Unique Aviation Careers in the Airshow Industry

Some 320 pilots are sanctioned to perform at airshows in the U.S. and Canada, according to the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS). Matt Chapman is in the top tier, his pumpkin yellow Cap 231EX and signature quadruple Split S maneuver known to millions.

Growing up, Chapman flew RC models until he saw a Pitts Special at his first airshow. "I didn't know airplanes could fly upside down," he says. His RC models went to fund flying lessons, "specifically to be an airshow pilot."

Career Description: Professional Aerobat
Dazzle and inspire audiences with thrilling unusual maneuvers. Find and maintain parallel employment providing financial stability and flexibility to pursue your passion. "It's very difficult to make a living in the airshow industry," Chapman says. Pilots with airshow level skills can find complementary work. Chapman has been flying for American Airlines ("my job, my career") since 1987. "It's really what provides for me, so I make that my priority," he says. "I do utilize the rules of our contract to facilitate flying airshows."

Job Requirements
Airshow pilots must undergo an Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) from ICAS. "It's a two- or three-year process of working your way down in altitude," before performers have no restrictions, says Chapman, a former chair of the ACE Committee. "The downside is, it's reduced the number of new people coming into the industry."

You'll need an airplane, too. When Chapman flew his first show in 1984, "pilots flew homebuilts they had $15,000-$20,000 invested in." Today's high-end aerobatic aircraft "is going to run you $400,000-$450,000," he says, "so the cost and overhead of an airshow airplane is tremendous."

Educational Foundation
"My recommendation is get involved with the IAC (International Aerobatic Club) and start competing," says Chapman, 1994 U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Champion and two-time member of the U.S. Unlimited Men's Aerobatic Team. A flair for showmanship is just as important he says, calling competitive aerobatics "one of the most boring things to watch in the world."

Who's Hiring
Some 325 to 350 airshows are staged in the U.S. and Canada annually. Additionally, sponsors can provide pilots with discounted products or services, or the holy grail of financial support. Chapman, among other affiliations, is an ambassador for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "My job is to let youngsters know there's a place to go," he says.

"It's very difficult to charge enough" to make any profit, says Chapman. Thirty years ago he charged $1,000 to $1,500 per weekend, and today's standard is $10,000 and more. "Initially your eyes light up: '$10,000!,'" he says. "But when you're carrying a $3,000, $3,500 monthly loan note on an airshow airplane, reality sets in pretty quickly."

Career Prospects
Airshows draw an estimated 10 to 12 million people per year, and performers remain the primary attraction. Warbird owners and "specialty acts: flying farmers, car-top landings, jet Wacos," as well as aerobats are needed, says Chapman.

"The most rewarding part for me is coasting up to crowds and walking the flight line - you see the amazement in people's faces, and that's when it really strikes home: Back in '74, '75, I was that kid standing at the line in absolute awe, watching my heroes walk up," Chapman says. "It's my story. It's why I'm here."

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