That ‘70s Airshow

Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.

Air & Space Magazine

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Arrangements were made for overflow guests to stay in the dormitories of Albright College. Local roads were overwhelmed with traffic, especially at the end of a day, when product demonstrations ended and aerobatic performers took over. Businessmen, leaving the airport after a day of drumming up sales, clashed with incoming public show audiences on narrow two-lane roads.

“The infrastructure of Reading, Pennsylvania, was never really ready for this kind of show,” says Czarnecki. “What happened is our restaurant would have reservations for 60 to 70 people but only have 30 come, because the local transportation system would break down. That continually worsened and no one in the city took action. When you’ve got an executive with a credit card waiting to take out VIP guests and he can’t get a cab, he remembers and vows not to return.”  

Gradually, the exhibitors began to withdraw. Bendix passed on booth space in 1978 because like thousands, its representatives couldn’t find a motel. Canadair showed up but decided that 1978 would be the last year. “It’s the horde of non-aviation types and their kids, many of whom climb on airplanes and damage them, added to the fear that someone might injure himself poking around aircraft without knowledge,” the Canadair spokesperson told a reporter at the company’s last show.

In 1976, public attendance had mushroomed past 100,000 while paid, professional registration topped 12,800 each weekday. Only one year later, paid entry to exhibits had fallen to 10,108 and the number of exhibits to 163; nearly 100 less than a couple of years earlier. Nonetheless, the show remained a media favorite. Nearly 1,600 journalists turned up—one for every six registrants. Though the decrease in numbers that year was largely due to poor weather, the tumble was assured. Breithaupt and partners started discussing plans to hold “Paris on the Schuylkill,” as some patrons called it, every other year, to alternate with the Paris Air Show. But in 1980, RAS ran its last show.

“If you end up in the wrong part of the airshow business, it’s like selling ski rides with no snow that winter,” says Breithaupt. What happened at Reading was textbook trade-show herd mentality. Potential show exhibitors watch the big companies—Boeing, Grumman—to see if they will attend and therefore stamp the show as serious. Some show organizers give quiet incentives to these big companies, knowing that once they sign up, many others will rush in. Without heavyweight exhibitors, customers don’t think the show serious either, and with fewer customers…you get the idea.

After five fallow years, Reading got a brand-new show—the 1985 Reading Aerofest, staged by the Reading Airport Authority. It continued for several years as a single weekend event, Friday evening through Sunday. The show sponsored its own banquet without the involvement of commercial aviation vendors. Show coordinator Louise Grim added a merry-go-round, simulators, a space jump, and balloons and ice cream. Within two years the event had enticed the Thunderbirds to return, but the team had to stage from Harrisburg International Airport, which was 60 miles away but, unlike Reading, had a runway long enough to meet the Air Force’s new minimum of 7,000 feet.

Aerofest’s last show, in 1998, booked the Blue Angels, Ken High and his Super Shockwave jet truck, Robosaurus (which scoops up and crushes cars in his claw), U.S. national aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 300S, Bobby Younkin in his Beech 18, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team. Grim notes, “Hotel space and parking is still a problem here, due to airport development, along with new FAA requirements for sterile areas during the performance of military teams.”

Reading Aerofest directed auto traffic to county property beyond the airport boundary and bused in attendees. “It’s very costly but it seems to help,” says Grim. There were signs of the former profiteering that helped drive commercial patrons away in the past. “Some of the areas near the county property we do need to—quote—rent for the weekend from farmers,” says Grim.

Although Breithaupt still lives in Reading, he has not been to the local airshow since it changed formulas.

Joe’s Restaurant closed its doors in 1996 after 80 years in business, partly from the waning fortunes of the Reading show. Czarnecki moved to the Oregon coast, where he bought the small-town, Joel Palmer House restaurant. The house specialty: mushrooms.

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