Helping Aviation History Come Alive: the Challenges and Opportunities of Warbird Air Show Performances

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Warbird performances have been the keystone of air shows worldwide since the industry’s inception. Their universal appeal to aviation and history buffs alike make them a top draw for any air show.

“It’s like going to a museum and seeing a T-Rex walk around,” said Steve Brown, President of the Commemorative Air Force. “How often can you actually see a representation of what one of these airplanes looked like and sounded like when it rolled off the assembly line 60 years ago?”

Air show announcer Danny Clisham is famous for his stirring and emotional commentary during warbird acts. He says it’s his job to relate the importance of warbirds to the general public. “Barely one percent of the total production run of these aircraft is still actively flying,” said Clisham. “The audience is enjoying freedoms today because of this warbrid heritage.”

And, consistently, air show spectators have demonstrated that they recognize that air shows are the only place that they can go to see these flying relics. In every biennial ICAS spectator survey ever conducted going back to the late 1980s, air show fans have said that warbirds are the top non-military draw, just behind military jet teams and military single-ship tactical demos.

If this is the case, then why do so many shows lack warbirds in their performer line-ups?

We posed this question to a broad cross section of ICAS members, ranging from the industry’s most experienced warbird performers and major warbird operators to air show event organizers.

“I think there’s a huge disconnect between what we as performers and event organizers think the audience wants and what the audience actually wants,” says Deb Mitchell, co-founder of AirShowBuzz.com. “I think sometimes we let our own perceptions of reality blur actual reality that’s backed by the data and numbers that the ICAS surveys have consistently demonstrated,” says Mitchell.

Follow the Money

But a lack of understanding of the numbers and the desires of an air show audience isn’t the only obstacle to increased warbird participation in North American air shows. Their high operating costs and performance fees frequently make it difficult for show organizers to justify adding a warbird to their lineup. Almost unanimously, air show organizers said that the lack of room in their budgets was the primary barrier to a greater warbird presence in their shows.

“For me as an organizer, they’re not cheap,” said Richard “Corky” Erie, director of the NAS Oceana Air Show. “When we’re looking for places to allocate money, if I can get a single-ship civilian flying an Extra 300 or a warbird for twice as much, it’s a no-brainer. Cost is truly the limiting factor, not desire.”

“I think if a civilian show can get any type of historic aircraft out there, it’s always a draw,” said Bill Roach, Executive Director of Wings over Houston, which typically features about 60 warbirds. “The event organizer has to decide if it’s worth the expense to bring them in. Hopefully, they can get local people with EAA or CAF and get them to come to their show for a reasonable fee.”

At ICAS headquarters, President John Cudahy gets a bird’s eye view of the larger issue. “It’s a challenge for some shows to pay both the appearance fee and the considerable fuel bill for some of the warbird performers,” says Cudahy.  “But I always encourage event organizers to look at the big picture. If the spectators keep telling us that they are coming to air shows, in large part, to see warbirds, we’re putting their future attendance at risk if they come to the show and there are no warbirds flying.”

Keep ‘Em flying

The throaty barks and belches from the exhaust of a of a twelve cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin as it comes to life gives even the most seasoned air show aficionados goosebumps, yet few consider the grunt work, attention to detail and, yes, money that makes that Merlin run.

Lee Lauderback, owner and chief pilot at Stallion 51, says that the relatively short lifespan of a Mustang’s engine contributes significantly to its operating cost. “Rolls-Royce never designed the Merlin to be a high-time engine,” said Lauderback. He budgets $150,000 to $175,000 to do an extensive overhaul on his Mustang’s engine every 400 to 450 hours of operation.

“Air show organizers don’t like to have a lot of warbirds at their show because they burn a lot of gas,” says Dale “Snort” Snodgrass. The retired Navy captain’s name is synonymous with warbirds; he’s flown warbirds from the T-6 Texan and P-51 Mustang to the MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre at high profile air shows since he left the Navy ten years ago. “They burn a lot more gas than the aerobatic airplanes,” said Snodgrass, adding that a Mustang can burn up to 35 gallons of fuel in one air show performance and up to 60 gallons per hour during ferry flights. The Sabre burns 275 gallons of fuel per performance and 425 gallons per hour in cruise, he said.

“Relatively speaking, gas isn’t the biggest number by any stretch,” said Lauderback. Insuring these rare machines isn’t cheap, either. “It’s just astronomical,” said Lauderback. “Some of these warbirds now are approaching two and three million dollars of hull value.”

“When I was flying the Sabre full-time two years ago, my insurance — liability only — was $30,000 a year,” said Snodgrass. He says that liability requirements for warbirds and the insurance requirements in general have increased dramatically during the last several years, with no end in sight. “That just makes it even harder,” he said.

Free Acts: a Mixed Bag

Just like civilian aerobatic performers, warbird pilots are threatened by the increased availability of free acts.

Some warbird operators fear that the larger presence of the Air Force’s Heritage Flight and the Navy’s Legacy Flight, which include warbirds paid for by taxpayer dollars, will establish an expectation that warbirds will fly at a show for free.

“The warbirds are sort of becoming sponsored,” said Snodgrass. “The bottom line is the air show organizers see that as a free warbird act.”

It’s a mixed bag, though, say many industry insiders. The Heritage Flight and Legacy Flight programs have helped to bring the warbird story full-circle.

“It has deep penetration,” says Ed Shipley, former Heritage Flight pilot and founder of AirShowBuzz.com. “It’s using a simple story to tell a larger and much more complicated story.”

Professional warbird performers also face intrusions by new, upstart warbird pilots who are often willing to fly a show for little or no compensation in order to gain experience or to showcase their airplane collection.

“You can hire a doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief with a warbird for $1,000 to do a demo for the weekend,” said Lauderback. But the old adage – you get what you pay for – is just as true with warbird acts as it is with anything else. “If air shows have the foresight to hire professional warbird acts, I think they really get bigger bang for their buck.”

Statics Have Value, Too

Flying warbird demonstrations aren’t the only way to incorporate warbirds into a show. Static displays, while they display warbirds in a more museum-like environment, also provide good variety to an air show.

Wings over Houston incorporates many statics to deliver a larger message to the audience. “Our audience gets to walk up and through the warbird ramp,” said Bill Roach, the show’s executive director. “Most warbird pilots and crews love to talk about our planes and the history of them. They educate fans and aviation enthusiasts about the machines that helped to save our country,” said Roach.

Statics are crucial to the operation of the Commemorative Air Force, says Steve Brown. They allow the audience to ask questions about the airplanes and the efforts that the non-profit puts into maintaining and preserving warbirds.

Lieutenant Colonel Art Floru of the Rhode Island National Guard Open House Air Show says that, even though the show’s site at Quonset Point has a rich history as a vital Naval Air Station during World War II, warbirds rarely find their way into the show’s budget. “While warbirds would be an awesome addition to our line-up, the total cost associated with a warbird aerial or static display has been prohibitive,” said Floru.

Floru says that the Quonset Air Museum provides the show with several warbird static displays which help him satisfy his audience’s wants.

Christina Carey, project manager of the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show, utilized a similar solution for last year’s show by featuring locally-based warbirds as statics. “Last year, we had four or five warbirds in that we did a sponsorship with from the Cavanaugh Flight Museum,” said Carey. “We do understand the demand for warbirds and want them to participate, but it’s just figuring out how and how much.”

Innovation in Marketing Warbirds

As tightening budgets have put the squeeze on warbird participation in some shows, the warbird operators have adapted by developing new and inventive ways to market themselves not only to air show organizers, but to air show audiences as well.

“I think their reputation is that generally they’re boring,” said Mitchell, who has been working with The Horsemen. Pilots Jim Beasley, Dan Friedkin, and Ed Shipley will make up the world’s first three-ship Mustang formation aerobatic team this summer. “The Horsemen have tried to be extremely different,” says Mitchell. “The routine is very compelling, dynamic and short.”

“Air shows are not just going out and watching airplanes fly,” said Shipley. “It’s a storytelling device that lets people connect to some of the most wonderful adventures that mankind has ever been through. We need these warbirds and these operators to be there so that this story can be told right.”

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Pete Muntean
Pete Muntean is a competition aerobatic pilot and broadcast journalist with WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC.