Attracting and Managing Static Displays

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Throughout North America, air show attendance is up. Even as event organizers struggle with the challenges presented by the poor economy, they seem driven to organize an especially strong show this year to retain these new spectators and turn them into life-long air show fans.

And static display aircraft are an important part of that entertainment mix. Indeed, periodic ICAS surveys of air show spectators indicate that contemporary military and warbird static displays are among the biggest draws for many air show fans.

Kevin Walsh, co-director of Thunder over Michigan, sums it up best: “Spectators spend a lot of their time – at least four hours – on the ground. Static displays give people something to do pre-show and give them something to do besides watching the air show. They keep spectators on site for as long as possible, driving them to concessions and other points of interest on show grounds.”

A strong static display performs several functions: it gives spectators an intimate experience with various aircraft, provides an enriching aviation experience distinctly different from the air performance, educates the public regarding various aircraft, offers exposure to local pilots and aircrews,  provides entertainment behind the crowd line, supports recruitment goals for the military, and keeps spectators on the air show grounds for longer periods of time, which increases the potential for increased air show revenue.

“People come to watch planes fly, but to see them up close and personal [on static display] adds greatly to the entire event,” says Dale Drumright, AFA Air Show Coordinator for Air Power over Hampton Roads at Langley Air Force Base. “Spectators can talk to the pilots and crew and learn more about aviation and the particular plane they’re viewing.”

Getting Started 

Before mapping out your dream display, you first must build a list of contacts with whom to place requests for upcoming shows. Each show has developed their particular lists over many years. Contact names and numbers are typically considered proprietary information, as organizers believe such lists are earned… not freely given. However, they gladly share general guidelines.

For a new air show, civilian and warbird static lists can get started at the ICAS Convention. Word-of-mouth assists in developing a list, so talk to veteran air show personnel during the convention. Contacts can also be collected from various military units, flight museums and individual aircraft operators.

According to Patty Cox of Flight Integrity, LLC, most military branches maintain generic lists of available units, but these lists are generally not shared among competing shows. Personal contact with the commanders or pilots — plus the show’s size, reputation and budget — are crucial to attracting a first-class static line.

Brian Swidrovich of Canada Remembers Air Show in Saskatoon reminds event organizers that they might have to reach out to a dozen different people to secure a single static display aircraft. Even then, not everybody who has committed will actually show up. “Most shows invite a marginal number over usable space allotments. Should they all wish to show up the week of the event, the show must decide if it can accommodate everyone.”

“Our lists have been developed over time, but in today’s military with downsizing, phone numbers and personnel continually change,” says Dan Biggs, Director of Operations for the Cleveland National Air Show. “I now rely on Internet search and previous years’ lists to keep in contact with aircrews.”

Sweetening the Pot

Social functions and other perks play a role in attracting statics, but to what degree?

Most shows provide static display representatives with the same perks as performers, including fuel, lodging, rental cars, show credentials, drinks, some meals and invitations to special functions. Typically, shows do not sign contracts for military statics, which appear courtesy of taxpayers. Arrangements with civilian and warbird statics, however, vary widely. So contracts ensure everyone agrees on expectations, including the required number of support personnel attending, times of arrival and departure, sponsor/media flights, number of crew members and their requirements, lodging, ground transportation, fuel, food, security arrangements, and coordination and logistical needs for each aircraft.  Even for “free” civilian/warbird statics, no-cost contracts should be signed so all the requirements and expectations are in writing.

Everyone likes a good party and social functions sometimes play a role in attracting static displays, says Terry Grevious of the Vectren Dayton Show in Ohio. “But probably more important is the support crew members receive from arrival to departure. Also, have essential needs such as water, possibly lunch, transportation and ground support equipment well organized.”

Many established shows work with the same aircraft owners/aircrews each year. They are invited back because they have demonstrated professionalism throughout the show and over the years.

On the flip side, some static crews ask to continue returning, because host shows have proven to be courteous, well-organized and pleasant. The California International Air Show in Salinas has earned repeat statics for these very reasons. “Greet people with professionalism and kindness,” says Past President and Jet Team Liaison Karen Curtis. “Make sure their hospitality tickets are taken care of and that they have water throughout the day.  Whatever you do, do not park their aircraft and forget about them.”

But don’t get carried away with good relationships, warns Larry Gregory of Lonestar Flight Museum in Galveston. “Aircrews actually call and ask that I hold them a spot, sometimes for three to five years in a row. But I have to stay within my own guidelines of what I can handle. Otherwise, I could easily get overwhelmed with serious ramp and arrival issues.”

Picking, Choosing

How do organizers gauge spectators’ enthusiasm for particular types of aircraft? Do they prefer looking at warbirds, fighters or civilian aircraft? Or all of the above?

Spectator surveys indicate that crowds prefer contemporary military static displays. Currently, the big draws include the F-22, B-1, B-52, C-5, C-17, MV-22 Osprey, F-16, F-15, AV8B Harrier, and F-18.  But the public enjoys seeing almost any contemporary military aircraft. “We solicit everyone: Active, Guard and Reserve,” says Dayton’s Grevious. “It’s good to have several contacts for a particular type of aircraft. Multiple contacts give you a higher probability of landing an aircraft.”

And don’t forget the warbirds. Airworthy examples of the B-17, P-47, C-47 and other World War II vintage aircraft can be expensive, but your audience expects them and they serve to balance your static display ramp.

The secret to securing elusive aircraft – military or civilian — comes back to having good contacts, a good reputation for taking care of aircrews/pilots, and the capability to provide security requirements for each aircraft. If you have a record of good attendance numbers and you’re in a area where recruiting is important, you can position your air show as an opportunity for the military to achieve its recruiting goals while securing an interesting static display aircraft for your event at the same time.

Attracting elusive warbirds or civilian aircraft can be less clear-cut. “We’re like private investigators at times!” says Thunder of Michigan’s Walsh. “We talk to one aircraft type pilot who knows a few other guys, and they share their contact numbers with us. We track people down at their airports and ask questions.”

Local crews connected to unique aircraft add an intimate flavor to your show, Gregory says. “Crews from the area want to come home to your show, bring their static display and see their family and friends.”

However, be careful what you wish for. Dr. Everett K. Gibson Jr. has been a military liaison for Wings over Houston for 23 of the show’s 25 years. He says, “You may think a B-52 bomber would be nice to have at your show, but be aware of its requirements and limitations. You can’t tow one. Can you fly it in and out safely? Is your runway big enough? You need to be able to work with their crews and meet their maintenance needs and safety requirements. And you must consider all of these factors ahead of time.”

And as you consider the relative popularity of different static display options, you must weigh the expense and space requirements of each static display aircraft against the benefits you expect that particular aircraft to generate.  For example, if you have one C-130, what additional value do you expect to get from a second? And what are the costs associated with having that duplicate aircraft?

Playing the Numbers Game

Although there is no standard formula, most shows base their static display decisions on three factors: budget, perceived spectator interest, and ramp size/runway length. Additional considerations include expected attendance, airport layout, vendors and security.

An insufficient number of statics can make the ramp look empty and generate poor impressions about the show, but too many might crowd the ramp or could pose an unnecessary financial strain. Ultimately, the budget is the primary limiting factor to the number of aircraft on display.

Numbers should be based on “available and conveniently accessible” space limitations, says Swidrovich.Jamming in 50 aircraft so no one can efficiently view any of them would be [expensive and] silly. Small to mid-size events may want to consider 25-45 aircraft of various types and sizes, building the area around the needs of the largest on display.”

Each static represents both a valuable asset to the show and a drain on its budget. A B-17, for example, requires four double rooms, 1,000 gallons of gas on site and 1,000 more to get home.

“Weigh costs to value for return on investment,” says Walsh. “Some planes are more interesting on the ground than others. It all depends on how much value they bring in terms of tickets sales. Build the flying portion of your budget first, then address the static display. If your flying portion gets expensive, adjust it so you don’t blow out the statics.”

Tanya B. Woodward at Culpeper Regional Airport in Virginia starts at the local level to hold costs down while improving key relationships at the same time. “We send out requests for statics to our based tenants first, and we could fill up all 25 spots with that. If we had nothing but our based tenants parked on the ramp for our air fest, we would still have an extraordinary line-up. Keep in mind that these people don’t need rooms or cars, which is a big savings.”

Local organizations such as Civil Air Patrol, EAA Chapters, CAF Wings, 99s Chapters, flying clubs and flight schools are also great resources for budget-friendly static display aircraft.

When Statics Fly

If statics also perform in the air, safeguards must be taken, such as positioning aircraft so the area can be sterilized of spectators, ensuring that props are 100 feet from crowds when engines are running, and giving aircrews enough time to thoroughly inspect their plane pre-flight.

At Thunder over Michigan, “We fly what we bring in,” says Walsh. “Of 70-80 airplanes on the ramp, 15 might not fly. We like people to see up close what flies in our show. It’s a lot more work, but the public appreciates seeing on the ground what they saw in the air. It’s much more exciting for the spectator. It becomes an intimate experience.”

Gregory’s perspective: “If you’re bringing in a warbird, don’t keep him static. Let him fly! We want to show off these aircraft to the public. We tour the B-17 before we fly it. We just give it a few thorough sweeps afterward. We also place a Plexiglas guard over the switches so people can’t mess with our controls. To have one of 13 remaining B-17s fly overhead is a rare sight, an instant history lesson and a huge thrill… especially if you walked through it two hours prior.”

But Cox is leery of letting statics fly. “Aircraft which are both static and flying can present significant problems in safety, security and marshalling. The aircraft must either be towed in and out of the area, or the area must be evacuated while the aircraft is moved. There are also problems associated with public exposure to an aircraft about to be flown. If the public can touch or enter the aircraft, it is imperative that additional time is provided for a thorough pre-flight inspection.”

Ramp Layout

What considerations should be taken when designing ramp layout? Which tools are best to design and document static display placement? Once again, plenty of advance planning is crucial.

Jack Amuny, with Wings over Houston, starts six to seven months prior to the show. “We begin getting information from the executive director about the air show acts, warbirds, modern military, and concessions/vendors that are coming, and any changes to our normal use of the field, so I can start configuring the layout of the air show maps,” Amuny says.  These detailed maps are drawn to scale to provide an organized, workable layout for efficient show set-up. They show the actual placement of every piece of equipment, aircraft, tents, and all miscellaneous items used for the show.

About a month before the show, Amuny begins marking the field with spray chalk to indicate the position of all air show equipment, with a certain number of aircraft per row, spaced uniformly from wingtip to wingtip and from the flightline and the fencelines. These maps are then used by the executive director, ground operations, concessions, vendors and anyone else placing anything on the airport property.

Software programs are another option. “In the mid-1990s, we developed software tools and hundreds of templates that work with AutoCad to design and lay out the entire display area, including the aerobatic box, vendor areas, VIP areas, and the static display,” says Schultz. Comprehensive maps are then used by the ground operations team to safely park the aircraft and for coordinating vendors, security and fence line management.

Cleveland used to use a CAD program, but — for simplicity’s sake — has returned to a scaled magnetic layout frame of the display ramp. This allows Biggs to easily move displays around to optimize space.

“Static display aircraft are just as important as flying display aircraft,” says Dave Schultz. “Having pilots to talk with and aircraft to see on display are all part of a positive experience. The static display is the first thing the public sees when they get to the air show. Having the ability to see different aircraft spanning over 100 years of aviation is unique to our industry and one that gives excitement to all attending.”

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Estelle Brown is a freelance writer and independent public relations specialist based in northeast Ohio.