So You Want to Be an Airshow Pilot
First, get a high-paying day job.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 2 of 5)
After his performance, Stewart lands and taxis before the crowd line, smiling and waving. He’s eating up the applause. He parks, shuts down the engine, and leaps out to meet his fans. He loves giving his autograph and handing out pictures of himself with his airplane. And he loves talking, especially about his act, his airplane, and himself. Ego? “Yes,” he says without thinking about it. Then he tries to explain: “There are no selfless acts, except maybe throwing yourself on a grenade. If you didn’t like the attention, just fly solo in your practice box.”
Even aside from the gut-wrenching aerobatics, being an airshow performer isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a long, hard slog to the top.
Six seasons ago, after a few years in aerobatic competitions, Stewart started flying his show routine. He flew one airshow that year. His second year he flew nine shows, charging $500 a show if he could get it. Each performer sets his own fee (there is no airshow performers union). Sometimes Stewart would just show up at an airshow, and if the weather turned crummy, maybe a performer or two might drop out or not make it and organizers would let him go on. In 2002, Stewart flew seven shows, asking $1,500 a pop. The next year, he flew 10 shows for $2,000 each, then last year he received $2,950 per show for 10 shows. For this season, he’s hiking his price to $4,900. Not that he’s carved that fee in stone; it’s just what he thinks someone at his level should make.
Even if Stewart succeeds in flying eight or so shows this season at $4,900 apiece, his earnings won’t cover his expenses. He easily spends his whole take on maintaining and rebuilding Prometheus: It costs him $40,000 a year to fly a single airshow season and $3,600 to insure the Pitts.
Stewart can save some money with his volunteer crew—his fiancée and Kirby. Kirby fuels and polishes Prometheus, and makes sure the airplane has enough smoke oil for the act. As for maintaining the Pitts, Stewart does most of the work himself.
Besides the fees airshow pilots charge to perform, they earn money through sponsorship—how performers like Tucker make the real bucks. Instead of cash, most of Stewart’s sponsors contribute replacement parts for his airplane or give him deep discounts in exchange for getting their logos painted on Prometheus. Scheunemann Aviation Products donated the wings, Whirlwind gave Stewart a discount on the propeller, and Avworks is building a new, nearly 400-horsepower engine. Another sponsor, Airshow Models, sells 1/32-scale plastic models of Prometheus for $85 at Airshowmodels.com. (The author has not been compensated for this announcement.)
“He needs more sponsors,” says Cantrell.
“Raven [Aircraft] has gotten a great deal from me just because I like their logo,” says Stewart. But this may be the end of such bargains for sponsors. “I am breaking into a different level now, and I feel I can bring better deals,” he says. Don’t cry for Skip, Argentina: He flies jet transports for Federal Express. If you want to make it in the airshow business, for the first few years, you’ve got to have a great day job. Sean Tucker, for instance, dusted crops.