Welcome to the Inspiration Business

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Bold initiatives and interesting ideas for directing the future of the air show business are almost as much a part of the air show business as the aircraft themselves. On several occasions in the last dozen years alone, different groups have committed their resources and energy toward a vision of the air show business that focused on races or aerobatic competitions. Others – including ICAS – have attempted to increase significant sponsor involvement by organizing multiple air shows into large, national package deals. For almost the entire history of the air show business, there have been several efforts to develop circus-type traveling road shows that travel from one location to the next with more or less the same air show. Some of these ideas are still viable and may yet be successfully executed by somebody with the right combination of business acumen, resources, vision and persistence.

More recently, though, attention has been focused on one of the air show community’s most enduring attributes. And there are some who believe that it may prove to be the concept on which a strong foundation for the future of the air show industry is built.

A big part of the attraction of air shows is that they are inspiring. And they are inspiring in different ways to different people. Whether it’s the patriotic type of inspiration that you feel when you see a frontline fighter flown by a well-trained military pilot or the awestruck type of inspiration that comes when you watch a civilian pilot fly a demanding aerobatic sequence, air shows and air show performers are discovering that our industry can have an influence on the spectators who attend air shows that goes beyond simple entertainment.

This is not a new phenomenon. For the better part of five decades, air show legend Bob Hoover inspired multiple generations of young men and women to learn how to fly. Tens of thousands of people who watched Hoover’s effortless, graceful piloting skills in the P-51 Mustang and Shrike Commander were motivated to take their first flight lesson. Similarly, air show performances by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds and countless military demo pilots have helped to motivate hundreds of thousands of young men and women to serve their country in a military capacity.

Caught up – as we must be – in the day-to-day struggle to organize, conduct, participate in and support air shows, we often forget that the timeless attraction of air shows is only partly attributable to the planes and the flying. Most of the time, inspiring and motivating has been a largely unintentional by-product of our more immediate obligation to entertain.

But many air show professionals are discovering that, as an industry, we may be guilty of focusing too much on cause and not enough on effect. Some are finding that the airplanes and the flying are only useful in helping to tell a larger story or motivate to a larger and higher purpose.

Greg Poe was an air show pioneer in this area. In part as a response to the drug-related death of his son, Ryan, Greg developed an “Elevate Your Life” program that he brought to more than 50,000 school-age children all over the country. Greg used his experiences as an air show pilot as a tool to encourage middle school-aged boys and girls to work hard, pursue their dreams and resist distractions. Although Greg passed away this summer following a July heart attack, his partner and close friend Dax Wanless will continue broadcasting the “Elevate Your Life” message.

The Texas Flying Legends are also a good example. Based in Houston, this group has committed itself to using a world-class collection of warbird aircraft to project its message about the power of personal integrity, virtue, pride, and valor. The aircraft perform not just at air shows, but at other non-aviation events, as well.  Aerial entertainment is not the goal; it is a tool for accomplishing their larger purpose.

Air show veteran Sean Tucker has been coming to a similar conclusion as his role as an air show performer continues to evolve. If the first part of his career was driven by an interest in performing aerobatics for appreciative audiences and the middle part of his career was focused on using air shows as a tool to help communicate a corporate sponsor’s marketing message, Tucker is now discovering that there may be an even more important purpose to his air show flying…and that that it can be pursued without sacrificing either the entertainment or sponsorship purposes of his air show flying.

The Commemorative Air Force’s Red Tail Project has been built on a similar philosophy. The group’s P-51C Mustang, painted in the squadron colors of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, now travels to air shows accompanied by a mobile theater presentation that tells the compelling and inspiring story of how this group of African-Americans overcame institutionalized prejudices and generations of injustice to fight on behalf of a country that considered them to be second-class citizens. As far as the CAF is concerned, the aircraft’s participation in the air show is a tool for helping to expose the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the largest and broadest possible audience.

For many in our business, the idea that air shows can be a source of inspiration is no great revelation. But, as we move into the second decade of this new century, there is a growing recognition among many in our business that this may not be simply a byproduct of our unique form of aerial entertainment; it may be the most important and far-reaching benefit we can offer to the spectators who attend our events.

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.