|March 30th, 2021|
Source The Orange County Register (TNS)
Mar 30th, 2021
For Sean Tucker, who's widely considered one of the top aerobatic pilots in the world, 2020 was set to be a big year.
After retiring from his 40-year career as a solo pilot performer, Tucker had put together a formation flying team that landed an annual sponsorship contract worth $4.5 million. The plan was to perform at dozens of big and little air shows across the country.
Then COVID-19 hit. Tucker's team lost that lucrative contract and all but a couple of gigs. He was left carrying $2 million in debt, forcing him to lay off 11 people and to sell off two of his prized planes.
But the biggest kick in the gut for Tucker — and for everyone else reliant on the more than 250 airshows typically held around the country each year — came in February. That's when they heard that the Small Business Administration wasn't going to give air show operators access to a $16 billion grant program aimed at helping entertainment venues shuttered by the pandemic. The federal agency didn't consider air shows a "performing art."
"It was offensive, because what is art?" asked Tucker, 68, of the Monterey Bay area.
"I consider this an art form," he added. "My instrument's an airplane. ... I have 15 minutes to be on stage, but my stage is 5,000 feet high and 5,000 feet wide. .. How does the SBA not get that?"
Now Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, is leading a push to get the SBA to reconsider its decision. She recently wrote to the agency, asking that air shows be considered for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which is set to start accepting funding applications April 8.
"Air shows are a source of performer entertainment, inspiration, and patriotism for more than 10 million Americans," reads Steel's letter to SBA chief Isabella Guzman, which has drawn support from a dozen more House members. "Our local air show venues and performers deserve the chance to continue as a cornerstone of local community pride, major economic output, and crucial small business activity."
The issue came to Steel's attention through Kevin Elliott, director of the Great Pacific Airshow, which launched in Huntington Beach under a different name in 2016. Elliott, who in 2019 gave $2,800 to Steel's primary campaign, has joined the International Council of Air Shows in advocating for the industry to get access to the SBA's grant program.
"We have had many performers who've lost their homes and had to sell their aircraft, who have had to retire and hang it up because they don't have another option. Because no one is offering them a lifeline," Elliott said.
"Our desire is not for anybody to change any of the existing legal programs. We simply want to be treated fairly like any other venue operator."
The Great Pacific Airshow has become one of the top air shows in the nation. In 2019, the event attracted nearly 800,000 people to Huntington Beach to watch the famed U.S. Navy Blue Angels jet team, historic war planes and other performers perform over the Pacific Ocean.
A February 2020 economic impact report, commissioned by Visit Huntington Beach and completed by outside firm Destination Analysis, estimated the Huntington Beach show triggered more than $68 million in local spending, with 80% of spectators traveling from out of the area to attend. And Elliott said they're proud of their educational programs, encouraging young people to pursue careers in aeronautics or other science- and math-based fields.
The Huntington Beach show is free to the public. Elliott's team makes its money in sponsorship deals and through selling VIP tents.
Elliott's business lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" they'd already invested when they were forced to cancel the 2020 event, unable to get the permits and agency support needed to perform amid surging coronavirus cases. Gone too was "several million dollars" in revenue Elliot expected to take in last year, including a major sponsorship deal that he said was going to allow them to add a music festival, more food options and other attractions to the event.
The local air show also didn't qualify for a Payroll Protection Program loan, Elliott said, since most of the folks that handle the once-a-year event are contract workers rather than employees. He said he's been paying some out of his own pocket to keep them afloat.
Still, Elliott believes he's one of the lucky ones. Since the air show is just one of many different kinds of events put on by his Code Four production team, he expects to stay in business when COVID-19 settles and the economy returns to normal. For operators who run smaller air shows around the country, and aren't diversified in other types of entertainment, that might not be the case, according to both Elliot and Tucker.
"Unfortunately, it's not a big money maker," Tucker said, noting most air shows are privately owned by smaller "mom and pop" teams who organize the events as passion projects.
"I think we're in a critical moment right now because not many shows had a rainy day fund, or much of a rainy day fund, to put it back together again," said Tucker, who flew his first show in 1976.
"Without venues, I can't go to work."
Along with the stunts performed in the sky, Tucker noted that the shows act as "living museums" as they bring World War I airplanes and other pieces of history from town to town. They often also include live music, motorcycle stunt shows and other entertainment on the ground. So Tucker said he can't understand how the SBA didn't view air shows as performing arts.
When asked how the SBA came to its decision regarding airshows, a spokeswoman cited the same explanation included in a "frequently asked questions" document about the grant program. It states: "The live venue operator or promoter definition under the Economic Aid Act requires an entity to either put on performing arts events at qualifying venues or sell advance tickets to performing arts events at qualifying venues. While an air show is a form of live entertainment, in SBA's opinion it does not constitute a performing art."
The agency said it has received Steel's letter and will be responding to it.
If every air show qualified for the maximum possible funds, Elliott said it would account for less 1% of the money in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.
"You would hardly almost even notice that air shows were included," he argued.
With the pandemic improving, the Great Pacific Airshow is now back on for this fall, with the 2021 show set for Oct. 1 through Oct. 3.
"We want this to be everything that 2020 was going to be and more," Elliott said, including music and shows by both the Canadian Forces Snowbirds and the Blue Angels in their F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter jets.
But even if they get the SBA grant money, Elliott said it might just cover what was lost on the 2020 event. That doesn't account for any drop in revenue for this year's event, which he assumes will happen as companies also hit by the pandemic cut costs. So Elliott said they're going to have to "bootstrap" this year's show.
Tucker — whose trademark solo show included flying his plane sideways and using a wing to cut ribbon held by people on the runway — said he's considered retiring, but the 68-year-old believes he's not finished yet.
So after taking a few months off last year, Tucker's team recently got back to training, conditioning themselves before each flight to set aside the uncertainty hanging over their industry.
"We bet our lives on each other every day," he said. "We really cannot afford to have a bad day."
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