Air Shows: A Force for Good

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Air show pilot Sean D. Tucker and Harrison Ford pose for a picture with students at the Bob Hoover Academy.

In the early days of air shows, barnstormers and promoters came to small towns all across America, staged their shows, pocketed the money and moved off to another town, leaving behind lasting memories, but little else.  By contrast, many of today’s air shows are ongoing community events that benefit local charities of all kinds…an amazing evolution worthy of praise and thanks.

Some shows seek only to generate enough money to be able to do it all over again next year, using local charitable organizations to sell food, merchandise and programs.  Others are able not only to sustain themselves through sponsorships and contributions, but generate revenue that supports a broad spectrum of charitable organizations.

There has been no single formula for success that works in every community when it comes to supporting local charities. Instead, multiple formulas have emerged, tailored to the unique nature of each community lucky enough to have a show.

In the early 1980s, a group of local businessmen in Salinas, California wanted to do something for their community, so they staged an air show using a new and novel business model…and, in so doing, became the gold standard for how to sustain an air show while benefitting the community.

Their idea was simple. Because businesses were already giving money to local charities, the founders of the California International Air Show asked to use that money first, then pass it on to the charities of the donor’s choice if the show made money.

At the heart of the plan was the President’s Club. Members paid $2,500 to join and $1,500 a year to remain in the club. The donations came with significant perks and the guarantee was that — if the revenue projections for the show were met — all of the President’s Club donations would go to a charitable cause of the donor’s choosing. The money assured the show of a financial safety net against a variety of potential problems and allowed businesses to make their donations while supporting a worthwhile community entertainment event at the same time.

“Allowing the donors to select the charities was key to our success,” said Harry Wardwell, the current director of the Salinas show.  “In the early years, the cost of producing our show was low and we guaranteed 100% pass-through if we met our goals. Now, due to rising costs we guarantee 50% will be passed through and we keep the rest, but the show has achieved such a solid reputation in the community that even though we aren’t passing through as much, most donors have stayed with us,” Wardwell said.

The Salinas show has achieved remarkable longevity for a community its size.  It has a population of about 160,000, yet has been around for 39 years, generating $8,500,000 for local charities.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the air show was not just a fundraiser for the Daniel Webster Boy Scout Council; it was sponsored, organized and conducted by the Council.  In its first year alone, the show generated a surplus of $800,000 which the Council split with the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire.

“It may have seemed financially risky for an organization like a Boy Scout council to sponsor a show, but we did our homework and understood what we were getting into.  While an air show may have seemed different, it was very similar to other events we had sponsored in terms of logistics, sponsorships and leveraging relationships, so that took a lot of anxiety out of it,” said Mike Kaufman, former CEO of the council and the newly named executive director/CEO of the ICAS Foundation.

Like any good not-for-profit organization, Kaufman said the council had multiple revenue streams and they took steps to ensure that the show didn’t jeopardize any of them or the organization itself.  “Once we knew we had enough financial support from people who loved air shows and loved the Boy Scouts, we moved forward,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman said, even though the show only lasted three years, there was an unexpected and more long-lasting benefit.  “The show allowed us to find friends we didn’t know we had.  We attracted new sponsors, recruited a couple of new people to our board of directors, and were able to expand our support base.  And many of those who were already supporting us were willing to contribute more money,” Kaufman said.

The Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro is in the heart of Oregon’s new age industries, surrounded by corporate giants that include Nike and Intel, but tapping into them is harder than it would seem.  Air show executive director Bill Braack says some businesses in the area would give, but they don’t want to get connected to an air show.  As a result, Braack says they have taken a page from the play book at Sun ‘n Fun and set up a separate foundation to handle contributions.

Since the show’s beginning in 2003, using traditional sponsorship models, the show has returned more than a million dollars to local charities, but Braack said, like any show, there have been peaks and valleys in their revenue.  This meant inconsistent donation levels.  “We wanted a more sustainable and more predictable funding mechanism to support local charities,” Braack said.

They discussed a lot of options, such as partnering with other foundations in the community, but decided to establish their own foundation. Money from the show goes to the foundation, but the foundation is now free to solicit contributions from other sources that were otherwise out of reach.

Military open houses have always been in a separate category in the air show world since they don’t charge admission, don’t charge for parking and have restrictions on how government money can be spent.  But those restrictions didn’t stop the Rhode Island Air National Guard from filling an important need in the Providence, Rhode Island area.

“From the start, we wanted to answer corporate needs in our community and meet their philanthropic goals. We didn’t want to simply sell corporate entertainment. We wanted to create something special,” said Colonel Larry Gallogly (USAF, retired) who helped to launch the show more than 25 years ago just as the city of Providence was starting a capital campaign to build a new children’s hospital.

“The old hospital was old and antiquated and Providence needed a state-of-the-art facility that would attract good doctors. We were talking with a local TV station about our plans when a reporter suggested we talk to the people at the children’s hospital to see if a partnership made sense. We could think of no better affinity than linking kids and aviation and the hospital thought so too,” said Gallogly.

The show was carefully organized to remain in compliance with military regulations, guidance and policy. The National Guard Association of Rhode Island became the official organizer of the event and was responsible for the business aspects of the air show, including concessions and vendor contracts. The arrangements were carefully reviewed by Air Force lawyers and declared to be within Air Force rules and regulations.

“We learned as we went and were successful from the beginning,” said Gallogly. They scored a jet team the first year, made money and have since generated over $1,500,000 for the hospital.

“We had an advantage of being on a state-owned airport and – while we didn’t charge admission or charge for parking — we did encourage donations and found that 80% of our fans were willing to donate,” he said.  “Our original benchmark was that — if we donated more money to the hospital than we collected in parking donations — we would be successful.  We discovered that when you tie philanthropy together with a free event for the public, you endear yourself to the people of the community and money starts to flow,” he said.

For the show at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, success came out of the Blue. The show had traditionally been held in September, but — in 2009 — they had to change to an October date to accommodate the Blue Angels schedule. Realizing October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, they took advantage of an opportunity and built their show around the theme of “Celebration of Flight, Celebration of Life.”  It was the first time the long-running NAS Oceana air show had been organized around a theme.

“We partnered with the Navy medical community on base and the local medical community off base, as well as the Susan B. Komen Foundation,” said air show director Corky Erie.  As he put it, they “pinked up” the show.  “A subcommittee was put together to bring in displays and develop other ways to raise awareness,” he said.  One of the best ideas included convincing a local cement company to paint one of its cement trucks pink and using it as the center marker for the Blue Angels.

The idea to use the show to promote a theme worked so well that they have kept it up.  The Centennial of Naval Aviation in 2011 gave them a natural theme for the show.  And 2012 was the bicentennial of the Star-Spangled Banner. “The goal was never to raise money because we weren’t allowed to solicit donations. We have been all about raising awareness,” he said.

While metrics are hard to come by with awareness campaigns, the show has won the coveted Dick Schram award four times, more than any other ICAS member show, attesting to its community support and appreciation.

“We know the show could be successful without the annual themes, but the themes give us an opportunity to advance a cause and maintain the good will of our community,” he said.

Using air shows as a force for good isn’t confined to just air shows. Long time performer Sean Tucker has used his mega-star stature in the industry to open doors to create a four-year high school that uses aviation to inspire at-risk kids. Six years ago, Tucker started working with the school district in his home town of Salinas, California to create the Bob Hoover Academy (www.bobhooveracademy.org), an alternative high school that takes in what Tucker says are the “toughest of the tough” kids in his community.

“Salinas is a tough community and the education system has failed a lot of kids who lack opportunities that many of us take for granted,” said Tucker. The academy, named for legendary pilot and air show performer Bob Hoover, takes in kids who have dropped out of high school or had problems with the law.

Surprisingly, the goal of the academy is not to turn out licensed pilots. “We are not a flying school.  We are using aviation as an incentive to show the kids that they can believe in themselves, to build their self-esteem, and most of all, to give them hope,” Tucker said.

Tucker was so persuasive when he presented his idea for the Academy to the local school district that they are now providing a four-room facility near the airport, bus the students to school, provide an education psychologist, certified teachers, a teacher aid and other support. Tucker’s team provides the flight instruction and funds the flying curriculum.  He has spent a lot of his own money getting the program established and has sought contributions from the community.

“The kids get a full high school education plus aviation training. Once they take control of an airplane, they start to believe in themselves and their attitude changes dramatically,” he said.

The program started with 20 students and the school district is ready to expand it to 40. “These kids come to us as failures and most leave as successful, young adults. One has finished college already.  Many more join the military and others get responsible jobs in the community and are raising families. I’m so excited about this because we have the highest graduation rate of any high school in the county,” Tucker said.

Bureaucracies have a penchant for metrics to measure success and want to see big numbers.  For Tucker, turning around even one kid is a big number. “You can’t just look at metrics because it’s not about numbers. It’s about the big picture, saving kids and saving lives. Many of these kids have the potential to become community leaders if given the chance, and the academy gives them that chance. By keeping the kids in school, it keeps them away from gangs. And because they have to pass a drug test to stay in the program, it keeps the kids off dope. Besides, turning a kid around is a lot cheaper for the community than putting them in jail,” he said.

Tucker says the program gives kids something to believe in and they need someone to believe in them.  “It’s magic sauce because flying makes you face your fears.  A lot of these kids have never even been to the beach just fifteen miles away, let alone been in an airplane,” he said.

Tucker said he has received his first $50,000 donation, saying the community is now taking ownership of the program and — because of the success of the program — he is starting to solicit funding from some of the major aviation corporations.

Sometimes, success is a matter of perspective. And, from the perspective of many philanthropies, air shows are successful in large part because they have become the vehicle for promoting and supporting a large number and wide variety of important causes.

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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.