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Air Show Difficult to Get Off Ground

September 16, 1986|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The only thing that Paris' cosmopolitan Orly Field has in common with San Diego's Brown Field are runways.

Brown Field, an under-utilized former Navy airfield with no regularly scheduled flights, is just a stone's throw from the Mexican border and is used by Border Patrol agents in their attempt to stem the illegal flood of aliens that nightly passes by, and sometimes through, the field.

What Brown Field has--and Orly Field, home of the influential Paris Air Show, sorely lacks--is hundreds of acres of wide open space.

San Diego-based Air/Space America is hoping to grab enough American aerospace and electronics manufacturers to fill the sun-baked airfield and the skies above with an industry first: a U.S.-based, Paris-style international air and space show in May, 1988.

Despite widespread industry skepticism, Air/Space America, founded last year by retired 28-year U.S. Rep. Bob Wilson, hopes to draw hundreds of thousands of weekend spectators to a pair of spectacular air shows that will feature precision flying teams and an air armada that includes myriad U.S-built commercial and military airplanes.

Sandwiched between those spectaculars would be a Paris-style air show that Air/Space America believes would attract hundreds of air, space and electronics exhibitors and as many as 30,000 potential buyers.

The group's goal has many industry experts shaking their heads. They point to aerospace industry belt-tightening, past failures in attempts to stage a U.S. air show and a proliferation of air shows elsewhere in the world.

"The chances of a successful show being put together in San Diego are about as good as me becoming Pope--and I'm not Catholic," predicted H.G. Hollander, president of American Aerospace Industries, a New York-based marketing company that packages exhibits for companies at various international air shows.

"My guess it that it would be a very difficult thing for them to engineer a lot of enthusiasm in the aerospace industry, given the fact that there's at least one major international show each year," said another Doubting Thomas, a spokesman for Martin Marietta Corp. "I think that the industry in general . . . (is) not really favorable to adding another one."

Air/Space America also has had internal problems. Last week, the organization's president, Roger Tierney, resigned, citing "basic philosophical differences" on show management and funding.

Wilson nonetheless says he remains "encouraged" by Air/Space America's progress. He suggested that Air/Space America, which has been "operating on up-front seed money," is now "moving into the big leagues" in an attempt to attract the $25 million in sponsorships and affiliations he says is needed to produce the show.

Past attempts at establishing a U.S. show have failed, largely because manufacturers say they are already besieged by too many trade and air shows. In the U.S. alone, military contractors can display their wares at trade shows held by the Navy League, the Air Force Assn. and the Assn. of the U.S. Army.

New shows must compete with the Paris Air Show staged during odd-numbered years and the Farnborough, England air show held during even-numbered years. Last year, the Paris show, recognized as the world's most influential, drew 1,000 exhibitors and 110,000 potential buyers, including 32,000 foreign buyers.

New shows in Singapore and Peking have drawn industry support, but exhibitors remain cautious because simply hosting a small booth at an international show can cost as much as $5,000. Transporting an airplane and staging a major marketing campaign can cost millions of dollars, according to industry spokesmen.

Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine dropped plans for a similar air show in Orlando during the early 1980s because "the industry didn't think we needed another air show," according to Aviation Week spokesman Bill Cockren. "The climate might have changed, but five years ago the aerospace industry just wasn't interested."

"The biggest . . . expense of all is the entertainment," complained the vice president of new business development at one West Coast military electronics company. "The travel costs soar because (shows) are great places to party."

Defense contractors are scrutinizing those costs in light of newly adopted federal acquisition regulations that prohibit contractors from passing along most air show costs to the armed forces.

"If the costs are not going to be reimbursable, then the money will be harder to come by," said an executive at a major avionics manufacturer. "There have been a lot of cutbacks, and there is a squeeze on money available even for the existing shows."

Should the San Diego show materialize, "it's very unlikely that we would go all out for it," said a spokesman for Lockheed Corp., which has cut back attendance at existing shows in order to curb costs.

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