Air Shows, A Century of Innovation and a Future of Inspiration

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With 100 years of experience now under our belts, the North American air show industry is moving into its second century with pride and enthusiasm unequaled at any time in our history.  Granted, airplanes aren’t viewed by most air show fans as the technological wonder they once were, but fans are still in awe at what we do and how we do it.

While no one has a crystal ball to tell us where we will be a hundred years from now, the near term is more predictable. Trends are emerging that are already shaping our industry.  Most of the trends are for the better, enriching the experience of our fans and enhancing our overall value. Some trends, however, are troubling and need to be addressed. There is a convergence and interdependence taking place that is impacting our industry.

We are no longer in the midst of the accelerating, revolutionary technological transformation that characterized our industry just a few decades ago when airplanes made the leap from plywood to composites, but we are changing none-the-less. Business practices are changing, the sluggish economy is impacting shows and performers alike, values and norms of our audiences are changing, and technology is changing on many fronts. All of these changes are requiring us to find new ways to do what we do in this industry. We are adjusting, and learning, as we adapt to forces that we can’t ignore.

In the early part of the twentieth century, it was a remarkable achievement just to make an airplane turn in the air. Then came the loop and roll which remained the limit of aerobatics for decades. As designs and materials advanced, limited gyroscopics began to evolve and now, thanks to today’s composites, pilots can do things with their airplanes that Orville and Wilbur never could have contemplated. It’s said that the first time Orville Wright saw Lincoln Beachy do a loop and roll he brushed it off as an optical illusion. Only later did he recognize what Beachy had accomplished and not only apologized, but said “An aeroplane (sic) in the hands of Lincoln Beachy is poetry.”

Composite technology fused with aerodynamics so rapidly that composite aircraft have all but pushed the venerable Pitts out of the air show business. Like the Pitts before them, composite monoplanes are seemingly everywhere. But the pace of composite innovation in air show airplanes has slowed significantly since its inception. Now, changes are more incremental than revolutionary.

Performer Greg Poe has a new composite airplane for the 2011 air show season.  It’s an MXS that is lighter and faster than anything he’s owned before. It weighs just under 1300 pounds, and the changes in appearance over his previous airplane are small to the untrained eye. “We’ve micromanaged the weight to the point that we meticulously measured the epoxies, carefully weighed the glues and scrutinized every other component. When you micromanage ounces, you gain pounds, and if given the choice between less weight and more horsepower I will go for less weight every time,” Poe says.  But the changes are mostly internal.  Are they enough for the average spectator to notice?  Poe thinks they are.  “Yes, the crowd will notice.  They may not know why the show is better, but they will know it is better,” he says.

Another high energy air show pilot is John Klatt who likes some of the changes he’s seen in his ten years as a performer.  “I’ve seen a decent jump in quality of air show performers. There is a lot of serious talent in this business and a strong trend toward creativity that is serving our industry well,” he says. “We’re always exploring new envelopes and this theme is continuing as performers put their creativity to work,” Klatt believes.

But talent and innovation aren’t limited to the sky in the air show business. There is growing diversity in ground-based acts. Bill Braack now owns Smoke-n-Thunder which was the first jet powered car to appear at air shows. Bill purchased the act from Scott Hammack and his wife Linda who were pioneers in this field and Braack is continuing the tradition.  “The crowd eats up the ground-based acts and we’re seeing more and more all the time.  We’re seeing more jet cars, motorcycle stunters, and even motorcycles jumping over airplanes,” he said.

Another trend Bill likes is the willingness of performers to help and mentoring each other.  “We need to share what works and I’m seeing this happen more and more as performers work to improve their entertainment value,” Braack said.

Performer Michael Goulian raced on the Red Bull circuit for five years and has now returned to flying air shows. He’s noticed improved marketing by air shows and performers alike, and has also noticed a marked improvement in technology when it comes to sound systems and video options. “Audio quality is better than ever and that is more important than many performers make it out to be. I choreograph my routine to music and provide pre-recorded narration. When it is played on a good quality system, the crowd responds,” Goulian says. “Our timing and our music are so well connected that the audience often gives us spontaneous applause, and that just doesn’t happen much in this industry,” he notes.

Goulian says much of the technology that can enhance spectator entertainment is still emerging, and few shows know how to use it to their fullest advantage, but he believes they are learning.  “They have to learn and get better or they are going to be left behind,” he says.

Announcer Rob Reider shares Goulian’s enthusiasm for the improvements being made in audio technology.  “The old horn speakers are becoming a thing of the past as sound companies move to improve their systems. More and more, they are going to hi-fi, wireless systems and everybody seems to have subwoofers now,” Reider said. And good quality sound helps keep the program flowing better than ever before.

“As we compete for the entertainment dollar, high fidelity audio becomes more and more important.  We’re being pushed there by our fans who go to rock concerts and other professional entertainment events. They know what good audio should sound like. And performers who like to narrate from the cockpit are installing better quality equipment so people can understand them better,” he said.

Another trend sneaking into the industry, at least at a few of the larger shows, is the use of live cockpit video shown on Jumbotron screens. “It’s very expensive to put the screens up and have a staff to manage the video production work.  Some shows try to do it half way and produce a miserable product as a result. But, when it is done well, it is fantastic,” Reider said.

Some shows are even taking the video a step beyond and going to live streaming video of the show on the Internet.  It’s difficult to do it well because of the state of the technology, but it continues to move forward. “I love technology when it’s done right because it makes us look so much better.  We need to continue to push that envelope.  When that happens, the envelope gets bigger and we will all go farther,” Reider said.

From the perspective of an air show producer, Colonel Larry Gallogly sees a growing number of shows that look at themselves as a production, much like a Broadway show. “The improvements in audio technology, and the growing use of big screens, it’s all part of how you provide entertainment.  Big screens don’t pencil out for me, but they do for others. All these changes mean shows will no longer just present one performer at a time. Each element of the show will be part of a choreographed presentation from the moment the gates open until they close. And because fans have so many more entertainment opportunities available to them, shows that don’t get on board with this idea will cease to exist and won’t even know why,” he said.

Gallogly has been producing air shows at the Rhode Island Air National Guard base in North Kingstown for the past 20 years. The trend he likes the most is that most of us in this business finally understand that air shows are about entertainment, not about aviation. We just use airplanes to entertain. “Some people who produce shows are too big a fan of airplanes and they get carried away in their hiring. They don’t look at it from a production standpoint and ask how a particular act fits into the overall production. And those shows usually don’t last very long,” he said.

For announcer Danny Clisham, one of the most important trends in our business is the diversity of performers now available. Many of us remember when every performer had a different airplane. They were simply flying what was available. Some were either from the golden age of aviation or from the World War II era. There was the Stearman and the T-6, and an occasional T-34.  Bob Hoover became a staple of the industry with his P-51 and Shrike, and Art Scholl flew a Super Chipmunk. Few airplanes flown in air shows in those days were specifically designed for aerobatics. They were production models that were adapted for air show use.

Then came the Pitts series and everything changed. Suddenly, they became the favorite airplane of a new generation of performers and they so dominated our business that fans would see three or four Pitts acts in a single show and they were becoming bored. Then the wonder of composites unleashed a whole new era of air show airplane…the Extras, the Edges and the like. Now, they have taken over. While they allow pilots to do wondrous things, they are following the path of the Pitts and shows are being criticized for having too many mid-wing monoplanes doing many of the same maneuvers.

Just as the move into the Pitts era created a vacuum behind it for those performers who recognized the opportunity, the move into the composite era has created its own vacuum, spawning a new era of novelty acts.

“Pyrotechniques, for example, have added a whole new dimension to our business,” says Clisham. “The wall of fire, simulated strafing runs, all make for a better show.  A decent wall of fire with the correct act can make a crowd giddy.  They whoop and holler, they applaud and it’s exciting to watch.”

Clisham applauds the increased involvement of World War II aircraft in shows. Audiences know that most of the men and women who flew them are gone now, but they also appreciate that pilots from that era put their lives on the line for their country. Their enthusiasm for these airplanes is so great that spontaneous applause often erupts as they fly by.

Clisham says he is also excited by the growing numbers and types of jet-powered vehicles. “A jet powered car is one thing, but who would ever have thought we’d see a jet powered outhouse at an air show? Or a jet powered school bus?  Fans flock to the fence to watch these vehicles and they applaud the imagination of the operators,” Clisham said.

A number of aerobatic performers are taking advantage of the niche opportunities that exist, including Kyle Franklin. He has capitalized on the pop culture fascination with pirates by creating his well known Pirated Skies act. “I’m still in love with biplanes and round engines and I try to put myself in the shoes of our fans and give them what they want,” he said.

Like his father Jimmy who created Zar to take advantage of the popularity of the Star Wars movies, Kyle was inspired by Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean. “Kids love us, but I know there are a lot of adults out there who would like to be pirates, so I’m taking advantage of that.  People come to shows to be entertained and see amazing things and I’m able to give them what they want,” he said.

But Franklin goes beyond his Pirated Skies routine. His flying circus includes a comedy act and one of the best wing walking acts in the business. And even though he could rest easy with the popularity of his current act, he is continuing to innovate. He’s working with aircraft builder and former air show pilot Steve Wolf to develop an 80 percent scale of his Super WACO which he will adapt to a vampire theme. Once again, he’s taking advantage of a pop culture trend. Kyle won’t discuss many details of the act he will build around his new airplane, but he plans to have it ready for the 2012 show season.

If innovation is the thrust of this business, a sluggish economy is the drag. Some shows have folded or gone to an every-other-year sequence in order to survive. Some performers have lost sponsors and others have simply given up because the reduced number of bookings has eroded their ability to pay the bills.

But it’s not all bad news. Many air shows are benefiting from the slow economy because people are staying close to home. As a result, many shows have seen record attendance over the past two years. But this is a two-edge sword. Fan expectations are evolving to a new level, especially when it comes to food and souvenirs. “Fans are looking for a higher quality product than they were ten years ago,” said Jim Breen, President of Air Show Networks.  “We’ve had to invest heavily in upgrading our product line and we are finding that people have no problem buying a $150.00 Thunderbirds jacket or a $25.00 hat if the quality is good. The better the quality, the better they respond, even at a higher price,” he said.

When it comes to food, Breen says people want service.  “We’ve invested more in our infrastructure, our people and our points of sale because fans don’t want to wait in line.  They’re OK paying $2.00 for a hotdog, but not if it means standing in long lines.”

Breen said fans have learned that the entertainment value of air shows is good and the cost is far below a NASCAR event or going to Disneyland. “Response of our air show fans is a result of the value of the entertainment. People are used to spending money at other events. At the end of an air show, they’ve had a good time and still spent less than most other entertainment options,” he said.

A unique adaptation of technology is being used by the Patriots Jet Team and it could point the way for other formation teams, be they jets or props. The Patriots have gone to six ships for the 2011 season, but to cut fuel costs they are using aircraft simulator software that allows multiple pilots to get together on line and fly their routine. “This allows us to spot problems before burning up a lot of Jet A fuel,” said lead pilot Dean “Wilbur” Wright.

If there is a downward trend in our industry right now, it is the decline in the number of shows and the number of new pilots with the resources to enter the business. Performer Sean D. Tucker said what is happening in our industry right now is ironic. “Fan interest in air shows is keener than ever before, but costs keep going up and shows are going away because it is so hard to be successful now.”

He also expressed concern about the ability of young performers to enter the business. “Technological improvements in aircraft are awesome, but there is a high cost associated with it.  My airplane looks the same as it did several years ago, but it costs more than ten times what it did just a few years ago to maintain and operate it,” Tucker said.

So what does that portend for our industry?  “I see a trend coming where there will be factory-sponsored pilots who will be successful and there will be the lucky few who have business sponsors, but — unless he or she comes from a wealthy family — I don’t see many twenty-something kids  finding their way into air shows.”

As bleak as that sounds, Tucker said he remains optimistic.  “As long as we professionals never lose sight of the jewel that we own called air shows, we’ll be OK. We have to remember that it is not a right to be involved. It is a privilege. We change lives through our actions. We can empower people to live their dreams thru the metaphor of flight,” he said.

There are other trends in the air show industry that warrant monitoring, such as tighter military budgets that could result in fewer assets available to go to civilian shows. Colonel Gallogly put it best: “As military participation becomes constrained, shows need to consider how to overcome that. Shows that don’t do this will either fail or cease to exist because they don’t take a holistic view of the business.”

Then there is the trend in social media. Many performers are using this to their great advantage to keep and expand their fan base. Some of the performers are very aggressive in their use of Facebook, posting pictures, doing reviews of shows, or updating their schedule and travel plans. Many are using Twitter to the same advantage. Not all shows, however, see the same value, so they aren’t investing much in this technology.

Danny Clisham admits to being like a kid when it comes to air shows and — like most announcers — he has the best seat in the house. “I expect the same great things in the future as we have seen in the past. I don’t see any letup. We have good clean family fun for all ages and that’s what people want. We haven’t invented the wheel, but we sure have improved it,” he said.

And what is in our industry’s future that Clisham is most looking forward to? “I’m waiting for the day when I see my first military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle do a fly-by at a show, operated by someone 2500 miles away.  It will happen and that’s really going to be something,” he said.

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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.