy dream that one year the military might supply all their wants. The fact that the military do not actually possess Pitts’es and Extras and Mustangs and other machinery required for a rounded show perennially escapes their attention. 

DON’T blackmail your performers …or if you do, at least be a bit f***ing subtle. Merely bludgeoning down the price will certainly slide your show to the bottom of a pilot’s priority list should bad weather demand sacrifices on the day. Saying, “Look, if I pay full price, will you come up the day before and throw in a few press rides for free?” is actually much more effective…and you, the organizer, gain much more than the few measly quid you might have hacked off the cost. 

But blackmail is about more than just haggling. The oldest trick in the book is to engage a performer for just one day of a two-day show, carefully fail to point this out in your pre-show publicity, and then have your commentator tell the public: “Well, I don’t know why they’re not here today…” 

This happened to me twice in one year. We never again accepted a one-day booking at a two-day event. 

The worst breed of blackmail is however much more malevolent. This is the organizer who makes practically no advance bookings at all, then rings round all the performers in the country two or three weeks before the show, his reasoning being that those who aren’t already tied up will come cheap rather than do nothing.  

This is not a safe thing to do. 

It didn’t matter to us much – a full-time aerobatic team being a self-contained unit flying the same routine every time – but it certainly matters to people like the warbird fraternity, who at short notice can find themselves committed to sharing the sky with pilots they have never even met, let alone practiced with.  

A TRIBUTE to those display organizers whom it has been a pleasure to work with. It is invidious to name names out of a very long list, but for me the top three organizers are Biggin Hill, Ray Thilthorpe (he of Southend, Southport, and many other shows), and a tie for third between the Sanicole Air Show in Belgium, and – odd as it may seem – the Chatsworth Country Show. 

The worst? Sadly, no contest. The Berlin Air Show.

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