How do you make a million bucks in the air show business? Start with six—or so the old joke goes. Being a full-time air show pilot is a tough way to make a living, but aside from the financial aspects, I tell people I don't have a choice because it's the only thing I'm really good at! Following the path that makes us happiest is, in my view, the smartest way to go, but it doesn't always make the best financial sense.
Motorheads like me rely on sponsorship to make it through the season. Maintenance, fuel, travel expenses, insurance and overhead, not to mention equipment, are all expensive and make life a challenge for the professional air show pilot. If it weren't for sponsors, most of us wouldn't be able to indulge in our life's passion. Sure, the smart air show pilots charge a fee to fly, but fees would have to double for us to make a profit, and that's not always realistic for the air show. We need sponsors to help us with cash and product, and we hope they continue to need us to promote their companies so we can continue to fly air shows. I've been lucky to have had fantastic sponsorships over the years. Each of them was very different, and each came about in a different way.
My first major sponsorship was with Apollo Loran, when that was state-of-the-art navigational equipment. Apollo was one of the few companies that didn't slam the door in my face with a rejection letter after I had sent out dozens of proposals. They gave me enough room to stick my foot in the door and keep it there until I was invited to their headquarters in Salem, Ore. After a tour of the factory, I was invited into their boardroom. I didn't know what to expect, but should've known they were expecting the big "pitch." Sitting around a long, shiny table, the top execs asked me why they should sponsor me, and luckily I was able to think on my feet. I pulled out a stack of other performers' media kits and said, "For the same reason these companies—Coors, Pepsi, Schwan's—are involved, because we offer extraordinary promotional value." This seemed to get their attention. But, I saved the most important brochure for last, "Of course, there is also the French Connection who is sponsored by Northstar Avionics." Northstar was Apollo's biggest competitor, and I got the reaction I had hoped for—undisguised frowns and concerned looks. I'm sure it was the competition that helped seal the deal. We went on to have a great relationship, and they used me extensively in their advertising until UPS bought the company several years later.
I made a conscious choice early on to look for sponsors within aviation, so when an opportunity to work with Goodrich Aerospace came up, I jumped on it. Bob Hoover had been sponsored by Goodrich, and when his deal ended, I heard that then-CEO Dave Burner wanted to continue to support air shows. We met, and I was invited to the company headquarters in Akron, Ohio. This time, I was prepared. I brought with me a carefully prepared proposal offering three levels of sponsorship—high, mid and low. They chose the mid-level proposal, the one I hoped for, and the rest was history.
After Dave's retirement 12 years later, the sponsorship ended. I continued flying air shows and had some time to envision what the next perfect sponsor would be. I put the word out to friends in the industry that I was available, and when Cirrus Aircraft expressed interest, we got together and negotiated a win-win deal that enabled me to fly their airplane and to represent them at air shows and other events for more than five years. It was an exciting and satisfying time to be a part of one of aviation's great success stories.
Sponsors help performers by giving them a fee and products, such as an airplane to use. In return, performers promote the sponsor by letting them use their image for advertising—guaranteeing their loyalty, enthusiasm, salesmanship and media savvy—and putting logos on their wings and flight suits, and mentioning them in their air show narration.
There are different types of sponsorships, but they're all based on the need to gain visibility and promote a company or product. The contract between performer and sponsor usually specifies a certain number of appearances per year, and it's up to the performer to negotiate their best deal according to what suits their needs. In my opinion, every business agreement should be a win-win, and each party should walk away feeling happy.
There have been some big sponsors in air shows over the years—Mopar, Pepsi, Coke, Holiday Inn, Bud Light, AeroShell, Avemco and Toyota to name just a few. Air show fans and enthusiasts, and aspiring air show performers, are curious and often ask, "What's the secret to getting a sponsor?" I'll let you in on a little secret: There's no secret, no magic formula, not even "a" formula. There are no rules. Google "how to find a sponsor," and you won't get much help. If you're a top Olympic athlete, a great tennis player or golfer, you might be able to attract a great sports marketing agency like IMG Worldwide, but air shows, a business that claims to be the second largest spectator event in North America, is still considered a niche market, and the big agencies don't take on air show performers. We're on our own.
While there's no magic formula, there are a few things to keep in mind when you're looking for sponsorship for an air show season or your little league team: Do your research, and get to know the company and its marketing goals. You need to be educated on the company's target demographic. Get to know the competition. This can be your most powerful negotiating tool. Familiarize yourself with the players who make the decision. Knowing the CEO isn't enough. Cultivate relationships. If you're lucky enough to get your foot in the door, then stay on their radar. Put the word out. Define what you're looking for. The more you network, the better the odds that opportunity will knock. Create the energy to make it happen.
If you get so far that you're asked to present a proposal or make a pitch, offer different levels of sponsorship so the company feels they have a choice. Be willing to negotiate, but don't give them more than they're paying for. It doesn't work in your favor. Build in increases for each year of sponsorship, and try to get a two- or three-year deal. Remember, you're dealing with a corporation, not an individual. It's easier to negotiate well in the beginning, rather than try to change it later. Everything must be in writing. Things can change quickly as employees get shuffled around. Companies get bought and sold, so nothing is guaranteed unless it's in writing.
There's a line in my air show narration: "Thanks to my sponsors; without them, we could not fly." And, this is true. Most sponsorships don't involve a cash fee; there are core aviation companies who have supported air show pilots for years with quality product that keeps us going. Air show and air race pilots need performance. We push ourselves and our equipment hard. These companies take care of us, and they know we need quick service reliability. Trust me, if we can rely on them and their product, you can, too.
You'll find Champion Aerospace plugs and harnesses on almost all aerobatic engines. Bose aviation headsets put noise-canceling technology on the map; I would be a lot deafer if I hadn't started wearing their headsets. Also, my parrot Buddha likes to sit on the boom mic during cross-countries. MT-Propeller has been a longtime loyal supporter of akro pilots. Lycoming has supported us for many years with superior engines and parts. Barrett Precision Engines has taken those same engines and gotten smoother horsepower then we ever thought possible. For years, Aeroshell has sponsored the U.S. Aerobatic Team and, of course, the Aeroshell Team, and now Able Flight. After watching a friend successfully bail out of a broken airplane using the same model National Parachute I use, I realized my emergency backpack is more than just a seat cushion. Concorde Battery loves supporting show pilots and Reno Air racers (thanks, Skip). Goodyear Tires and Lord Mounts make two of the most important products that I change regularly. Sarasota Avionics gives new meaning to the words "customer service." Cannon Aviation Insurance and Ladd Gardner Aviation Insurance (yes, Ladd is Lefty's son of White Lightnin' fame) recently merged to give unparalleled service in the aviation world, and not only take care of me, but have a big presence at Reno. PS Engineering loves making state-of-the-art audio panels, and Whelen Engineering makes those amazing LED lights that help those performers show up well during a night show. Also, thanks to Softie Parachutes, Oregon Aero, Tempest, David Clark, CJ Aviation, Airflow Performance and Aircraft Spruce.
You won't find a better venue for marketing dollars, so why not sponsor an air show performer? We're natural salespeople because we love what we do. Have you ever noticed how air show performers walk the fence line signing hundreds of autographs during and after each air show? That's the personal touch that you can't get with other types of sponsorships. Air shows are the best and perhaps the only PR vehicle for aviation. They're patriotic, family-oriented events that draw millions of people a year. Try getting up close to a military jet or an airliner and you'll get arrested, but at an air show, you can see, feel, smell and experience airplanes up close.
But, don't just take my word for it. Let's go flying! See you on the circuit soon!