Where Will Tomorrow’s Air Show Pilots Come From?

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As the saying goes, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.  That’s as true in the air show industry as the rest of aviation.  Unfortunately, there aren’t as many young pilots getting into this industry as there used to be either, which is raising some concerns.   

The ICAS membership rolls show 407 members who list themselves as performers, with approximate 330 who fly in some capacity.  On any given weekend, there are between five and eight air shows across the country and, with most shows hiring only 3-5 civilian performers, air shows have no trouble booking enough talent to fill their cards.   But given the current trend, this may not always be the case.  

“There are a lot of top dogs in this business that will be retiring in the next five to ten years and our industry is going to change,” says performer Greg Poe.  And the biggest driver for this change is cost. 

“I meet people at air shows who are excited about what we do and want to be a part of it, but the gap between their resources and what it takes to get into this business today is wider than ever and many just can’t afford it,” Poe said.  And Poe doesn’t see the problem easing any time soon.  “I know there is real talent out there who can’t afford to find out how good they really are and that’s a shame,” he said.   

Like a lot of air show pilots his age, Poe started flying on a budget when planes were more affordable, and fuel was cheaper.  He started flying competition with a Citabria, graduated to a Pitts, then landed a sponsorship which allowed him to move up to an Edge.  He now flies an MX2.  But for much of his early career, Greg was a wage earner who financed his passion for flight out of his disposable income.   

While a serviceable Pitts can be purchased for around $35,000 and is good enough to get a new pilot started, there is a long way to go from learning aerobatics to owning a $300,000 Edge or Extra and becoming an air show performer in today’s world of high energy, gyroscopic aerobatics.  

“It’s almost prohibitively expensive to learn this art form,” said performer Sean Tucker, who echoed Poe’s concerns.  “When I started, you could buy a good used airplane for $23,000 and gas was cheap. Those days are over and it could create a big void in our business,” Tucker said.  “And once our generation retires, there is going to be a gap. The void will eventually be filled, but I’m not sure there will be enough pilots to go around when that happens,” he said.  That’s a bad thing if you’re an air show looking to book good talent.  It’s a good thing if you’re a performer who thinks there are too many performers out there already. 

Both Tucker and Poe are among the few with lucrative sponsorships that help finance their aircraft, their staffs, their training, insurance bills, fuel, and all the rest that goes into sustaining themselves as first rate air show performers. But not everyone is so fortunate. Rising costs and lack of sponsorships mean a lot of performers are lucky just to break even at the end of a season, relying on their passion for the industry as their only incentive to keep going. 

Tucker thinks a mentorship program would be good for the industry because it would foster new talent and help pilots become top performers.  But no matter how good the idea is, the economy gets in the way.  “Realistically, how much time can a performer spend helping new talent?  Being a mentor is a long-term commitment and there isn’t much up-side for a mentor other than paying forward to the industry,” Tucker said. 

Most of those who are breaking into the business today are usually middle-age or older, and often have a successful business behind them that can sustain their air show pursuits.  Such was the case when Wayne Handley made the leap from owning a successful aerial applicator business to competition flying, then went on to become one of the industry’s most sought-after performers.   

For Wayne, aerobatics started as a hobby, then led him into competition, then slowly began mixing air show performances into his schedule. “I had a good business, so I wasn’t dependent on air shows to make money. I had my own airport, my own fuel, my own maintenance staff, and my own hangar. I had all the supporting infrastructure I needed.  It was ideal,” he said.  But few are so fortunate.   

Handley is optimistic about the future of the industry and, while the age of those getting into the business may be moving up the scale, he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.  “I see everything from those who want to fly a couple of shows a year to those who want to be the next Sean Tucker. I tell them to fly aerobatics first as a hobby, join the International Aerobatic Club and learn to do it safely, and work hard on proficiency. Then make the leap to air shows. It will work out a lot better that way,” he said. 

Long-time performer Bill Stein has his own concerns. He does a lot of aerobatic instruction and coaches aerobatic competition pilots, but finds few students interested in becoming air show performers. “I do ACE evaluations for pilots who would be great additions to our industry, but few are willing to make the commitment to go that direction right now,” he said. “For some, it’s cost and others just aren’t in any hurry. They may get there, but right now they are enjoying the journey,” he said. 

But is that a bad thing?  Not in Stein’s mind.  “You need the years and the maturity to be good in this business. There is no shortcut to gaining experience regardless of how talented you are. You have to put in your time, treat it as a full time job, and be dedicated to perfection,” he said. Stein believes this is an opportune time for new pilots to try to break into the air show business regardless of their age because of the number of great performers who will be retiring in the next few years.  

Instructor pilot Ken Erickson teaches at the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety in California where $4,000 will get you five days of intensive aerobatic instruction.  That includes ten hours of flight time and ten hours of ground instruction just to get qualified to fly solo aerobatics.  “Most are proficient pilots who come to us to find out if they want to pursue aerobatics. A few want to get into competition aerobatics, but almost no one ever says they want to get into the air show business anymore,” he said.   

Getting booked into a show when you are new, untested, and without a statement of aerobatic competency in your hip pocket is difficult. There are fewer shows across American than there were a decade or two ago and there are still more than enough experienced pilots to go around on any given weekend. This leaves the newbies at a distinct disadvantage.   

Brett Hunter of Dayton, Ohio has experienced this first hand. He’s 42 years old, owns a Pitts S2C, and has been flying competition aerobatics for ten years. He’s a former demo pilot for Pitts, but has trouble getting air show bookings because he isn’t sponsored. “The first question they ask me is whether or not I’m sponsored and can fly their show for free. When I tell them I charge $6500 for a weekend, they often walk away. I need six shows a year to break even and so far this year I’ve only booked two,” he said. 

There are a few younger pilots out there. One is 24 year old Brad Crawford of Hot Springs, Arkansas. While he may become the next big star, he has yet to book his first show because he’s trying to balance his air ambulance career with his love of aerobatics.  He says his day will come, but, once again, the economy has him spooked. “I have a Pitts S2B that costs $3.00 a minute to operate. I can do a lot of my own maintenance, which helps keep costs down, so I can be affordable to a show. But the economy is so unstable right now, it’s hard to decide which path to take,” he said.  Crawford is also building up a 450 Stearman which he hopes to use in his act in the near future. 

Another young performer who has become frustrated with the realities of trying to break into the air show business is 26 year old Patrick Carter of Manhattan, Kansas.  He flies a Pitts S2B and learned the hard way that there is no easy way. 

He bought the plane as a basket case when he was 20 and rebuilt it, then looked for ways to make it pay for itself by giving rides and teaching aerobatics, then decided to move into air shows.  “I started flying air shows three years ago and after a seasons, tried to get a sponsor and discovered just how hard that can be,” he said. 

Carter, who has been a corporate pilot since coming out of college with an aviation degree, began his air show career by offering to fly air shows for free so long as they allowed him to sell aerobatic rides while there.  He was only marginally successful with that approach.  His frustration led him to make a crucial if somewhat unorthodox decision.  “Since most companies don’t understand the benefits they would get from being involved in air shows, I got fed up with it and started a company that would benefit from air shows and support my flying.  And it has worked amazingly well,” he said. 

Carter started a company selling small, high definition video cameras that can be mounted on helmets or instrument panels and elsewhere in airplanes. Word of his business has been spread through news articles about his product in aviation publications and his cameras are sold through a major aviation supply house. But even though his business will do more than three quarters of a million dollars worth of sales this year, he still has trouble getting booked into air shows.   

“I understand you have to pay your dues in this business, but it’s frustrating when you can’t show yourself off without booking shows and you can’t book shows if you haven’t been able to show yourself off,” he said. 

But like most pilots with the dream he is not giving up.  He and a friend have formed Team Vortex and he continues to seek bookings, mostly in the Midwest, hoping that one day his efforts will pay off.   

A few years ago, ICAS gave voice to an informal program called Rising Star where it encouraged air show producers to dedicate time in their shows for new performers. A few shows picked up on it, but not many and it didn’t last long. Again, it’s the economy. 

Dale Drumright has been involved with the Airpower Over Hampton Rhodes air show at Langley Air Force Base since 1991 and, like all air show organizers, has to watch the budget.  “Few shows are willing to hire an unknown performer. When we consider someone like that we try to find out where they have flown and who is willing to recommend them. If we hear good things about a performer from someone whose judgment we respect, we will consider it, but that doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “It’s been a long time since someone like Jim Leroy came on the scene and took our breath away. I feel sorry for someone trying to break into this industry right now unless they have a lot of money behind them,” she said. 

And there is another gap brewing, perhaps even more serious than the dwindling number of new aerobatic performers. Where is the next generation of warbird pilots?  Kevin Walsh produces Thunder Over Michigan.  He’s a second generation air show producer. “I’m part of the Yankee Air Museum and we see very few pilots with the skills and experience coming up to fly these old planes.  Some of the gap is being filled by Viet Nam-era pilots, but the experienced World War II and Korean War-era pilots are nearly gone,” he said.   

Museums maintain warbirds, but don’t offer much in the way of opportunities to train pilots.  Those who do get into the cockpits of warbirds are usually high time military or airline pilots and many of those pilots can afford to own their own planes.  And, like most other performers, they are usually older rather than younger. “It’s not realistic to think that a 20-something pilot is going to slide into the seat of a war bird,” he said.  “There are a few, but very few.” 

While the rate at which new performers are getting into the business has slowed, it hasn’t stopped. Most new performers come from the ranks of competition flying and learned their craft at events sponsored by the International Aerobatic Club (IAC). “Our membership has been declining slowly over the past several years due to the economy, but the number of competitors has remained relatively constant,” said IAC president Doug Bartlett.  “We have about 400 competitors at our events each year.  While it is expensive to move up the line, we make it easy to get started with an affordable airplane and have structured contests to make it less expensive,” he said.  And it’s working.  “Most of our competitors who come up the line are funding their flying out of their disposable income.  A few are successful business owners with adequate resources behind them but most are flying on a budget and make it their priority.”   He said clearly there is no shortage of talent.  The only shortage is the numbers who want to go into the air show business. 

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.