Aviation World's Fair 2003: the air fair that won't be

 - May 7, 2008, 10:28 AM

“Why doesn’t the U.S. host a world-class airshow?” It’s a question nearly as old as flight itself. In point of fact, the first recognized air fair per se was held outside Paris in 1909, just six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and a full five years before the airplane was about to come into its own as a weapon of war in nearby European skies.

Since those days, Paris has kept its status as the venue for the world’s premier airshow. Not to be easily outdone, the British soon countered with Farnborough. America has its regional airshows, but they tend to be of the barnstorming variety, not the button-down, business-oriented shows that lure the kind of “qualified buyers” that are the meat and potatoes of the major international exhibitions.

Yet in one sense, the U.S. does have an international airshow–but it takes place in two venues each year. The flying and fun part is held each July by EAA in Oshkosh, while NBAA holds the business part later in the year at various locations.

Aside from an abandoned early 1980s attempt to interest the major airframers in a world-class show prospectively located on what is now Stewart International Airport, some 60 mi up the Hudson Valley from New York City,  the only internationally focused American airshow worthy of the name was a one-shot wonder named Trans Expo, an exposition focusing on all of transportation, not just aviation, and held outside Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1970.

Organizers staged what they promised would be a world-class airshow in San Diego, Calif., in the late 1980s. Like the perennial Dayton (Ohio) International Airshow it never came close to approaching the stature of Paris or Farnborough.

Last month, the latest attempt at an international-style American airshow ran aground on the unforgiving rocks of economic reality when organizers of what had been named the Aviation World’s Fair 2003 were forced to bow to a lack of support, partly from private enterprise but more critically from the state of Virginia, which withdrew $4 million it had pledged to support the fair. This 21-day extravaganza was set to take place next April 7 to 27 at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and was praised by promoters as what would have been the largest spectator event ever staged to honor the history of aviation.

Despite the fact that show organizer Kallman Worldwide of Waldwick, N.J., maintained  the show would generate some $206 million worth of economic activity in the Hampton Roads area (admittedly based, according to a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission study, on what now seems sure to have been the overly optimistic assumption of one million visitors attending the three-week event), the company could produce hard commitments of support from only 110 out of a total targeted audience of 1,600 exhibitors. According to reports, none of those 110 commitments was from major aircraft  manufacturers or aerospace firms.

The State of Virginia claims to have already spent $2.3 million out of its original commitment to lay out $6.3 million for the fair, chiefly on infrastructure improvements on or near the airport. The state had also accelerated financing its half of $28 million worth of support for a future business park at the airport, development of which, bolstered by federal matching funds, was to have been spread over the next 15 years.

For its part, Kallman, which all along claimed that major sponsors were just about to come on board, maintains it is out of pocket to the tune of $4 million. The northern New Jersey company claims to be seeking both a world-class venue and sufficient sponsorship.