Al Higdon may never have learned to pilot an airplane, but he spent a career around some of the giants of business and general aviation.
It’s part of the reason why Higdon, the retired co-founder of Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, will be the fifth recipient of the Wichita Aero Club trophy, which in previous years has been awarded to philanthropist Velma Wallace, former Spirit AeroSystems president and CEO Jeff Turner, Airbus Americas’ John O’Leary and Cessna chairman emeritus Russ Meyer.
The trophy is awarded annually to a person or organization with strong ties to Wichita and who has made “exemplary achievements” in the field of aviation. Higdon will receive the trophy at the Aero Club’s Gala on Saturday at the Doubletree by Hilton Wichita Airport.
Among Higdon’s achievements, said Aero Club president Dave Franson, was his work to make Learjet a household name.
“People got to the point if they saw a little jet in the sky … everybody referred to them as Learjets, because that’s the only kind (of business jet) they had seen in advertisements and movies,” Franson said.
While the bulk of Higdon’s career was at the advertising and public relations firm that bears his name, his experience in aviation was first developed at the former Beech Aircraft Co. between 1961 and 1964, where he worked for Olive Ann Beech and then-president Frank Hedrick
He then went to Learjet, where he worked until the founding of SHS in 1971.
Higdon, 78, was part of the public relations team tasked by Bill Lear to make his new Learjet airplane synonymous with business jets.
Higdon said he and his then-boss, Jim Greenwood, took the nontraditional route of building the brand by using help from Hollywood.
The company’s first Learjet, a Model 23, made appearances in several motion pictures in the late 1960s and 1970s, including “In Like Flint,” “Capricorn One” and “Airport 1975,” as well as television shows and in advertisements for other products, such as cigarettes and luggage, Higdon said.
“It just helped with the buzz of the deal,” Higdon said, adding that Learjet provided the airplane itself or through one of its distributors, including Clay Lacy, who was a distributor of Learjets on the West Coast.
Higdon continued his public relations and advertising work in the aviation industry at SHS. That included a period in which Learjet was a client of SHS and Higdon was under contract to serve as its public relations chief, including being at the company’s headquarters at Mid-Continent Airport three days a week.
Over the years, SHS’ aviation clients have included Cessna, Piaggio, Rockwell International, B.F. Goodrich and divisions of American Airlines.
“That Cessna-SHS relationship was the best of my career,” Higdon said.
Higdon said that at one point in his career, he thought about getting his pilot’s license. But he said when he had the time, he didn’t have the money. And by the time he had the money, he didn’t have the time.
“I really enjoyed getting the flights on the company airplanes, because it beat the heck out of the airlines,” he said.
One of his most memorable flights happened while at Learjet. He was traveling with other company executives on a Learjet that Bill Lear was piloting. He said he looked up to see Lear on the floor of the airplane with a screwdriver in his hand and one of its cables in the other.
“You don’t often see the owner of a company on his hands and knees tinkering with the airplane at 40,000 feet,” Higdon said.