Beyond the Bottom Line: Air Shows as a Source of Good


As an industry, we take great pride in what we do…and rightly so. We offer safe, high quality family entertainment at an affordable price and — along the way — we raise many millions of dollars each year for charities ranging from Boy Scouts to breast cancer research. We provide thrills, excitement, and inspiration for spectators of all ages, giving people exposure to all aspects of aviation in ways they otherwise would never have the opportunity to see.  Those are some of the obvious things we do.  But there are many more benefits to this great industry of ours that often go unnoticed.

To start with, most of our events do more than showcase themselves. They also showcase the airports where we stage them, bringing out people who otherwise would have no reason to visit an airport. In more than one instance, air shows have generated enough public support to prevent the closure of airports.

But there are also benefits that have nothing to do with aviation. Think of the impact on the community. Some air shows have grown to such stature that the show name is synonymous with the community name. Oshkosh is at the top of the list. The California International Air Show in Salinas is another good example. Most of us in the industry know the event simply as “Salinas.” And, from a public relations standpoint, that’s impressive. “This event gives national recognition to our community in a positive way which helps people feel good about living here,” says the show’s executive director, Harry Wardwell.

He also likes the impact the show has on those who volunteer their time to make the show a success. “A show teaches young people about community service and how volunteering can make a community a better place.  Volunteers of all ages can come out and have fun while giving something back to their community.  There are also opportunities for leadership experience through our committees and board of directors,” he said. They must be doing something right. Now into their 31st year, Wardwell said they are into their second and third generations of volunteers. “Many on our committees have seen their parents and grandparents support this event and have signed on to continue the tradition. They are learning to serve the community that supports them,” he said.

That doesn’t mean aviation is taking a back seat to the other benefits. It’s still the main thing. “If kids don’t grow up in a military town, air shows will often be their first exposure to airplanes. This is where they get the bug to learn to fly. We’ve had many military pilots bring aircraft to our show and tell us they were inspired to fly by what they saw at an air show,” Wardwell said.  He also noted the number of proud parents who call to say their son or daughter is a military pilot and would welcome an invitation to bring an airplane to their show.  “We’re proud to say we’ve made a difference,” he said.

Another aspect of air shows that gets a lot of attention is the education that takes place. Some shows focus squarely on it through seminars and other programs just for kids, while others let it happen through exposure to the various displays and information that is available.

The Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda puts a high premium on education. “We involve the high schools within an hour’s drive, starting with a news conference that includes high school newspapers, and radio and television stations. We treat them the same way we treat the professional media and it pays dividends for both,” said show president Bucky McQueen. They are able to leverage the air show to help students learn their craft and, in the process, gain expanded news coverage of their event.

And, like so many other shows across the country, they do their part to establish a connection between the civilian population and the military. “Our show offers the only military presence in our community each year, so we work hard to connect the two,” McQueen said. Some of this is done simply by putting on the show, but they also make sure there are other opportunities. “Last year we split up our jet team pilots and other performers and sent them out to high schools in our area. In one day, they spoke to over 15,000 students. That could never have happened without our show,” he said.  What’s the payoff?  “Last year, the Thunderbirds inducted more recruits into the United States Air Force at our show than any other show in the country,” he said.

Several shows around the country have their roots in the Boy Scout organization, either having been started by a Boy Scout council or with the Boy Scouts as the show’s major beneficiary.  The show in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a joint venture between the Daniel Webster Council and the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire.

“We have been blessed with outstanding community support. As a new show, we’re still learning.  We had an encampment with over 900 Boy Scouts and leaders who helped put the show together.  They worked hard and were rewarded with evening entertainment and visits from the Blue Angels. Along the way, they got a good taste of giving back to their community,” said Council Executive Mike Kaufman.  Proceeds from the show were used for capital expenses at their scout camp, including new water craft, equipment used in teaching firearm safety, plus new construction projects that benefit scouts whether they are interested in aviation or not.

And there was an unexpected benefit that no one predicted.  “This was the first air show in our area in 20 years.  As a result, we had parents who had never been to a show bringing their kids who had never been to a show.  We captured the attention and imagination of two generations at the same time and watched the bonds being built between kids and their parents who experienced the same things for the very first time,” Kaufman said.  And he said they did their best to make planes accessible. “So many of our visitors told us they were delighted to be able to touch the airplanes. I saw untold numbers of parents taking pictures of their kids touching the airplanes, and just as many pictures being taken of kids and their parents in front of their favorite planes,” he said.

The benefits from the show didn’t stop there. “What we were doing resonated so well with several of our sponsors that I was able to recruit two of them to sit on our [Boy Scout] council executive board,” he said.

Successful air shows also have a significant economic impact on their communities. From hotels to restaurants and all the spinoff activities. Visitors who stay the night spend anywhere from $250 to $300 in a weekend.  “For a show that brings in 45,000 people in a weekend, it could translate into several million dollars in income for a community,” said Michael Moon, President of the Stuart Air Show in Stuart, Florida.

“We fill three hotels with air show pilots alone which equates to 450 room nights.  Caterers have a good weekend providing food to our events and the restaurants are busier from all the people we bring to town,” Moon said.

Shows also bring together things most people would otherwise not be able to see.  The list includes modern aircraft, warbirds, experimental aircraft and replicas of all kinds. Ground displays can include Army tanks and other heavy equipment. Then there are the Medivac helicopters, float planes, firefighting aircraft, and even unmanned aircraft.

Air shows also offer other unique opportunities.  In Indianapolis, there are several companies that manufacture a variety of aviation components which are displayed at the Indianapolis Air Show. “We provide the platform that allows them to show their historical involvement in aviation and also show how they contribute to the local economy,” said Indianapolis Air Show Operations Manager Beth Vahle.

Now in its 15th year, the Indianapolis show focuses a lot of attention on education by bringing in displays from NASA and from Space Camp, which encourage kids to study science and math.  “The focus is on learning, not on aviation,” Vahle said.

But one aspect that most pleases Vahle is the role the show plays in connecting kids and seniors. “Many of the older people in our audience flew the types of older airplanes on display here and the show gives them a chance to talk to their kids and grandkids about it.  Whether they flew the planes in World War II, Korea or Vietnam, or worked on them as mechanics, we see these conversations taking place all weekend long,” she said.

And for a profession dominated by men, the Indianapolis show goes out of its way to provide role models for girls.  “We bring out the Girl Scout troops to meet pilots like Jacquie B, who can talk about their careers and tell the girls how they can pursue their dreams,” she said.  Jacquie is proud of the fact that she didn’t get into the air show business until the age of 50, proving that dreams come true for girls of all ages.

Military shows have their own spin-off benefits. Since most are open houses and don’t charge the public to attend, they normally aren’t aligned with any particular charity or group of charities.  Instead, they focus on recruiting. They also use the event to strengthen ties to their local communities and with community leaders.

Community support is essential to Virginia’s Naval Air Station Oceana because of the potential for noise issues from jet fighters coming and going. “We want the community to come to the base and see what we do.  This lets them understand that it is not us vs. them. We’re all of us. Visiting the base demystifies it and they understand that the people they see in uniform are the same ones they see in grocery stores, coaching soccer games, and getting involved in the community,” said civilian air show director Corky Erie. “It’s difficult to show on a spreadsheet the benefit from these shows because it’s far more than just money, but you sure can see it on the faces of people whose lives are touched by what we do,” he said.

Shows also get to do some other nice things.  The Thunder in the Valley air show in Columbus, Georgia, is near Fort Benning, one of the largest military installations in the country.  They offer free admission to Army recruits who are able to attend the show, and one of their vendors provides free cell phone service so the recruits can call home.  As you would expect, the lines are usually quite long.

But no matter how many benefits derive from air shows, if the shows aren’t successful, the benefits cease.  And it takes some hard-nosed management to keep a show in the black. “Our core committee is made up of business people, not necessarily aviation enthusiasts.  They apply their business acumen that has allowed us to evolve into a 501(c)(3) corporation with an excellent track record.  We operate the show with a solid business model and stay within our budget.  It’s that simple,” said Thunder in the Valley organizer Chuck Hecht. Like other shows, they make sure their fixed costs are covered by sponsorships and other contributions, earmarking gate receipts as profit.

The list of examples of benefits from air shows is long and varied and continues well beyond those listed here.  There are numerous heart-warming stories such as the Army parachute jumper who lost both legs in a sky diving accident and returned to perform.  When he approached the crowd line after jumping at the show in Oceana, he spotted a young boy in a wheel chair who also had no legs, picked the boy up and let him know that he still had a world of opportunities ahead of him in spite of his situation.  There were no cameras capturing the moment, no publicity, no gawking…just two people connecting who faced similar challenges and were working to overcome them.

Bonus: Air Shows Change Lives: Mark “Pepe” Proulx

Most pilots who have one close relative in aviation wouldn’t deny that family is what inspired them to take their first lesson. Pilots with fliers on both sides of the family are practically expected to take to the skies. Not one in a hundred would be able to set the family history aside and pinpoint one day when an eleven-year-old kid went to an air show with his dad as the pivotal moment in their lives.

Mark Proulx was a loner. In fifth grade and not too impressed with anything, Mark was squeaking by with a string of Cs and Ds, no sports or extracurricular activities setting him apart. He was just along for the ride. It wasn’t that young Mark lacked exposure to aviation; he just hadn’t seen anything yet that would spark his imagination.

At the time, Mark’s father worked in aerospace for Vought, and Mark’s maternal uncle flew an F-86 in Taiwan. With aviation so close to home, it would have been natural for Mark to want to fly. He even admits that, “If there were Legos around, I would immediately start building an airplane.” But it wasn’t enough. It took an air show to put Mark on the path he would take for the rest of his life.

In 1978, when he was eleven years old, Mark Proulx saw the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly for the first time. In that hour, he decided what he wanted to be: he wanted to be a fighter pilot. His father explained that, to achieve his dream, he would need to go to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and, “They don’t take just anyone.”

The rest of Mark’s adolescent days became focused on that one goal. He asked for his first application to the Academy when he was 14, and figured that by the end of high school he would have to become a straight-A student with a full schedule of sports and extracurricular activities. His family was amazed at his transformation. Mark earned straight As, became captain of the varsity soccer team, senior class president, and even the school mascot!

Mark graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1989. By the following year, he was in flight training. Although he began his flying career by instructing in the T-38, training in the F-16 wasn’t far behind. By 1999, Mark was better known as “Pepe” and had excelled yet again; he had been chosen to be the F-16 demo pilot traveling to the very same air shows that had changed his life!

Pepe has come full circle, getting letters from the kids he has met and motivated all over the country. They love to tell him how they are improving their grades and going after their dreams since he touched their lives. Although he will be retiring from the Air Force this year, air shows will always be a part of his life. He says that it has been the most rewarding experience of his life. Not bad for an eleven-year-old kid.– By Devan A. Norris

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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.