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Ford Lauderdale Air Show Turns South Florida Skies Into a Grand Spectacle

The air show returns to Fort Lauderdale this year with a new name and new aircraft.

It’s official. It’s the Ford Lauderdale Air Show, even if the papers sometimes call it the Fort Lauderdale Air Show. After all, the catchy name is what attracted Allan Young in the first place. In fact, it was his idea. 

Young is chairman of the board for the South Florida Ford Dealers, consisting of 28 dealers from Fort Pierce to the Florida Keys on the east coast, from Naples to Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast. He is also the owner of Wayne Akers Ford in Lake Worth. The man is a born promoter. His office walls attest to his group’s community involvement. There are shots of Miami sports figures and teams, and there is a framed Miami Dolphins jersey, all representing teams with which Young has worked with at one time or another.

Indeed, it was through another major community sponsorship that Young became aware of the opportunity to be a title sponsor for this year’s revived air show. He was at a meeting with the Winterfest Boat Parade committee, of which Ford is a sponsor, when he learned that the air show was searching for a title sponsor.

It needed one. Recall that when the show was launched spectacularly in the mid-1990s, it was called the Shell Air and Sea Show per Shell Oil Company. That was a good corporate fit. Airplanes need gas. And so was the later sponsor, McDonald’s, with its wholesome family image. Then, due to circumstances beyond the control of the sponsor, the show, although increasingly successful, was suspended for several years.  It was brought back in 2012, thanks to the efforts of the Motwani family, prominent beachfront property owners and developers elsewhere in the city. They brought aboard Brian Lilley, an experienced air show producer, to restore what had been, both to the audience and performers, one of the most popular air shows in the country.

Ford became involved too late last year to get much publicity. The announcement came just weeks before the May weekend date. There wasn’t time to include Ford’s historic blue oval logo in the pre-show promotion. Many people who flocked to the show center on A1A in front of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park did not even know Ford was involved.

There is no doubt about it this year. “Ford Lauderdale” is a natural title. It is obviously a play on the name Fort Lauderdale, and it also gives the sponsor great visibility. 

Young takes only partial credit for the name. He explains:

“I was kicking it around with Gregg Snowden from our advertising agency (J. Walter Thompson), who works closely with our South Florida team, and we just stayed with it. It was a fit. Marketing is marketing. The Lord put it in front of us. I outshot my skill set this time. I have to thank the promoters for having the courage to go with it. All I wanted was to brand our name in South Florida. We’ve done 100 events, but this is the only one that has our name connected with a great city like Fort Lauderdale. There’s nothing cooler than an air show. Our blue Ford logo is the second most recognizable in the world, after McDonald’s. It’s an honor to be part of it.” 

That run-on, almost stream of consciousness paragraph, is no accident. No stenographer can keep up with Young’s machine gun delivery. No need for questions with this fellow. He interviews himself, and it is that dynamic personality and flair for promotion that made him a general manager of an auto dealership at age 26. A native of Fairport Harbor on Lake Erie in Ohio (not far from Don Shula’s hometown), he grew up in the auto business. His mother and stepfather worked for General Motors for 30 years. He was an all-around athlete, named Ohio’s small school athlete of the year, which explains his teaming with sports organizations in Florida.

He was general manager of a Chevrolet dealership in Greenacres, west of Lake Worth, in 1989, when AutoNation bought the agency. That was when he joined Fred Akers, where he is now.

One of Young’s favorite words, at least when it comes to marketing, is “experiential.” And no one who meets him can forget the experience. And he says that experience, at least with the air show, is here to stay.

“I’m in with both feet,” he says. “You can’t pry me away from it.”

Allan Young is chairman of the board for the South Florida Ford Dealers, and the owner of Wayne Akers Ford in Lake Worth. The agency is a high-tech facility with a lobby that has hosted art shows and community events.
The GEICO Skytypers perform their close formation aerobatics in the legendary SNJ, a U.S. Navy development of a training plane that first flew more than 80 years ago. It remained active as a trainer for 34 air forces well into the jet age.
The venerable Ford Trimotor was a pioneer in aviation transport in the 1920s. It made many historic flights. A few survive today in flying condition.


Having a premier corporation behind the show is great news for local business people who have worked to revive it for several years. An auto company being associated with an air show may seem like an odd coupling, but not to aviation historians.

The fact is, the name Ford has been associated with airplanes since almost the birth of aviation. After succeeding in mass-producing his Model T Fords, Henry Ford became fascinated with vehicles that fly. Ford built one of the first successful commercial aircraft. The Ford Trimotor appeared in 1926 and was purchased by numerous pioneer airlines; 199 copies were produced before production ended in 1933. Among them was Ford’s own airline, Ford Aviation Transport, an air freight outfit that was the first to fly airmail.

The Trimotor wasn’t pretty. The third engine in the nose was ungainly, and its air-cooled radial engines had no cowlings. It was based on a German Junkers design, so much so that a patent infringement lawsuit followed. It was a sturdy and reliable machine, which achieved many firsts, including Richard Byrd’s flight over the South Pole, and many of Pan American’s flights from Miami to South America. It managed to keep flying for commercial purposes into the 1960s. A handful survive today, used mostly on tourist operations—on which the airplane itself is the star of the tour.

By 1933 it was outdated by more modern designs such as the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2. By then Henry Ford had lost some of his enthusiasm for aviation after his chief test pilot died in a crash. Germany, however, continued to refine the trimotor concept, and its Junkers 52 was its primary transport in World War II.

Although Ford had stopped building its own planes, in World War II it became a major manufacturer of engines and aircraft designed by other companies. Its Willow Run plant, outside Dearborn, Michigan, had a production line a mile long. It built thousands of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers, which, along with the Boeing B-17, became the primary weapons in the campaign to destroy Nazi Germany’s industry. Ford built other airplane parts as well, and by the war’s end, it had built thousands of complete aircraft, plus 57,851 airplane engines and more than 4,000 military gliders.

This was in addition to building tanks, trucks and smaller vehicles, including 278,000 of the famous Willys Jeeps. Ford even had a plant in Germany, which the Germans commandeered to produce their own weapons. As the Allies swept across Western Europe, German employees ignored orders to destroy the plant in Cologne, and it actually produced its first post-war truck on May 8, 1945—the date the war in Europe ended.   

The GEICO Skytypers are based in Farmingdale, Long Island at Republic Airport. Like its World War II vintage airplanes it hosts, the field has a wartime history. It served Republican Aviation, which built 9,000 P-47 Thunderbolt fighters during the war. Most of the GEICO pilots are ex-military, some with combat experience. A number are also commercial pilots.


North American Aviation produced some of the most successful military aircraft in history. During World War II it built the P-51 Mustang, the best piston engine plane of the war, and the North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, also a leader in its class. The latter gained enduring fame as the plane launched from an aircraft carrier in the historic Toyko raid of 1942. North American followed those triumphs with the F-86 Sabre jet of Korean War fame.

But those contributions may not exceed the stature of another North American plane, designed before any of the above, which never fired a shot in combat—at least not in United States colors. It was produced in greater numbers (more than 15,000) than the others and has survived in quantity for more than 75 years. It has flown under more national insignia than possibly any other military aircraft and has probably been flown by more pilots than any American military aircraft. It even has more than one name. And it is one of the stars of this year’s Ford Lauderdale Air Show. 

That plane is the North American SNJ, or “AT-6 Texan” as it was known in the Army Air Force, or the “Harvard,” which was its name in the version built for Great Britain. Whatever it was called, it became a legendary trainer for thousands of World War II airmen and served the military in other capacities into the 1960s. It was close enough to elite fighter plane standards, and yet docile enough to be handled by student pilots to make an excellent trainer. Its unusually broad 42-feet wingspan gives it great stability in aerobatics.

A few actually were used in combat, as observation planes in Vietnam, and as light bombers in the early Middle East wars and in some African anti-terror actions.

     Because its engine is not as high-powered as combat aircraft, it is economical to operate and thus, has found many uses beyond its original purpose. Included is its appearance in air shows as the GEICO Skytypers. 

   The plane was designed in 1935, and the team’s planes were built in 1940-41. They are owned by Larry Arken, whose late father purchased the planes for skywriting purposes. Arken owns the team and flies as its commanding officer.

   Among the unusual roles of the SNJ throughout the years has been that of movie star. Its resemblance to Japanese World War II planes, particularly the formidable Mitsubishi A6M Zero, has led to its use as a Japanese stand-in for a number of films, including “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

The SNJ’s top speed is a little over 200 miles per hour, but that is still fast enough to outrun any speedboat.

Canadian forces Snowbirds

The featured jet aerobatic team in this year’s show is the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. Unlike America’s premier military performers, the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels, it does not fly first line combat aircraft. But also unlike the U.S. teams, it traces its history to an authentic combat unit. 

The 431st Air Demonstration Squadron has its roots in World War II when it began life as a bomber squadron. It flew British Wellington medium bombers and later Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers. It disbanded after the war in 1946. It was reformed briefly in 1954 when it performed demonstrations in the North American F-86 Sabre, the hottest jet fighter in the world at the time. It was just being introduced to The Royal Canadian Air Force. 

There were several attempts at demonstration teams until 1978, when the 431st was again reactivated. The previous demo team had been named the Snow Whites and was renamed the Snowbirds when the squadron reformed. The name had nothing to do with Canadian visitors to Florida in the winter, but rather to Canada’s frequently snowy weather and the fact that the squadron’s aircraft were painted mostly white. By this time their plane was the CT-114 Tutor, a Canadian-built two-seat trainer that dates to 1961. Obviously it isn’t as fast as modern jets, but is still capable of almost 500 mph. It has been retired from normal air force use and is scheduled for replacement as the Snowbirds mount in the next few years.

The Snowbirds are based at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the site of a NATO training base.


MAY 6-7. Fort Lauderdale beach at Birch State Park, north of Sunrise Boulevard.

The show opens at noon with the SOCOM Para-Commandos, a precision parachute team. It ends at 4 p.m. with the featured Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds. Other performers include the U.S. Air Force F-16 Viper demo, the Harrier Jump Jet demo, Sean D. Tucker - Team Oracle aerobatic demo, GEICO Skytypers, U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey demo and Mike Wiskus in the Lucas Oil Pitts aerobatic demo.