The Confederate Air Force?
One of the most successful - certainly the biggest - Pikes Peak region Bicentennial event in 1976 was the great Military Air Show held on the 3d and 5th of July, 1976. Our Pikes Peak or Bust by '76 Committee organized it all, took all the financial risks, and carried it off perfectly as well as profitably. 95,000 people, most, but not all, came from El Paso County. The largest event in Colorado Springs history.
It started - like many other efforts in the Pikes Peak region - by a group of retired Air Force and Army Air Corps pilots who wanted to draw the Texas-based "Confederate Air Force" to Colorado to put on their annual air show. And as usual those advocates went to all the typical top-drawer Colorado Springs organizations and leaders to raise the $50,000 it would require to bring it off.
The CAF, cutely but badly named (they later changed it) was a Texas based group of private pilots whose members owned a wide variety of World War II combat aircraft. In Texas they put on a series of air shows, charging normally $15 a person to see them fly, dive, and zoom in everything from P-51s to a B-29. They flew their planes for nothing, but wanted to pay for the staggering amount of gas they required.
Colorado Springs, being a Air Force Academy, NORAD, and retired military pilots town was a natural to want such a show, as their way to Celebrate the Bicentennial.
Fund Raising Dead End
Even though there were more than a few retired 1 to 4 star general officers among the advocates of the show, they ran into a stone wall trying to get any organization to guarantee the money. Assuming this was a very military-friendly town they first approached the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, who said no. Then they went to what is called the Clearing-House Banks - who pool some money for military related projects. They said no. So finally, the most senior retired 4 star Air Force General Robert Lee who had recently been the NORAD commander, approached the City Council to support the show. They also said no. So much for the military friendly town.
But somebody - I was never sure who - suggested they contact retired Army Colonel Dave Hughes and his Pikes Peak or Bust by '76 organization, who had carried off the Freedom Train project at the last minute when Denver backed out.
An Army Grunt's Way of Getting Things Done
So I was invited to a meeting at a Colorado Springs Bank by the advocates for the Air Show. A Bank President, Wes Strain, had been recruited by them to be their financial advisor. It was in his bank, around a long table we met. Two retired AF Generals, 4 Star Lee and 1 Star Ingelido, an ex Air Force POW Tom Story and two or three other retired Air Force colonels and the bank president Strain sat on one side of the table. While I and two others, including Wes Colbrun, an ex banker I trusted, on the other.
I was, by this time, generally familiar with what was proposed for the air show and what the Confederate Air Force was about.
The fly boys described just how many Texas based flyers were willing to bring their WWII birds to Colorado Springs and what it would take - $50,000 for gas - which would have to be guaranteed the CAF before they could commit to the show in Colorado.
Given the scope of the show, the number of planes, the character of Colorado Springs, I thought to myself this could draw a pretty big crowd IF it were promoted well. In the tens of thousands. But that the $50,000 would not cover all the OTHER costs such a show would entail. From bleachers to bathrooms.
I asked a few questions about how much the Texans charged for tickets at their shows, how many attended, and so forth. Then Bank President Wes Strain spoke up.
He said bluntly that Colorado Springs is not big enough to support such a show at that cost. He said it was a lost cause.
I looked at him, and once again measured my judgment of what Americans would be willing to do, against a city VIP's judgement. I said words to the effect that I disagreed. I thought a large Air Show, given the rising Bicentennial interest, could be a winner. But the scope of the Air Show should be broadened on the theme "America's Air Heritage" and maybe be called the "Colorado Centennial Memorial Air Show" with the Confederate Air Force show at its heart, but lots of other things like acrobatics from local flyers, Army Air participating, and even getting antique planes, if only for display as part of the show.
I saw eyes light up across the table. I had just raised the ante, and broadened the appeal. The zoomies got it.
Then I said that if you retired pilots agree to manage all the flight operations and flight safety, and understood that this Army Colonel - me - would control every dollar of the finances, and if I can depend on you guys in blue to do some of the volunteer work we would need to support the show. I added, that with all the anti-war hippies around, we have to make a secret plan with a secret code broadcast over the PA system for dealing with one of them setting off a bomb or something. And there has to be a 'disaster' - air crash into the crowd, or bomb - emergency. I suggest you ask Maytag whether he will loan his large commercial hanger for the day to take casualties.
i.e. this old Army grunt knew how to plan operations better than the zoomies, who only know how to fly planes well and shoot down others.
They agreed (and had never thought of such eventualities).
I already had some ideas of how to both raise up front money, and promote the show. Once again I read the American public - including in and around Colorado Springs differently than Wes Strain, or other notable City 'leaders' did. And I secretly knew that, as an old Army Colonel who had handled thousand times more men and dollars at Fort Carson, that I, with the help of ex-banker Wes Colbrun could control the beans better than the zoomies across from me could, regardless their past rank and Air Force service.
The zoomies across the room agreed. Wes Strain kept silent.
The Fund Raising Starts to Roll
Once again I thought a bottom up effort to raise funds even before ticket sales would be the way to go. And not go back to the VIPs of town first. As we huddled at the next meeting I ticket off all the low military rank organizations in town. Like the cadets at the Air Force Academy, the Retired Enlisted Man's Association - outside of Texas, the largest one in the county. The 'Air Force Sergeants' and the Fort Carson Warrant Officers (Helicopter pilots) group.
The Retired Enlisted Man's Association donated the first $1,000. LTC Tom Story, who had been a POW after being shot down over Vietnam, was not an academy grad, but as a flight instructor was known to cadets, made a pitch over the PA system at Cadet Supper one night - and $1,745 came in from them.
As I thought - money coming in from such low rank military started to shame the wealthier power structure leaders of the city. One way to get them on board was to do it without them, just as I launched the entire Bicentennial by organizing ordinary people, not VIPs. After the Chamber - which had turned down assisting the Air Show - put the next $1,000 in, donations began to flow. Before the show date, 325 individuals had contributed nearly $14,000 before income from various activites at the airport were counted.
I had made one other decision about the timing of the air show. I was aware that there would be a big all day traditional free picnic and musical festival in Memorial Park, featuring the evening music by the Colorado Springs Symphony on the 4th of July. I did not want the air show ruining that day of all days, competing with the Park Activities which would, themselves attract 20-30,000 people. And it seemed more fitting, when the 200th anniversary of the peaceful signing of the Declaration of Independence was going to be celebrated on the 4th of July, that it be bracketed by America's military air might on the 3d and 5th.
But I also had a good substitute for what the Confederate Air Force could do on the 4th. Since I knew that there would be a burst of publicity in both papers, including Denver's and over television and radio after a spectacular show on the 3d, that if the CAF flew over Denver on the 4th - it would be great promotion for the show on the 5th.
I was right, while 30,000 people attended the Air Show on the 3d, there was bumper to bumper traffic coming down to the airport from Denver on the morning of the 5th. Which led to 65,000 people attending on that day - or a total of 95,000 paid attendees.
The air minded were ecstatic. Enthusiasm raged. Everybody wanted to be involved. A Reservist Air Force Colonel - E. M. Guyerman wanted to bring his 260 1/72 scale model WWII aircraft from Chicago and display them for everyone to see. 1976 was the first Female cadets admitted to the Air Force Academy. The Academy wanted to bring those 'plebes' to the show - to see, up close, WWII military aircraft. Rick Broome - an outstanding aircraft illustrator - who commanded high prices for his paintings of modern and old military aircraft was willing to illustrate the cover of a slick-print Air Show Program for nothing. The 'Old Retired Bastards Club' negotiated the way for one of the last remaining Eagle Rock biplanes which were built in Colorado Springs to be trucked, disassembled, by the Air Force from the owner's ranch in Texas, and be reassembled for a static display by local men who had actually built and flew the Eagle Rock in the 1920s. A very old pilot, Reggie Sinclaire wanted to attend the show - for he flew and fought with the French Lafyette Escadrille in 1916 in WWI. Navy fliers wanted in, and flew some of their birds.
And as I also calculated the Defense Department, during this Bicentennial Year, would have ordered all Military commands to 'cooperate' with local celebrations. So we got no grief from the Military side of Peterson Field. Of course probably 5,000 airmen and their families watched the show from the 'other side' of the field - free - and they could hear the booming PA system.
To cover early costs of the show, I went to the City Council, given the good publicity so far and asked for SOME City contribution toward it - which was promising to be a success. The Council, headed by Mayor Larry Ochs, an oil man, passed a resolution that said the City would cover the first $5,000 of LOSS on the show! What faith and confidence in me! I almost refused it.
So I then took that Resolution to Banker Wes Strain and said HERE is a guarantee you will be paid back the $5,000 I want your bank to LOAN our Air Show Committee now. He had to make us the loan.
I visited Fort Carson and met with its then Commanding General. I said "I need to ask for one of your Engineer Battalions to put up bleachers for over 1,000 spectators. But I can offer you the opportunity for one of your Army Helicopter Companies to do a fly bye in the Air Show, underscoring the fact that the first aircraft were flown by Army officers. He agreed, and OH-58 UH-1 CH-47 AH-IG flew in the show while an early L-4 was displayed. Even the early Air Mail from Cheyenne to Pueblo 50 years earlier got into the act.
I got a Retired AF Brigadier General to command the Porta-Potty brigade. Consessioners abounded. Everybody, including my kids, sold programs. Lots of volunteers.
And since it would be a huge task to have people pay by the person at the gates, we agreed to charge only $15 a CARLOAD of people, who could park in large fields. (In Texas they charged $15 a person to see their show) It was easier to collect that at the drive in parking entrance. Wes Colbrun, my ex-banker buddy in Old Colorado City handled the finances.
Three sets of stunt pilots, several parachute teams including the Army's Golden Knights jumped.
The End Economics of the Great Colorado Springs Air Show
The sweetest conclusion to the entire event came at 8AM the next morning, the 6th, when Mayor Ochs called me at home. I knew what he really wanted to know was how we did, financially. And I knew he thought the city might have to make up our expected losses.
He started by saying what a wonderful Air Show that was. (But I knew he saw how much gas that B-29 Superfortress was taking as it flew low over the airfield, for his family was in the oil and gas business)
I thanked him for the compliment. And then said, "Remember we said it would cost $50,000 to put on that show? Well, actually it cost $92,000"
He gasped. But I toyed with him before saying "But guess what Larry. We took in over $100,000! We MADE $8,000!" Which would be used to fund other Centennial Bicentennial Projects.
That was the last time City Council or Larry Ochs doubted Dave Hughes ability to get things done. By the time I undertook to revitalize the Westside - and Old Colorado City - based on small, not large, business and historic preservation, they listened to my plans more than doubting me.
At the end I took a $5,000 check over to Wes Strain's Bank and personally handed it to him - who had said Colorado Springs would never pay for such a show - in repayment of his loan.
Below is a copy of the Financial Report Wes Colbrunn gave to me a week after the show. It was Preliminary, but the numbers did not change after that.
Of course the show was a smashing success. There were no problems worth mentioning. The airplane drivers knew who made it happen so well. So they came back two years later to see if I would do it again. No thanks. I was already working on other projects.
Spectacular Air Show Visuals
In the next The Bicentennial (5) after this one, 19 key pages of the 32 page Program that became an Historical item have been digitized for your viewing. It reveals the program, the planes that would fly and those on display, and lots of local aviation History.