June 4, 2024
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AirFest in Santa Maria exposes public to aviation industry


A father and son check out an aircraft at the 2018 Central Coast AirFest at the Santa Maria Public Airport.

Santa Maria is rekindling its history in aviation and connecting people with an industry that is often not experienced up-close.

The second annual Central Coast AirFest, a two-day airshow on Oct. 12-13, will be held this year at the Santa Maria Public Airport in partnership with Central Coast Jet Center.

“This is a way to recruit for aviation, whether it’s civilian, military or commercial,” said Airshow Director Chris Kunkle, who operates Central Coast Jet Center with his dad Jeff Kunkle.

The show’s purpose is partly to address a national shortage of commercial pilots, mechanics and aviation workers by generating an interest in flying in kids and adults. It’s also a reminder of Santa Maria’s and North Santa Barbara County’s roots in aviation.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, private training was conducted for some 8,000 military cadets, pilots and mechanics on the property where Allan Hancock College currently stands, Kunkle said. The airport used to be a training base for World War II pilots.

“A goal of mine is to inform the community that this is where we came from,” Kunkle said. “It’s a huge part of why we brought this back. We live this aviation legacy that a lot of people don’t even know about.”

Last year, the event attracted about 18,000 people and brought in international talent, featuring well-known Canadian military jet team the Snowbirds. This year, organizers anticipate attendance will be 20,000 to 22,000.

Performers will include the U.S. Air Force F-16 Viper demo team, pilots and aerobatic champions Rob Holland and California-native Vicky Benzing.

Pilot Erick Tucker will also perform his J-3 Cub comedy act, and McDonalds is sponsoring a kids zone with obstacle courses and mechanical activities.

The show has positive economic impacts for Santa Maria. Last year, nearly 1,500 people visited from outside the Central Coast and Santa Barbara County, said Kunkle and Santa Maria Visitors Bureau Director Jennifer Harrison.

Direct event spending totaled nearly $160,000, Kunkle said. Harrison estimated the community benefit at about $435,000 in terms of guest spending, hotel bookings and food and beverage sales.

Although the majority of attendees will be local, Harrison said this year’s event will hopefully see an increase in visitors because marketing efforts outside the area have been a little more aggressive.

“We are excited to have an event like this in our community. The community really rallied around it last year,” she said.

Event organizers set the bar at “a really high level” with last year’s show, which was “super impressive” for an event of its scale, she added.

Although there were some logistical hiccups last year, those have been addressed early on this year, Harrison said.

Improvements in parking and ticketing at entrances during the event weekend should make things run more smoothly this year, Kunkle said.

Community involvement has also been strong. The airshow closed its sponsorships earlier than anticipated because all the VIP events had been filled, Kunkle said.

Some 300 community members are expected to volunteer this year, said airshow organizer Esmeralda Mendoza, who is the director of operations at Art Craft Paint, an aviation maintenance business located at the Santa Maria Airport.

Last year, some of the event proceeds were given to community service organizations because airport and show directors felt it was important to give back to the community, she added.

The aviation field can be challenging to showcase because of rigid security, but it’s important for kids to have a chance to engage with aircraft up-close and in person, Kunkle said. He transitioned into the aviation industry as a third-generation business owner, and his grandpa served as a World War II pilot.

“I think aviation in general is built on generations,” Kunkle said. “It’s a way to get kids or young people out to the airport and interested in jobs there.”

The event picked up speed this year because it took home the highest award for “Best Small Civilian Airshow” at the International Council of Airshows’s convention in Las Vegas for its 2018 air show. Kunkle said that made selecting talent easier this year because the show had already made a name for itself.

“You can’t just have them (performers) come to Santa Maria; they have to want to come,” he said, adding that a safe and professional event with a good turnout is key to attracting top talent. “I think that’s what we proved after last year, that we have that.”

• Contact Annabelle Blair at ablair@pacbiztimes.com.