What started as a small grassroots effort to share California’s San Martin Airport with the community grew to an event that saw over 2,000 guests and nearly 60 fly-in aircraft.
Hosting your own fly-in can be a difficult yet fun and rewarding way to bring your airport and community together. Every airport will have different parameters and every event will have different goals, but I hope my experience provides some useful tips and tricks help your event take off.
It started as a simple idea: to share our airport and love for aviation with our local community. All I needed to do was find a like-minded individual to help me get this idea off the ground. Local flight instructor and recent acrobatic fanatic Dr. Joe McMurray had been itching to have an airport event, so I reached out with my idea. His response was an immediate and enthusiastic, “Yes!”
We had our first hangar meeting a few days later and made two core decisions:
We knew we weren’t going to get very far without permission, permits, and pricey insurance, so we decided to contact our local county airport supervisor with our idea. To our surprise, Santa Clara County Airports staff gave us their full support and asked how they could help. You’d be surprised how much your local county or municipality is willing to contribute if someone else is willing to do most of the planning. The county promised to provide the necessary insurance and rentals of essentials (port-a-potties, trash receptacles, tables and chairs, tents, barriers, and AV equipment). The county also provided the manpower for event setup and aircraft marshalling.
We launched the idea with only three months until the date of our event and no advertising budget, so we settled on a grassroots marketing approach. I created an event on Facebook and shared it with local community pages and pilot groups. Then, I designed and printed posters with a QR code linking to the Facebook event and hung them all over town in local businesses. These posters were printed for free, a donation from a local printer. We also reached out to the local newspaper, which did a short feature for us.
Our next order of business was locking down food trucks. It’s helpful to know that many food trucks will offer to donate a percentage of their proceeds to the event fundraiser; however, with no idea how many people would attend, we decided to invite the food trucks with zero monetary obligation. Eight food trucks committed to attending the event, including one that reached out after seeing our poster!
First and foremost, we wanted our airport business tenants to be featured. We invited all airport businesses to park an airplane and set up a table with information. Every flight school and local CFI based at San Martin Airport jumped at the opportunity and used the day to answer questions, have raffles, and sell introductory flights.
It was also extremely important to us to honor military and first responders. We arranged for the local skydiving operator, which would be operating all day, to perform a 9/11 tribute jump over the airport. Other entertainment included the presentation of colors by the local Civil Air Patrol; a tank and military vehicle display; musical guests, including a veteran’s choir; tours of the local A&P school; meet and greet with local firefighters and sheriffs; a visit from the local medevac helicopter; a word from our mayor; and more.
Like many small airports, San Martin Airport does not have formal vehicle parking for event attendees. We opted to use an adjacent field that the county mowed for us before our event. That said, we lacked the manpower to help us organize and park vehicles. Boy Scouts of America, now known as Scouts BSA, is always looking for ways to earn volunteer hours, and the local troop eagerly accepted our request to help with parking. We also provided them with water, a pop-up tent, and a $10 food truck coupon.
Logistically, we thought we had it all figured out. With no idea how many people would attend an event during the coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to have a back-up plan if we ended up filling the aircraft ramp or parking lot. When I brought the concern to the county, they replied, “That will never happen.” Famous last words.
We started setup bright and early on September 11. All entertainment and food trucks arrived on time, and we were ready to go. The event was scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. By 9:30 a.m. guests began arriving, by 1 p.m. our parking lot and aircraft ramp were overflowing. We had done exactly what they said couldn’t be done and were now scrambling to find room for all the cars waiting to park and all the aircraft flying in. Thanks to some quick thinking and teamwork, we were able to fit everyone.
By the end of the day, the event totaled over 2,000 guests and over 60 fly-in aircraft. The food trucks had (happily) sold out of food and the local flight schools had dozens of new leads and booked several introductory flights. In the days that followed, guests raved about the wonderful time they had at the event on social media and were already asking if this would become an annual occurrence. I was happy to tell them that this would be the first of many.
With all events, no matter how successful, there are always things to improve. Here are a few things we are planning to change for our next event.