The Critical Role of Quality Entertainment for Air Show Sustainability

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Sustainability has become a major issue for the air show industry, not just in North America but around the world.  Over the past two years more than 25 air shows have shut down or been put on hold, many with a track record of ten years or more. Financial woes, lack of local leadership willing to invest the time and energy, volunteer burnout and stale entertainment are the major reasons given. Throughout this year Air Show Magazine is examining these issues in depth.  This article, focusing on entertainment, is the third in a four-part series designed to provide ideas to help overcome some of the sustainability hurdles that show organizers are facing. 

Since the beginning of powered flight, men and women have found ways to use airplanes to entertain audiences. As early as 1910 Lincoln Beachey, wearing his trademark business suit (no, Bob Hoover was not the first) would dazzle audiences with his first-of-its kind feats of daring in his Curtiss Pusher aircraft. He enhanced his daredevil reputation with stunts that included racing a locomotive and touching his wheels on top of the train and being the first to fly under Honeymoon Bridge at Niagara Falls. By 1912, he was racing his airplane against legendary auto racer Barney Oldfield, the first man to drive an automobile over 60 miles per hour. Beachey’s fame grew so much that, at the height of his career, he earned more money in a single day of touring with his aircraft than the average American could earn in a year. Part of Beachey’s fame, of course, was due to the fact that aviation was unique and there were millions of Americans who had never even seen an airplane, let alone ridden in one.

Ratchet roll forward to the end of World War I when hundreds of pilots came out of the military, bought up surplus Curtiss “Jenny” bi-planes and launched the barnstorming era, flying from town to town, selling rides to those adventurous souls willing to part with their money. These pilots often slept under the wings of their aircraft parked in a farmer’s field and had no choice but to do their own maintenance. Some banded together and formed flying circuses, offering a community a complete package of aerial thrills. Like the solo barnstormer, these circuses flew from town to town, showing off with their loops and rolls, wowing their audiences with wing walkers and anything else they could think of to satisfy the nation’s hunger for aviation. Ah, the good old days.

Today, however, everyone has seen airplanes, most have ridden in one form of airplane or another, and it is more difficult than ever to impress and surprise them with something new. Achieving success at entertaining with an airplane is not as easy as it used to be, largely because audiences have become very sophisticated and have seen just about everything there is to see in aviation, either live at an air show, on television or at the movies. Whether you are starting your first show or planning for your tenth or twentieth, you are stuck with this reality. And audiences have a funny way of telling you if they are bored with what you are offering them. They quit coming to your show.

It’s All About Variety

If there is a single word that describes a successful air show today it is “variety.” In the air and on the ground, a broad mix of aircraft and displays that spark the imagination reigns supreme. “To be successful, air show organizers can’t think like pilots. Most spectators are non-aviators and they don’t know one airplane from another. What they want is entertainment. It’s the MP3 generation and they want a fast-paced show with no gaps,” said long-time air show announcer Hugh Oldham. And he gets a lot of support in this belief from Judy Willey who leads the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, Oregon.

“We build a new air show every year. We look for anything unique. We look for acts and displays that will attract kids. We know if we can promote a fun, family-oriented event, then Mom and Dad will bring the kids,” said Willey.  But that can be easier said than done at times.

Finding unique acts and ground displays year after year can be a challenge. Just as the air show industry evolved from the Jennys in the days after World War I to the Stearmans in the days after World War II, it has also evolved from the proliferation of Pitts S-1 and S-2 aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s to today’s Edges, Extras and Sukhois. This evolution has the same potential as its predecessors to create monotony among the acts if shows hire performers who fly the same type of routines in the same type of airplanes. High-energy, solo aerobatic performers are great, but like any other air show act, your audience doesn’t have to see more than one or two in a show before they begin to lose interest.

Art Scholl, one of the most revered performers in the history of our industry, understood this. He flew a Super Chipmunk to set himself apart from the performers who were following the trends of particular types of airplanes. “Because Art was a Hollywood movie pilot, he understood entertainment. His Chipmunk wasn’t a standard air show airplane, but it was a great platform and he was constantly making adjustments to his routine to improve it,” said his wife Judy who appears at the ICAS convention every year to present the Art Scholl Showmanship Award.

“Art understood the blend of high energy with music, but half way through his routine he would shift to his version of a ballet in the sky which would emphasize the grace and beauty of aerobatics, and he would follow this with a salute to America with stirring patriotic music,” she said. Art was one of the first air show pilots to popularize the now-common Lomcevak maneuver, sending his red, white and blue aircraft tumbling across the sky. Art also was a pioneer in the use of pyrotechnics on his aircraft. “He never stopped working to improve the entertainment value of his act,” she said.

Another of Art’s tricks was to lay down a curtain of smoke on the taxi way at the end of his show so no one would see Judy run to the airplane to hand him his beloved dog Aileron. When the smoke cleared, Judy was no where to be seen and there would be Art standing in the cockpit holding the dog as if the dog flew the entire routine with him. “Art loved doing this and it gave the audience, especially the kids, a real connection with him that they otherwise would not have had,” Judy said.

Get to Know Your Audience

“If you want to know what turns on an audience at an air show, you just need to pay attention to them.” So says Tom Popp who produces the Blue Ash Airport Days in the Cincinnati suburb. In spite of being in the shadow of the nearby Dayton show which is one of America’s premier air shows, the Blue Ash event hums along year after year in spite of having a runway that is just 3500 feet long.

“The size of our field and the proximity to Dayton require us to be creative in what we offer our audience. I spend a lot of time watching our crowd and talking to them to find out what they like and don’t like. This is a very good tool in planning our shows,” said Popp.

For Popp, limits can become opportunities. “Big shows are hot. Ramps are large. Walking distances are significant. And admission prices are high. At our show, the parking is free. Kids under the age of 12 are admitted free. We have a show line just 500 feet from the audience and people can see our performers after they fly…talk to them and get their autographs. We promote this and it works,” Popp said. “When Mom or Dad are pointing out something to a child, we’ve given them something to talk about, and I know they are having a good time.”

Some shows have a hard and fast rule that they won’t bring back a performer two years in a row. No matter how good, they will give a performer a break of at least one year if not two before rehiring them. This is due, in part, to audience burnout. By contrast, other shows hire nearly the same performers year after year and seem to do well. Part of the reason, they say, is financial. There is only so much money to be spent and only so many performers they can hire that fit in their budget. This causes them to find performers who will fly different airplanes from one year to the next, or at least fly more than once during the day, doing different routines with the same aircraft.

Jet Teams Can be a Blessing or a Curse

Some shows tie themselves directly to the jet teams. If they don’t get a jet team, they don’t do the show, and they are fine with that. Others, however, will go forward with or without a jet team. There is no doubt that jet teams pack in the spectators. While jet teams can often be a blessing to a show, they can just as easily be a curse. Shows that host jet teams for several years in a row can suddenly find themselves without a team and it can spell financial disaster if they let themselves fall into the trap of being too reliant on them for their income.

“We’ve learned that we have to produce a different show when we don’t have a jet team. We look for different acts that will excite our audience and we market differently,” Willey said. One such act new to the Hillsboro show in 2008 was a strong man pulling a C-130 aircraft down the taxi way.  It’s something you don’t often see at an airport, or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s also something that people can’t see from outside the gate. “Our number one priority is to offer something new and different so it isn’t the same show from one year to the next,” she said.

Shows that can afford it have added a night show to their offering…usually on Friday night, followed by day shows on Saturday and Sunday. There are fewer aerobatics with a night show, but the uniqueness of the fireworks draws people through the gates and it serves as a great kickoff to the weekend.

Onions and air shows don’t have a lot in common unless you live in Vidalia, Georgia. Vidalia is home to America’s sweetest onion, a title they won by beating out America’s other sweet onion, the Walla Walla from the State of Washington. In Vidalia, they stage a series of events celebrating this treasured vegetable, including an air show.

“We can’t depend on a jet team because we hold our festival at the same time every year. If  jet teams come, that’s great, but if not, we do the best we can to hire different performers who will appeal to people who are not into aerobatics,” said show organizer Marsha Temples. “We try to find acts that appeal to kids because, if kids want to come, their parents come with them. We can’t afford to hire the most expensive performers, so we have to be careful to stretch our dollars as far as they will go,” she said.

Richard “Corky” Erie produces the air show at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Being in an area with a large military presence gives him a wide variety of assets to choose from, both in the air and on the ground. But just because military assets are available doesn’t mean they are entertaining.

“I have to be as careful as anyone in selecting our acts and our displays because people have seen just about everything there is to see several times over, which adds to our challenge,” Erie said. His approach is to settle on his military acts, then select civilian performers who will provide the appropriate contrast.

“We will bring in high energy civilian acts, but we also like to include a change of pace such as a glider or a dead stick act. We don’t want performers who all look the same. We want to keep our audience entertained from beginning to end and that means something different with each performance,” Erie said.

His attention to detail is just as strong with ground displays as it is with aerial displays. “Ground entertainment should appeal to families since that’s our demographic. We rely heavily on ground displays and attractions that broaden our appeal,” he said, adding, “Airplanes with glass panels mean nothing to most people, but a Sony Play station display gets their attention.”

Erie is a proponent of going to non-aviation events such as fairs and other community celebrations to see what is on display and what crowds like. “Get out to fairs and carnivals and see what is pulling people in. If something has a huge line of customers, he tries to bring it to his show.

“One of the most successful things we ever did was bring a team of Navy divers with their own Plexiglas tank. They would go under water with a grease pencil and play tic-tac-toe with kids on the dry side of the glass. When the show ended and everyone had left the field, there was still a line of kids wanting to play,” said Erie.

Where Have All The Specialty Acts Gone?

Specialty acts are always crowd pleasers, but finding affordable specialty acts gets tougher every year, partly because more and more of them have left the business. Most recently, Otto the Helicopter retired and, back in the early 1990s, it was the Acme Duck and Air Show Company, to name but two. There are fewer “Flying Farmer” acts than ever before and fewer pilots willing to do the car top landing.

“These pilots who carved out a niche for themselves are among the most skilled in the business because of the type of flying they do and we definitely need more of them,” said long time air show performer Gene Soucy. He laments the fading away of this piece of air show history and is hopeful it will come back.

Kent Pietsch is one of the pilots who does the car top landing and the flying farmer act. In his 1942 Interstate Cadet, he also does a dead-stick routine and has no problem booking shows across the country. “I try to be innovative and have some fun so that when the audience leaves the field they are saying they had fun, too. That’s my goal,” Pietsch said.  “People don’t want every act to be serious. That’s why my comedy act works, as well as the car top landing. People come back to see something like this over and over again,” he said.

But for Pietsch and many other pilots, entertainment is not all in the air. They prefer to have their airplanes parked close to the crowd where people can see them and they want to be able to meet and greet air show fans and to stimulate interest in aviation.

Just Because It’s Long Doesn’t Mean It’s Entertaining

Just as long movies don’t sell well, long air shows don’t either. It doesn’t matter how good the entertainment is, people will stay at an air show only so long. There are organizers who are doing shows for the very first time and believe they need to have non-stop action from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Unfortunately most who have tried this have failed miserably.  There is an art to determining the correct length of a show, even with a jet team. Most experienced air show organizers will tell you that, with a jet team, there should only be two to three hours of aerobatics leading up to the jet team. Without a jet team, three hours is the maximum.

“A lot of times, longer isn’t better. Longer is just longer, and people have a limited attention span. Our challenge is to make sure the time they do spend at an air show is valuable to them,” said air show consultant Dennis Dunbar. “Variety is our top concern. We want something that will attract the broadest audience, not just the aviation enthusiast.”

And it’s not enough to simply put pilots in the air one after the other. Shows need to be choreographed, blending the high speed and the low speed. “You’re putting together the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s a variety show and the lineup needs to reflect this variety,” Oldham said. He believes the worst shows are the ones put together by pilots who have no feel for their audience or for the concept of entertainment. “I see shows put together by pilots and they get into ruts, bringing too many of the same kind of airplanes back year after year just because they, themselves, like to see them. The taste and perception of the public has changed and we need to be sensitive to this,” he said.

Entertainment Should be Everywhere

But air show entertainment isn’t just in the air. It’s on the ground, too. And the more variety you can offer, the better. Many in our industry believe that entertainment begins with the ticket. Its appearance and graphics should be entertaining and have value beyond the price of admission, such as a coupon from a local fast food restaurant. How about the entrances? Are they just chain link gates or are they dressed up and entertaining to look at? Some shows hire jugglers, clowns or balloon artists to entertain audiences as they wait in line or even as they roam the ramp. Other shows have even hired clowns and jugglers to entertain fans as they wait in line to leave the parking lots.

After passing through the admission gates, ramp displays and food vendors are among the first things people see. Variety is important here as well. Most people don’t come to air shows for the food, but whether you just offer a good hamburger or a variety of food offerings, the appearance of the booths should entertain.

Many shows have developed some type of kid zone with inflatable structures, educational opportunities, and the like. Some have a “Military Village” concept where the military can set up displays to interest kids and recruit young adults. Climbing walls have become popular at air shows, too.

Some show organizers have been surprised at how well spectators respond to something they thought would flop. “We generated tremendous excitement with motorcycle stunt drivers, both in front of our crowd and behind. I was shocked at how well it was received. Motorcycles aren’t my cup of tea, but that doesn’t matter. Our spectators loved it,” said Popp.  Marsha Temples had the same experience at the Onion Festival Air Show. “I didn’t think the motorcycles would be as popular as they were. The audience loved them,” she said.

Some shows host gatherings for antique cars, while others stage fun runs on the field. They don’t cost much and they give spectators something else to do. Some shows do themes, like salutes to veterans which are very popular right now. In Blue Ash, they had the traditional flag jump to open the show and the flag jumper landed in front of the crowd as you would expect, but quite unexpectedly the jumper walked through the crowd led by a bagpiper, letting people touch his flag and presented the flag to someone special who was in attendance. “People like to see something memorable,” Popp said, and that’s what keeps them coming back.

Is Your Announcer Your First Thought or an Afterthought?

An often overlooked aspect of air show entertainment is the announcer. Some in the industry believe the announcer should be the first person hired because he or she is one of the most important aspects of any show. A poor pilot will mess up your show for ten or twelve minutes. A poor announcer will ruin your whole day.

“A good announcer makes a big difference in the crowd response. If the announcer is doing his job, people are excited when I land and they show it in their waving and their applause. It means they understood what they saw,” said Pietsch. A strong and knowledgeable announcer is vital to all of his routines, from the dead stick to the flying farmer.

Announcers don’t have to be standup comics, but they do have to know how to get a crowd into the act. “Every spectator wants to be part of a pilot’s performance and it takes the announcer to make that happen,” said Scholl.  If the announcer lacks enthusiasm, so will the audience.

But even the best announcer faces a hazard common to a lot of shows. The proliferation of sponsorships has caused some shows to promise so many sponsor mentions that it becomes non-stop commercials between acts. The constant promotion on the PA causes audiences to tune out. It also compromises the entertainment quality of the event. “Sponsor mentions are vital to the financial success of a show, but a lot of shows overdo it,” said Oldham. He feels some shows are too generous with their PA time, giving even the smallest donor multiple mentions during the show. “I don’t think you need to do commercials for every donor. In broadcasting, listeners change stations if they see or hear too many commercials. At air shows they just quit paying attention and the messages are lost,” he said.

While the bottom line on entertainment sustainability is variety,  it is also creativity. It’s easy to book a top performer or a glitzy ground display. All it takes is money. Unfortunately, every show, large or small, has to be sensitive to the bottom line. The more creative the effort each year, the more successful the show.

As Judy Scholl notes, there is still magic and romance in aviation. “It’s something different and pilots are seen as special people in our society. Watch the kids who talk to pilots and there is a built-in respect for them,” she said.

Aviation has certainly changed over time, but the public’s fascination with aviation remains as strong as it ever was. Fans will travel for miles to see a good show, knowing they will share in the magic that so many of us in this industry take for granted. Even if they know they will never fly, they can dream about it, they can see it and they can touch it. And that’s what entertainment is all about…sharing the dream that is our reality.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.