Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Importance Of Sponsorship

You can live with them, but you can’t live without them

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.


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