The Air Boss

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In every good air show, one of the most important “performers” never gets in an airplane, never leaves the ground, and never gets the crowd’s applause. 

That performer is the air boss, the unseen maestro of the air show’s aerial symphony. This is the consensus opinion of several veteran air bosses, pilots and announcers who were asked to share their views about the duties of an air boss and the qualities that make a good one. Several compared the function of an air show air boss to that of an orchestra conductor. Based on their descriptions of how air bosses work, the analogy fits — although an air show might be closer to a jazz ensemble than an orchestra. 

Just what is an air boss, anyway? 

The term comes from the U.S. Navy, where an “air boss” is the air officer in charge of operations on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck and in the air around it. In air show usage, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Order 8900.1 defines an air boss as “the individual who has the primary responsibility for air show operations on the active taxiways, runways, and the surrounding air show demonstration area.” 

For the pithiest definition, ask air show announcer Rob Reider. “The air boss is the guy who keeps the airplanes apart and the show together,” he says. “A good air boss can do both of those things simultaneously.” 

Contract air boss Ralph Royce is one who describes the air boss’s role in orchestral terms: “He takes the assets that are given him by the air show committee [and] arranges them into a meaningful or an entertaining presentation. He rehearses them, and then he leads the aviation orchestra on Saturday and Sunday.” 

Royce also says the air boss should be the, “subject matter expert in all things that are supposed to happen in front of the crowd line.” This includes knowing the pertinent federal regulations, the performers’ routines, and their skill levels. The air boss should even be aware of what he or she doesn’t know, such as the capabilities of a new performer. In that case, Royce says, “The air boss should be familiar enough with this individual’s lack of experience that a little extra care is taken.” 

George Cline, owner of AirBoss, Inc. and retired from a 38-year FAA career, defines the role in blunt terms: “You’re in charge during the flying part, and [if] anything goes wrong, it’s normally going to be your fault.” 

The FAA defines an air show boss’s duties narrowly. In practice, they may vary widely, agree air bosses and performers alike.  

“There’s no ‘hard line’ limiting what an air boss may do,” says performer Greg Koontz, who flies his Decathalon mainly at small- and medium-size shows. “He could be an adviser to a show, especially a smaller show that doesn’t really understand the industry well. That could be as much as sitting down with [an air show’s organizers] and explaining how an air show is supposed to run. He could advise them on what seems to be entertaining. It depends on the experience of the air boss.” 

The scope of an air boss’s duties depends on his contract with the air show’s organizers and his own capabilities. Dave Schultz says his company provides a broad range of air show services that includes air bosses, communications gear and even a mobile weather station. He says an air boss’s duties include developing a flying schedule, filing FAA paperwork, briefing the pilots, and handling the air space. “Sometimes, he must also deal with communications with commercial air operations between acts,” he says. 

Air bosses, performers and announcers alike agree one of the air boss’s most important responsibilities is the pre-show pilot briefing. “It’s the briefing that determines the level to which the air show will be flown,” Royce says.

“The briefing is also where the air boss makes his first impression on many performers,” says Wayne Boggs, a contract air boss and retired FAA controller and manager. “If the air boss’s briefing isn’t organized and informative,” Boggs says, “they size up pretty quickly whether this person has any credibility at all, or whether they’re pretty much on their own.” 

Reider says he worked at one show where the air boss was replaced as a result of a poor briefing. “It was a bad briefing in almost every respect, and then the air boss dismissed everybody and said, ‘You can pick up a [flight] sequence on the way out.’ And [the pilots] all balked.” Reider said the pilots successfully demanded the air boss reconvene the briefing to review the sequence, but the show still suffered from scheduling glitches that could have been resolved in the briefing. 

While the things an air boss does may vary, there’s widespread agreement that an air boss shouldn’t be asked to manage things behind the crowd line. “Sometimes, a new event organizer will expect the air boss as a matter of course to set up their whole show,” Royce says. “Now, some air bosses will do that for you if you hire them to. But the air boss job itself is, again, taking the assets, putting them in a reasonable presentation, and then flying the show safely. Period.” 

Randy Ball, a veteran of 18 air show seasons who currently flies a MiG-17 jet warbird act, says some air show producers don’t know where to draw the line on an air boss’s duties. “I’ve seen air shows ask an air boss to stage aircraft in such a way that they can get the pilots fed, give them proper water and stuff like that, because the air show is short of staff to do that. Well, that’s crazy. Why is an air boss having to worry about who’s got smoke oil, who’s been fed, who’s got water?” 

Another thing air bosses shouldn’t do: tell the pilot how to fly. “Don’t try to fly the plane for the performer via radio,” Schultz says. Royce, who is also a warbird pilot, says it isn’t the air boss’s job to coach an inexperienced performer.  

Several of the industry’s most experienced air bosses come from air traffic control background, but they don’t insist everyone should. “All air traffic controllers do not make good air bosses,” Boggs says. The air boss can and must diverge from standard air traffic control procedures, and some controllers can’t make that adjustment, he says. “In my opinion, it helps, but it is not a requirement, and I know air bosses who are not air traffic [controllers] who are good air bosses.” 

Cline, both a pilot and a retired controller, believes some kind of aviation background is essential. “If you don’t have an aviation background, you’re lost,” he says. Either a pilot or a controller will have some understanding of aircraft, airspace, procedures, and the nomenclature necessary for clear communication. “If you’re not an aviation person, you don’t know how to work with ATC [air traffic control] folks,” says Cline. “You don’t understand airspace. You don’t understand TFRs [temporary flight restrictions]. You don’t understand 8900.1, the [FAA] manual we have to go by. … If the air boss doesn’t have an aviation background, the show is going to suffer.” 

Kevin Sullivan, an air boss with Cline’s company and an FAA air traffic control supervisor, said he never would have become an air boss were he not a controller, simply because his exposure to air bossing came when he was assigned to manage FAA operations at the 1980 Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida. But he says the real key was exposure to the air show industry. “I work with 40 guys that, if I told them to go [air boss] an air show next week in Kansas City, they wouldn’t have a clue. Nor would I, had I not had exposure to the air show industry.”  

For many of the hundreds of air shows that take place across North America every year, the air boss is often a volunteer or local pilot whose experience is limited to that show. Boggs thinks that scenario is typical. “You’ve only got a handful of air bosses that are doing multiple shows. And everybody else is doing a single show. They either grew up with the show because they’re a pilot, or they’re one of the [organizers] of the show, or they’re the military captain or major that gets assigned to that particular job.” 

The complexities of commercial or military traffic on or near the air show site can overwhelm a single-show air boss, but even a small field without a tower can present challenges. “Anybody can fly into that airspace,” Cline says. “An inexperienced air boss may not be looking for somebody busting through the pattern while Billy Bob’s up there doing his flip-flops.” 

Royce urges the single-show air boss to “reach out in his local area and do a couple others. Even if it’s totally volunteer for all of them. … You have to stay in the game, and once a year is not enough, in my view.” 

Boggs downplays tales about bad air bosses that swirl through the industry as “secondhand information. “People thrive on secondhand information, and each time the story gets told, it gets a little bigger,” he says. “But I’m sure there are different skill levels out there, there is no doubt.” 

Royce, who chairs ICAS’s Safety and Operations Committee, says the organization is developing an air boss training program, although he doesn’t think it will issue a certification. Even so, he says, there are issues such as determining how to measure air boss qualities, and practical problems such as time and cost. “You can’t teach it. You have to have a mentoring program to bring guys up to speed. That’s hard to do. That’s expensive to do. It takes a lot of everybody’s time,” he says.

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Timothy R. Gaffney
Tim Gaffney is a former newspaper reporter and current director of communications for the National Aviation Heritage Alliance based in Dayton, Ohio.