More than 150 guests on Friday got a sneak peek of the upcoming 2022 Central Coast AirFest — the first in Santa Maria since the pandemic and the first with third-generation aviator Chris Kunkle at the helm. 

While guests enjoyed tri-tip at the kickoff barbecue and posed for photos next to a P-51 Mustang, Kunkle greeted each and every guest. He then gave them a glimpse of what attendees can expect at the Oct. 15-16 show. 

"It's hard to put everything out there on the table just yet, but we really are a full go for this year's AirFest. It should be at least a four- to five-hour show," said Chris, who is running the show with the help of the AirFest committee. "We should see something from the Navy. We'll see the Canadian Snowbirds. We'll also have a P-51 demonstration and plenty of civilian demonstrations. We will share more the closer we get." 

In attendance at the kickoff event were City Council members Mike Cordero and Carlos Escobedo, local business leaders and pilots from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Making conversation among the pilots was Chris' grandfather Jim Kunkle, who was a fighter pilot during World War II and turns 100 years old later this year.

"I agree with Eisenhower that we were on a great crusade," Jim said. "I lost a lot of friends. I flew P-38s out of England, and we felt what we were doing was something really important."

Ever since then, Jim made the skies his home and continues to fly to this day.

"Well, it's been a few weeks now since I flew last, but I'll get out there soon," he said. "There's nothing like the freedom of flying."

This is Chris' first time at the helm since his father first brought the AirFest to Santa Maria in 2018. His father, Jim Kunkle Jr., died in April, leaving Chris, who was vice president of operations, to take over his father's role as president of the Central Coast Jet Center and AirFest.

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"It should have been me. I don't need to live to 100," Jim Sr. said. "That's God's will, though. It's amazing to see Christopher follow in his father's footsteps. I know he'll do well."

In 2008, Jim Jr. built the Central Coast Jet Center on a patch of dirt on the southwest end of the Santa Maria Airport, turning it into an award-winning, luxury, fixed-base operation for corporate, military and Forest Service planes, among others. 

In 2018, he organized the first Santa Maria AirFest. In 2019, it would win the Pinnacle Award for being one of the best small civilian air shows in the world, according to the International Council of Air Shows.

After all that momentum, the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on the next two air shows. 

"That first show in 2020 wasn't going to happen. Maybe in hindsight, we could have done something smaller in 2021, but there was a lot of uncertainty," Chris said. "We are so excited to be back at it this year. We love really being involved in the community."

While Chris wants to keep some of the specifics of the air show a surprise for now, he did announce that the AirFest is accepting sponsors, partnering with vendors and working with the community to grow the event.

"The AirFest is great because we get to give back to the community but also partner with the community. We all get to enjoy the show together," Chris said. "We really want the AirFest to have a huge role here, and to be a positive influence for both the Santa Maria and aviation communities."

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City Government Reporter

Joshua Nelson is the City Government Reporter for the Santa Maria Times.

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