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No coincidence

How we plan the sweepstakes giveaway ruse

The way an AOPA Sweepstakes winner is chosen is not a secret—but who won is a secret right up until we surprise them.

After an AOPA sweepstakes period ends, Ventura Associates International, an independent judging organization based in New York City, uses a proprietary process to randomly select the winner. Ventura sends AOPA the winning name in a password-protected file and we confirm the winner is an FAA certificated pilot, as per the official rules found at

In mid-January, we received the email we had been eagerly awaiting. It contained the name of the AOPA Sweepstakes Cessna 170 winner: Clifford Gurske, a 30-year AOPA member who lives in Goodyear, Arizona. Incredibly, AOPA would be holding its fly-in at the Buckeye Air Fair just 15 miles west of Gurske’s home in less than a month. AOPA President Mark Baker was already scheduled to host the AOPA Pilot Town Hall during the fly-in on Saturday, February 17, and it would be the perfect venue for Baker to hand the keys to the winner.

It was time to gather a group of sweeps giveaway veterans to brainstorm the ruse: How would we get Gurske to Buckeye Municipal Airport at 1 p.m. on Saturday—guaranteed—without him suspecting anything? Hampering our surprise ideation was Gurske’s job as a check airman for Southwest Airlines; he could be asked to fly at any time. Our most promising scenario entailed calling Gurske under the ruse of asking him to speak on a career panel during the fly-in—but what if he didn’t show up? That just wasn’t an option. We were on the verge of simply telling him he’d won and asking him to arrange his schedule to be at Buckeye to accept his prize when a few Southwest insiders took the reins of the ruse.

It turns out AOPA Vice President of Pilot Information Center Dave Roy’s daughter Maddie Nordin works at Southwest in human resources. We asked if she could contact Gurske’s manager to see if he was scheduled to fly that day. She called Southwest assistant chief pilot Mel Meadows who confirmed Gurske had a three-day trip scheduled during the fly-in. But Meadows was so excited for Gurske, he contacted Southwest headquarters and was not only able to get approval to pull Gurske’s trip with pay, he also convinced Southwest to buy a booth at the AOPA Fly-In exhibit hall so he could require Gurske to staff the booth under the guise of pilot recruitment. Meadows and Nordin would both attend to make sure Gurske showed up—and to ensure he would attend the Pilot Town Hall. Meanwhile, sweepstakes project manager Cayla Hunt and commercial pilot friend Parker Thaxton flew the airplane 1,420 nautical miles from Atlanta to Buckeye. The ruse was set.

Giveaway day dawned clear and cool. By 10 a.m. Gurske had arrived to staff the Southwest booth, completely unaware he soon would be the center of attention. The Southwest team took a photo of Gurske and sent it to us so we would know what our “mark” looked like that day, and the AOPA media team carefully staged their whereabouts so that Gurske would always be in view. We even mounted a video camera on a flagpole to get an aerial perspective.

When the Pilot Town Hall ended, Baker announced someone in the tent had won the sweepstakes and asked everyone to circle around the Cessna 170. The anticipation was palpable as hundreds gathered around the airplane. It was no coincidence Gurske was standing right in front of the Cessna 170 during the giveaway—Meadows and Nordin had intentionally led him there.

AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman had brilliantly suggested revealing the winner through a process of elimination of those present—which we did. “If you are a pilot, raise your hand,” I said, as most raised their hands. “If you live in Arizona, keep your hand up.” Some hands went down. “If you are a professional pilot, keep your hand up.” More disappointed pilots lowered their hands. “If you have a type rating in a 747, keep your hand up. If you have a type rating in a DC–3, keep your hand up.” We anticipated Gurske’s hand would be the only one raised—few have that unique combination of aviation experience.

Some who viewed the giveaway video commented the sweepstakes was “rigged” because we were giving the airplane away to someone we knew. In fact, we only knew so much about Gurske because of all the research we had done after learning he was the winner. And the surprise seemed too good to be true because the ruse worked perfectly, thanks to the secrecy of all involved. For the rest of the story and a video of the giveaway, see “Briefing: Surprise Sprung at Buckeye.”

[email protected]

Alyssa J. Miller
Kollin Stagnito
Senior Vice President of Media
Senior Vice President of Media Kollin Stagnito is a commercial pilot, advanced and instrument ground instructor and a certificated remote pilot. He owns a 1953 Cessna 170B.

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