Philadelphia Daily News
August 17, 2009
By JASON NARK
When you’re upside down in the cramped cockpit of a well-oiled relic with 1,500 horsepower keeping you between the clouds and death, it’s hard to believe that your pilot’s not a gambling man.
It helps to remember that Jim Beasley Jr. is a soft-spoken Philadelphia lawyer and married father of five – but his love of racing dirt bikes, of listening to heavy metal and of doing acrobatics in his squadron of World War II-era fighter planes creeps back into your mind as the g-force smashes you into your seat.
Fortunately for this reporter, a recent flight with Beasley from his hangar at Chester County Aviation in Coatesville was just a mild practice run for Wednesday’s Thunder Over the Boardwalk Air Show in Atlantic City, an annual event that has quickly become one of the resort’s biggest draws, bringing in more than 500,000 visitors for the day.
“They’ll all look like ants to me; I’ll be able to see traffic all the way down the expressway,” said Beasley, who will lead the Horsemen, the world’s only P-51 Mustang acrobatic team, as they buzz South Jersey’s beaches. “It’s going to be an awesome show, and it helps the city, too.”
As long as the weather is nice, tourism and casino officials and business owners say, Wednesday’s Thunder will produce “oohs” and “aahs” and, it is hoped, some much-needed economic help, as Atlantic City grapples with its worst economic slump since gambling was legalized in 1978.
“If I told you I could get an event that could bring in up to 800,000 midweek, you’d go crazy, you’d flip over it,” said Dave Coskey, vice president of marketing at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which is sponsoring the air show. “If you’re looking in tough economic times for a family outing before everyone goes back to school, you can pack them up, bring them to A.C. for the day and see a free air show on a free beach.”
Despite beaches that are free, as well as amusements and the recent addition of large shopping venues, Atlantic City has had trouble convincing families that it offers more than poker, nightclubs and comedy acts.
In recent years, the tanking economy and increased gaming competition in Pennsylvania and Delaware have taken their toll on casinos. New casino projects have stalled or have been nixed altogether, and Bader Field, one of the nation’s first airports, has failed to attract developers despite its 142 acres of flat, clear land just blocks from the boardwalk.
Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, said the air show, one of the largest in the country, strips away the adults-only stereotype more than any other event, at a time when it’s desperately needed.
“There’s a lot of image-building going on during an event that large,” he said.
The air show may account for the busiest day of the year for some boardwalk businesses, Kelly said.
Sharon Franz, sales and marketing director for the historic Steel Pier on the boardwalk, said the pier will be open to the public for air-show viewing and, ideally, for increased business afterward.
“It’s great for the city and great for business,” she said. “Once people come here, they see other things we have. I have five family members coming in from Lancaster for the show.”
At the popular White House Sub Shop on Arctic Avenue, owner Jen Basile said she’ll be serving up thousands of sandwiches, which is good for any day.
“For midweek, you can’t beat it,” she said.
Beasley and flying partner Ed Shipley, of Philadelphia, said Atlantic City’s show is better for those attending than such events held on expansive airstrips.
“You’re not just sitting out there on some hot ramp waiting,” said Beasley. “Visually, it’s amazing.”
Beasley and Shipley, along with flying as the Horsemen in a handful of shows around the globe, also are trying to turn the nation’s love of air shows into profits with an aviation-related business venture.
They hope their Web site – AirShowBuzz.tv (asb.tv) – will become the go-to site for anything and everything about air shows and acrobatic flying, including reality-TV-like episodes of “The Horsemen,” Shipley said.
“We looked into it, and about 28 million people a year go to air shows in this country,” said Shipley, a television and film producer. “That’s twice the size of the NFL. We’re trying to put together a place where everyone can meet.”
For Beasley – who says he sometimes spends up to 100 hours a week in the courtroom and his office – blasting across Delaware Valley at 400 mph isn’t just an expensive hobby or business interest; it’s an unorthodox path to inner peace that no golf outing could achieve.
“The thing about flying is you’re focusing on one thing the entire time you’re doing it. I come here to unwind,” said Beasley, 42, sitting inside a hangar filled with motorcycles, leather couches and gleaming warbirds in various states of repair.
“I don’t want to become like Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining,’ ” added Beasley, whose father was a legendary trial lawyer – and also a pilot – who died in 2004.
The Atlantic City air show will feature flights and performances by the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, the Horsemen P-51 Mustang team, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration, the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team Jump and more. The show will begin about 10:30 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. Admission is free on the beach and boardwalk.
For more information about the event, including parking, shuttle and premium seating on the beach, visit http://www.atlanticcitynj.com/acairshow.aspx