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.
Tucker has been a big influence on Stewart, as was the late Leo Loudenslager. When he was just a kid, Stewart—who’d been introduced to flying by his grandfather, and had spent his teen years building and flying radio-controlled models—witnessed Loudenslager perform. “It was my first airshow, and the first time I had seen anyone fly a real airplane the way I flew a model airplane,” Stewart recalls. “When I saw Leo fly, I knew I wanted to put myself in a position to someday be able to at least try to fly like that and hopefully give others the feeling he gave me.”
At age 23, Stewart saw Tucker flying at the 1991 Oshkosh, Wisconsin flyin. “He took the out-of-control tumbling maneuvers others would do and turned them into perfectly choreographed maneuvers and did them low,” Stewart says. “He redefined what hardcore airshow aerobatics was about.”
Tucker’s climb to the top wasn’t without a few detours. From his home in the hills between Salinas and Monterey, California, Tucker, 52, tells me by telephone how he began in the business. “When I started I was a total failure,” he says. “I had a lot of passion and not a lot of skill.” He pauses for a beat. “I didn’t have any death perception,” he explains, laughing. (Like Stewart, Tucker has the charm market corralled.) In 1979, Tucker was practicing for his first big show when he got into an unrecoverable inverted flat spin. He bailed out, but his Pitts pancaked into the ground. Tucker refers to the event as “the crash of ’79” and says, “I knew I had to get my act together because I was married, broke, and had no options.” Soon after, he started dusting crops by helicopter; it wasn’t the kind of flying he dreamed of, but it helped pay the bills.
Tucker didn’t return to airshow flying until 1988, and four years later he landed his first monetary sponsor, Randolph Sunglasses. Financially, Tucker is the envy of many in the industry. The sponsorships he has from companies who supply airplane parts and aviation products save him $80,000 a year, and on top of that, he has the (undisclosed) monetary backing of Oracle.