Successful California International Air Show grew from unlikely soil

Charitable millions fall from sky, more than 40 years of volunteer work

by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
A promoter looking for an air show location back in 1981 would probably have driven right through Salinas, Calif.

It had a small population, a small municipal airport, and an aeronautics business sector pretty much limited to crop dusters. Salinas was billed as the “gateway” to the touristy Monterey Peninsula. But being a gateway means you ain’t quite there yet.

But the longshot paid off big time for the little town that could, did and continues to defy the odds.

Today, 40 years after Salinas launched the presumptuously named California International Airshow, the two-day event annually attracts admission ticket-buying crowds of up to 50,000 people, and afterwards — when the bills are paid — distributes an average $300,000-plus to Monterey County charities. Cumulatively, the California International Airshow reports having passed through about $8.8 million over its history.

The social benefit was assessed by one of the air show’s enduring sponsors, Cardinale GMC in nearby Seaside. In an online testimonial in 2014, the company wrote “ … the California International Airshow has showcased aviation excellence while raising funds for local non-profit organizations. This event has become the most successful Airshow organized to support charities in North America.”

There’s also the economic impact of all the money visitors spend for gas, lodging, food and incidentals. Numbers are estimated in millions of dollars every year.

All of which begs the question: Why did all that prosperity land on Salinas, a town made famous by native son John Steinbeck and long advertised as the nation’s Salad Bowl?

A blue-collar city of hard working early-risers who shared a tradition of volunteering, making their own fun and taking care of their neighbors, Salinas had experience in creating a major league attraction from hometown roots.

Their earlier demonstrations of that formula included creation of the enormously successful California Rodeo, which expanded into a weeklong summer event they call “Big Week.”

Air show Executive Director Harry D. Wardwell is among the few who were both present at the creation and active throughout the organization’s history.

Wardwell recalls the dawn of the 1980s, when two small groups of airplane enthusiasts began talking about their ideas for starting an air show. One group was comprised of pilots led by Jerry Ross, and the other led by pilot and business owner Jim Gattis. Ross left town to return to college, but not before combining his group’s efforts with Gattis.

“Jim Gattis was just trying to raise the money. He had the business interests, and he was our founder,” Wardwell said. They traveled to other air shows and discovered that more than half of all new air shows fail after a season or two for lack of money. Along the way, Gattis and Wardwell found guidance from the International Council of Airshows (ICAS) which sets the gold standard for airshow safety, quality, stability, ethics and performance.

With knowledge from air show industry experts, a sustainable financial plan for a charitable non-profit organization, and broadly-based sponsorships drawn by the chance to build the airshow and continue their charitable donations with the same dollars, The California International Airshow was an instant success.

Wardwell, who served as the volunteer general chairman for three years, was honored by presentation of the ICAS Sword of Excellence. The award recognized the airshow’s generation of $4.4 million in regional economic development and $8.5 million in charitable donations over the period.

Not that everything worked perfectly all the time, every year. Wardwell points out that air shows are subject to anything Mother Nature throws at them, and with Salinas just eight miles from the shore of Monterey Bay, fog is a constant nemesis. He remembers one year in which a ground fog canceled the flying show on Saturday, but the air show was saved when Sunday dawned bright and clear, and Saturday ticket-buyers were invited back at no added cost.

On two other occasions the air show was hit by external crisis. The first came in 2001 when the air show was scheduled for the weekend after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wardwell remembers the board didn’t immediately anticipate total shutdown of American civil flying and suspension of military airshow demonstration teams. In talking with sponsors, the air show leadership quickly changed the format from paid entertainment to a free celebration of American pride, patriotism and mourning for victims of the attacks.

“All the performers for Saturday and Sunday came out, but of course they couldn’t fly,” he said. “But we had first responders and a place where people could go to be together.” He added, “We lost $250,000 that year, but we set up donation barrels around the field.” At the end of the day on Sunday, air show volunteers discovered the public had filled the barrels with $80,000 in voluntary contributions, sent to New York City 9/11 relief.

The year 2020 was a financial crater created by COVID-19 for all airways.

Robosaurus will make an appearance at the California International Airshow in Salinas Calif., Oct. 30 and 31. Robosaurus is the world’s largest transformer.  It is a 30-ton fire breathing transforming T-Rex that eats cars and planes at the air show. (Courtesy photograph)

But whatever the year, Wardwell explains the mission of what the locals call “the C.I.A.” is always kept clear and simple: Produce a World Class Community-based Airshow benefiting local charitable organizations.

It is, by most metrics, the most successful air show organized to support charitable organizations in North America.

The financial formula sometimes credited for the California International Airshow’s consistent record of charitable support for its region, commonly called “The Salinas Plan,” has been studied and even tried with varying results, but never reported to be equaled.

On the surface, the idea is a model of simplicity. Air show proposes to sponsors: Invest in our non-profit air show as part of your annual charitable donations budget. That money will pay front-end costs for an air show that will sell tickets to tens of thousands of fans. At the end, we will pass through your donation in your name to your designated charity and add to that an additional distribution from air show proceeds equally divided among sponsors.

That’s the key, but it’s designed to unlock a plan relying on personal relationships built up by time spent working together, in and for the community. The Salinas Plan also seems to work best when combined with having top military and civilian aerobatic performers, dozens of static aircraft, exhibits and a fun and affordable family experience. And the not-so-secret sauce is engaging hundreds of community-minded local volunteers, motivated by a willingness to give of themselves to serve their community, families and country.

Wardwell said Salinas emphasizes pride and respect for values and traditions of American life, such as volunteerism and community involvement, and respect and support for the nation’s military services.

Military organizations became major players in the success of the California International Airshow from the beginning, starting with the Navy’s Blue Angels at a time when Salinas Municipal Airport’s 5,000-foot runway was too short to accommodate most military jets. The Blue Angels, flying smaller Douglas A-4D Skyhawks, fit the field, which was later lengthened to 7,000 feet for larger high-performance jet teams, including the Air Force Thunderbirds.

Over the decades, the C.I.A. hosted many of the world’s most celebrated military jet teams, including the graceful aerial ballet performance of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows in 1995, and rarely seen performances of the Soviet MiG-29s.  Additional flying demonstrations came from NASA, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Marine Corps and the California National Guard and units from the former Army airfield at nearby Fort Ord.

Civilian professional air show performers included barnstormers, wing walkers and aerobatic pilots who left their mark in the minds of all who watched them.  Legends in the industry and modern-day champions of aerobatic competitions have added quality acrobatic maneuvers to the programs, along with such legendary pilots as Bob Hoover, the Christen Eagles, Wayne Handley, Sean D. Tucker, Patty Wagstaff , Art Scholl, Leo Loudenslager and The French Connection.

From its inception in 1981, the Salinas air show showed its patrons creativity in the air and on the ground. In one of the early years, just before the aerobatic action was scheduled to begin, the announcer began calling on the owner of Pontiac station wagon to immediately remove it from a No Parking zone. Over several long minutes an increasingly agitated announcer issued ever more angry orders for the car to be moved. Finally, just moments before the show was to start, the announcer said, “Uh-Oh, the air show boss has had it with this guy,” as the sound of a helicopter rotor built higher in a hangar area behind the terminal.

Suddenly, the noise was joined by the sight of a Huey helicopter rising into the air, a Pontiac station wagon suspended from a cable below. Hovering over a vacant area between taxiways, the copter released the vehicle, which opened the show with a spectacular crash.

On another air show day in the early 1980s, film star pilot John Travolta flew into the show with his then-current love interest, singer Olivia Newton John.

The show went on in that creative style for four decades, featuring pyrotechnics, jet cars and trucks, monster trucks, fire-breathing robots, and daredevil Robbie Knievel.

Website airshowfan.com , a comprehensive source of air show intelligence and analysis, declares the California International Airshow to be quite simply, “a very, very, very good air show.”

Redundancy aside, webmaster Bernardo Malfitano writes that even when weather is less-than-cooperative, “they put a LOT of cool, diverse, loud, and interesting planes in the air. They always have three or four jet demos, plus one or two jet teams. Very few, if any, non-military airshows reliably attract so many military fighters. The show will also usually feature a few excellent aerobats, since Sean Tucker is local and his aerobatics school is always producing graduates of unparalleled skill. The Showcopters are based there and will do scary and apparently impossible things with their helicopters.”

The headliner for the 40th anniversary Salinas Airshow, scheduled for Oct. 30 and 31, 2021, is the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Gates open at 9 a.m. on both dates, and more is available at www.salinasairshow.com.

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