Meet the Fokkers

"We sold our car division years ago," explains Rodman, conference and events manager in the company's civil aerospace division. "Now we make plane engines." And to build relationships with companies that buy, or might buy, those engines, Rolls-Royce invites their representatives to a customer event held during the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, a vintage airplane show that Rolls-Royce sponsors every year in Reno, NV.

The company isn't the only Invitational sponsor—the others are the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the Reno Air Racing Foundation, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum—but "we basically do everything" to organize it, says Rodman, who handles both the customer event and much of the Invitational. Indeed, it was Rodman's boss, Ken Perich, who dreamed up the Invitational in the first place.

Perich, an avid attendee of the Reno Air Races—the country's only venue for plane racing—was inspired by the vintage aircraft he saw there. He devised the Invitational, a display of antique planes held during the Air Races, as a way to encourage the preservation of these "national treasures" via a friendly competition.

Flying Down to Reno
To be eligible for display, vintage planes must be at least 45 years old, restored to their original condition, and airworthy, meaning they must be flown to the venue (Stead Airport, a disused airfield in Reno). Once there, their owners compete in several different categories: Antique (pre-1935), Classic (post-1935), Military, and People's Choice, plus an overall category. There are five judges, all affiliated with the Smithsonian.

Entrants cover their own expenses, which are considerable—making Rodman's biggest challenge convincing people to enter. "But it's becoming a prestigious event, so that's getting easier," she notes. A group of 30 on-site volunteers receives the planes and sets them up for display—"they work all year long putting this together"—while Rodman and her team handle logistics and VIP transportation arrangements from their Virginia office.

Meanwhile, customers (whose expenses are covered) get a welcome barbecue, hospitality tent, gift bags, and a thank-you plaque at the end—not to mention guest speakers, joyrides in B-17s, and a sky-box view of the show.

Surprise Guest
Though Invitational winners don't get all the booty that customers do, they do receive trophies (except for the overall winner, who gets his or her name printed on a plaque displayed on the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy, which resides at a branch of the Smithsonian). They also get to meet the first guy to walk on the moon—Neil Armstrong himself, who's there handing out the trophies.

Armstrong is well known for his reclusiveness, but Rodman—who's also worked with Chuck Yeager and other aviation VIPs—says he's not difficult or demanding. Rather than have Rodman handle his transportation, he even prefers to hitch a flight from a plane-owning friend. "He's a lovely man," she says. "In the aviation community, people for the most part are very nice and down-to-earth."

National Aviation Heritage Invitational, 2007
Held since: 1999
Attendees: Thousands
Customer attendees: 200
Entries: 23

Originally published April 01, 2008

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