Photo by Doug Davis
If you enjoy the Stuart Air Show from the ground, consider the perspective of a performer.
Bob Shafer takes in the 1,000-foot view from his Cessna O-2A Fighting Skymaster—employed during the Vietnam War for reconnaissance—and even at that elevation, he still fell in love with the host location.
The move was shaped by his experience at the show, Shafer says.
“It’s very well organized,” he says. “The people putting it together do a splendid job. They treat everyone with respect. And this isn’t their first rodeo.”
Not by a long shot. The Stuart Air Show will celebrate its 30th anniversary Nov. 1 to 3, filling the sky above and the ground of Martin County Airport (Witham Field) with military aircraft, aerial acrobatics, parachute teams and classic, modern and experimental aircraft on static display, alongside exhibit booths, food vendors and midway rides.
“You have that feeling every year—Is it gonna come together? But I myself know it’s gonna come off—it’s gonna happen. It’s just like every year at the air show, except it’s the 30th.” – Rob “Tug” Fink
Easily the most logistically intricate event in the region, the Stuart Air Show—despite encountering occasional turbulence—consistently delivers an experience with enough excitement to entertain, enchant and exhaust the entire family. That’s thanks to the time, toil and tears of an army of more than 800 volunteers.
To better understand the common characteristics and uncommon character that bind together this band of brothers and sisters who make it all possible, we tracked down insights into the mindsets and abilities of aviation’s top guns. We discovered several uncanny similarities between Stuart Air Show volunteers and fighter pilots.
At 70, Rob “Tug” Fink has volunteered with the air show since 1997. The Stuart resident, who used to build aircraft from Grumman Aircraft Engineering, controls the flight line, an imaginary line pilots aim to adhere to during the show. His nickname traces to his days driving an aircraft-tug vehicle that moved planes into place for display.
“You have that feeling every year—is it gonna come together?” Fink says. “Some of the less-experienced volunteers have that feeling. But I myself know it’s gonna come off—it’s gonna happen. It’s just like every year at the air show, except it’s the 30th.”
The roar of fighter jets every Friday before the show reliably alerts the public to the event. But securing military involvement—the top draw—requires about 18 months of advance effort, plus flexibility and creativity.
In 2013, the congressional budget battle (aka, “sequestration”), curtailed Department of Defense funding for tactical demonstration teams. Some 60 percent of air shows nationwide reportedly canceled events. The Stuart Air Show moved forward, even booking specialized vendors who offered Cobra Attack and Huey helicopters for public rides.
Early head sponsors of the air show included the Council on Aging of Martin County and briefly, United Way of Martin County, before the Visiting Nurse Association of Florida (VNA) stepped up in 1999.
“It required full-time involvement, an around-the-clock effort,” says Jennifer Crow, CEO of the VNA.
A passion for aviation motivated former CEO Don Crow to get involved. Over the 11 years that VNA led the effort, Crow developed her own affinity for aviation. After getting to ride along on a T-6 Texan, she even once harbored dreams of owning one of the iconic planes used during World War II to train U.S. airmen and Royal Air Force pilots.
“I got to experience the positive and negative Gs, and the feeling of being pushed down into the seat, and then seeing the sand that you didn’t even know was on the floor suddenly on the ceiling of the plane,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a pilot at that point and get my own plane.”
LOYALTY AND TRUST
Before stepping away from lead sponsorship, the VNA seeded funds to the show to position it for ongoing success, says Chuck Cleaver, board treasurer.
“We’re now working on sustainability, focused on the mission and making sure what we’re doing continues to benefit the community,” Cleaver adds. “It’s all fitting together nicely.”
Operating on what’s basically a “pay-as-you-go” basis, Cleaver says much of the $1 million annual budget covers booking and accommodations for performers. Skylar Gorman, Stuart Air Show’s newly hired executive director, is the only full-time employee. Volunteers pull off everything else, and they’re pumped up for every air show, “regardless if it’s the 30th year,” says Amy Bottegal, board president who through her job at CenterState Bank started with the show 12 years ago.
“We start in January by having monthly meetings with the key leaders,” she says. “We like to get their involvement, as the more someone feels like they have a say in their area of the show, the harder they’re going to work for us.”
HUMILITY, RESPECT, TRADITION
Honoring veterans is a foundational component of the air show.
“To see the number of veterans that come to the show,” says Nick Blount, vice president of the air show board, “and hear them say, ‘That’s just like the plane I flew on in World War II,’ that’s exciting there.”
The featured patriotic traditions often prove as moving for organizers as for attendees.
“Seeing the opening parachute team as the National Anthem plays,” Cleaver says, “that just gives me goose-bumps.”
A particularly poignant moment at the close pays homage to the ultimate sacrifices paid by pilots in aerial battlegrounds in wars’ past.
“The salute to the veterans, and the missing man formation at the end—that’s my favorite part,” Crow says. “I still cry every time. Just to have a moment like that to teach kids what that means is really important.”
INSPIRED AND INSPIRING
Every year, the air show makes donations to the numerous non-profits that lend volunteers to help, Cleaver says. But this event will unfurl a new special exhibit to excite kids about aviation through an attraction originally instituted by a reoccurring sponsor.
In 2015, the Stuart Jet Center created the program “Cleared for Takeoff” to interest students at J.D. Parker Elementary in aviation. Sessions on helicopter engineering, rocket propulsion and drone demonstrations complemented the school’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum.
On Friday afternoons of the air show, Stuart Jet Center arranged for the students to watch from its hangars.
“We thought what they were doing was incredible, so we approached them about hosting the kids from J.D. Parker on the air show grounds and they said, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” Bottegal says.
In addition to hosting J.D. Parker students on air show grounds for the Friday viewing, the event will feature a STEAM World tent with interactive displays such as in-flight virtual reality experiences, drone flying and robotic airplanes.
“We’ve always believed in doing everything possible to introduce kids to aviation and get them engaged,” says Dan Capen, president of the Stuart Jet Center, which also hosts free flights for kids through the ongoing Young Eagles program. “Kids have a natural fascination with aviation—that’s when I first fell in love with it. They’re the next generation of pilots, engineers and mechanics who will take what’s been created and make it even safer, quieter and cleaner. The air show is just going to make these encounters even more exciting for them.”
Every member of the air show team has a love for challenges of immense proportions.
“It goes back to my FPL days,” says Blount, who spent 42 years in operations, externals affairs and community relations for the energy giant, “when we would have hurricanes and we would have all those restoration efforts over at the airport—the excitement of the big event and the success when it’s over.”
That dedication—to the task and community—is perhaps the most common shared quality.
“The monstrosity of the event is such a huge undertaking that it brings out people in this community who really want to take on something like that and be a part of it,” says Bottegal, who dedicates one of her two weeks of annual vacation time to the air show. “Students, professionals, retirees, veterans—so many people want to be a part of it and give their time. They’re a passionate group. I can’t explain the bug you get when you volunteer at the airshow. We’re really a family.”