Keeping Our Performers Safe: an Event Organizers Perspective

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As event organizers, our primary concern is to host a safe air show.  We go to great lengths to position the aerobatic box and Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) equipment in accordance with industry standards and regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada.  We conduct mock disaster drills and tabletop exercises with great diligence. But there are times when event organizers overlook the simplest and most obvious considerations: our performer’s mental and physical well being.

The life of an air show performer may seem glamorous from the outside, but that is hardly the case.  Traveling many weeks at a time, away from family and on the road in new environments can stress and fatigue even the most seasoned professionals.  While we certainly can’t control external factors weighing on our performers, we can always do our best to ensure that circumstances under our control are handled in a way to best ensure that they are mentally focused and physically fit to fly.

To some, the suggestions and recommendations that follow may appear to be pandering to performers. But, as an industry, we know from past experience, close calls and unnecessary tragedies that how we provide support to our performers greatly impacts their ability to put on a safe and entertaining display.  We recommend these steps recognizing that many event organizers will consider them as additional responsibilities and challenges at an already difficult time in the preparation and execution of an air show. But we make these suggestions based on overwhelming evidence that adopting them will improve the safety of your air show. 

Greeting your Performer

As we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Many air show performers feel they can tell how well a show is going to proceed within the first five minutes after landing.  It’s those first five minutes that set the emotional tone of the weekend for many performers.   Simple things such as being greeted with an information packet, rental car, a cold bottle of water and a warm smile can put that performer in a happy place that will likely stick throughout the weekend.  It’s amazing how much good will a good first impression can buy at an event. By making that positive first impression, you are well on your way to keeping your performer happy and therefore mentally prepared and focused on providing you with a safe, entertaining performance. 

Information Packet

The value of a thorough and complete information packet cannot be exaggerated.  One of the most important things about this package is that it arrives in a timely manner. For instance, it’s important to know that there is a sponsor reception on Saturday night that the performer is expected to attend, but that’s especially useful information for the performer to receive before he departs for your show, when he can still pack clothing that is appropriate for a “business casual” event.

Items that should be included in an information/welcome package include:

  • General information sheet, with safety briefing times and locations as well as any important items.
  • Point of contact list, containing key players that your performer may need to contact.
  • Social schedule, including type of food and beverage provided, times, attire and if mementos are to be exchanged.
  • Media and public relations schedule, with general items, but also specific media related to that performer.
  • Talking points, a one page sheet with event specific information to be used during media and public relations events.
  • Credentials, correct amount of passes for each day including social events and necessary areas.
  • Maps, a local map with highlighted routes should be in each packet if not already in their car.
  • Additional vehicle passes for those who are renting their own cars.
  • Hotel Information, including a confirmation card to be exchanged at hotel or confirmation number. (Some shows now have a hotel representative at the airport to distribute room keys.)

At first glance, these items may not seem related to performer safety.  But, by providing them early and in a single package, you have just made it possible for the performer to focus on the one thing that you hired him to focus on: performing. You have eliminated most of the distractions that sidetrack or fluster performers while they are trying to concentrate on the very difficult task of flying low level air show aerobatics. You have also sent a clear and early message that you run a professional event and that the performers will be able to devote their attention to flying a safe show and giving your event their best overall effort.

Sacred 30 Minutes

The “Sacred 30 Minutes” is best defined as an uninterrupted half hour before every pilot’s performance when he is left alone with no distractions to mentally prepare for the rigors of low-level aerobatic air show flying.  With even the best planning, event organizers cannot foresee all events that may impact a show.  Whether it is a weather delay, a mechanical issue for another performer or an unexpected shuffling of the performer sequence, schedules get shifted. But, regardless of the reason, it is critically important that every performer be given the time necessary to prepare. No autograph signing. No introduction to the mayor. No television interviews. No last second phone calls saying, “We slipped a bit; can you be ready in ten minutes?”

This is a time where the performers can be alone to mentally fly their sequence and put all distractions out of their mind while in a private air conditioned space such as their rental cars or a cool down trailer for performer use only.  Fuel and smoke oil should already be addressed.  This 30-minute block of time should be absolutely cleared of any responsibility or interruption that might distract them from the very serious business of preparing for their demonstration.  No matter how rushed the event becomes due to weather or other circumstances, it is the event organizer’s duty to ensure your performers have the time they need to mentally prepare.

Strangely, the biggest offenders of the “Sacred 30 Minutes” are FAA airworthiness inspectors.  Although ICAS is working closely with the FAA to eliminate this problem, as an event organizer, you should be particularly deliberate about working with your FAA delegation to schedule any inspections well before the pilot is scheduled to fly. Even among those pilots who welcome FAA airworthiness inspections, it is widely agreed that unscheduled, last second FAA inspections are an absolute focus-buster.

Using its Safety Management System (SMS) processes to identify root causes of safety incidents, ICAS found that last second distractions were a contributing factor in several incidents and near misses during the last several years.  ICAS is asking all of its member organizations to recognize the importance of safeguarding the “Sacred 30 Minutes.” Please share the importance of this issue with anybody associated with your show that might interact with performers during the time just before they fly.

Rental Vehicles/Courtesy Cars      

The rental vehicle should be considered as more than just transportation during the air show.  Throughout the event, the rental car often serves as a home away from home.  The rental vehicle serves as a place to cool down, a place to focus during the “Sacred 30 Minutes” and often as a place to store items that can’t be secured inside the aircraft during the aerial demonstration.   This last item should answer the question as to why a crew of three would need an SUV or mini-van.  For the most part, performers are aware of budget constraints that event organizers work within, and only ask for an SUV or mini-van in their support manual because experience has proven they actually need one to do their business efficiently and without potentially dangerous distractions.

One of the frustrations for many performers is the inability to receive their rental vehicle in a timely and convenient fashion.  Prior arrangements should be made with the rental car company to ensure the vehicles are insured by the event, fully fueled at delivery and already signed for to facilitate a quick transfer to the performer.  The vehicles should be made available, preferably at the airplane immediately upon arriving.  These vehicles should be preloaded with the appropriate parking passes, drop off instructions and local maps that highlight the preferred routes to and from the host hotel and other event venues.

For those participants such as the air boss, announcer, maintenance crews and other personnel that may be arriving via the airlines, make sure their cars are identifiable by their name or other method that has been pre-briefed with them prior to arrival.  While it may be logistically impractical to preload the vehicles picked up off site with parking passes, drop off instructions and maps, those items should be included in their information packets provided upon arriving at the show.  Prior arrangements should be made with the rental car company to ensure easy access to the vehicles with a quick ID check.  For those arriving at an airport other than the air show venue, this will be their first experience with your show and will establish their first impression.  It is recommended that you have a representative from your show at the airport to greet these participants and liaise if there are any problems that arise.

While many shows have a “performer only” cool down trailer at show center, it rarely remains “performer only.”  For many performers, one of their greatest frustrations at many shows is the event organizers’ inflexibility to allow performers to park one of their vehicles near their airplane.  Certainly, we don’t want a bunch of rental vehicles blocking the view of the spectators, but — with prior planning — an area can be designated near the performer aircraft to park at least one vehicle per performer near their aircraft.  This is a safety of flight issue related to heat, dehydration and the “Sacred 30 Minutes.”           

Lodging

Many air show performers spend half their lives between late March and mid-November “living” in hotels.  Although you may see the hotel rooms that you assign to them as a place to sleep for three or four nights, they see the hotel room as their home for several days. You may consider a third tier hotel room to be a good way to cut money from a big budget item, but they see it as a distraction and potential safety hazard.

First, the hotel should be quiet.  Hotels with large and loud atriums are not conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. Similarly, rooms located near bars or ballrooms that will have loud music into the early hours of the morning are not the right match for air show pilots expected to be up early and performing the next day. Always check with your host hotel to de-conflict such events or make arrangements to have your room block in an area away from any post-prom parties.

The host hotel should be clean, comfortable and connected.  While higher end hotels with first class amenities such as fine dining, entertainment, brass fixtures and mandatory valet parking are preferred by some, remember that a posh hotel of this sort may force performers to incur unwanted and unexpected expenses. If the event can negotiate to waive or greatly reduce these fees, that is wonderful.  But if not, consider a clean, comfortable and connected alternative that will not place unexpected financial burdens on your guests.

Rooms should be reserved based on the performer’s contracts and support manuals.  With mixed gender crews, sleep apnea and a multitude of other factors, there’s probably a reason they’ve asked for three single king and two double rooms.  Some performers and support service providers request ground floor rooms due to the large amount of heavy equipment they carry to and from their rooms each night.  It’s not uncommon to see a request for a handicap accessible room or even adjoining rooms.  Whatever the request, you can usually find it in their contract or support manual.

Convenience to the airport should also be considered.  Routes to and from the host hotel should be well thought out to de-conflict with any rush hour (Friday Morning Performer Briefing) or air show related traffic.  If this can’t be accomplished, maps with alternate routes should be available and made known to the performers before they get stuck in traffic and are late or entirely miss your special events. 

Allocated Time to Rest   

While no formal crew rest rules apply to the air show industry as a whole, it’s critically important that air show event organizers build crew rest considerations into their air show schedules.   Unnecessarily early morning performer briefings — particularly on the heels of a late night social function — can tend to drag those long hot days out excessively.  If your event is heavily loaded with late night social events, consider starting them earlier or moving your performer briefing and air show start time back to accommodate a later wake up call.  Ultimately, look at your event schedule and consider the amount of time your performers have available to decompress and rest.  

Media and Public Relations

Media coverage of an upcoming air show is a cost-efficient and effective tool for increasing attendance. And air show pilots are an especially useful tool for driving media coverage. Many sponsored performers recognize newspaper photos, television news segments and radio interviews as an important part of their sponsorship value.  However, media should never come at the price of a good night’s sleep.  If you plan to have your performer participant in an early morning media or public relations event, the performer should agree to this opportunity well in advance and be permitted and willing to forego any mandatory social event the night prior.

Food and Water

The importance of food and water cannot be stressed enough.  In the past several years, there has been great improvement in the quality of food offered in the performer’s tent.  Most shows do a great job providing a quality lunch in the performer tent on Saturday and Sunday.  However, it is a surprisingly large number of shows that either overlook or choose to not have food available for the performers on rehearsal day.  Make arrangements to have food delivered to your air boss, announcer and other individuals that likely won’t have a chance to stray away from their work stations.  Additionally, ensure that food and water are available to those working in the pyro field as well as any other group of people you may have in far flung and sometimes forgotten areas of your specific event.

Having a substantial and convenient breakfast available either at the airport, performer briefing or the host hotel is also important.  Encourage your performers to have a small but nutritious snack about an hour before they fly.  It’s always good for your performers to have something light for their belly to work on during their time in the aerobatic box.

One of the most important ways that an event organizer can help keep performers safe is to provide plenty of water throughout the day.  Have water available at all times in tubs at show center, the performer tent, the pits, the hot zone and basically anywhere your event might find a performer.  As your committee that travels via golf cart providing water to the static displays is making their rounds, ensure they periodically check these tubs and restock as necessary.  As one air boss is fond of saying, the onset of dehydration will result in a decrease in G tolerance, a lack of depth perception and an inability to make simple decisions…all critical issues for an air show performer. 

Fuel, Oil and Smoke

When you have a well thought out plan to accommodate your performer’s needs for fuel, engine oil and smoke oil, the decrease in performer anxiety is almost palpable. As surprising as it may sound, when this aspect of a show is not well organized, pilots walk around in a near-constant state of anxiety during your air show weekend. The appropriate person within your organization should make plans to deliver the engine oil to your performers soon after arrival or communicate plans to fill the aircraft per their support manual as needed.  Many performers offer the ability to fly more than one time during your show.  Plan ahead to ensure you have a sufficient amount of fuel trucks available to be where needed in a timely manner.  Pre-position your smoke oil on pallets easily moved by a fork truck.  Make sure you have an electric pump to rapidly refill the aircraft smoke oil system and ensure you have a hose long enough to extend to those out of reach locations.  Also it’s important to have a knowledgeable and responsible crew that will not only be on time, but have radio communications to react to a change in plans. 

Air Boss Professionalism

While hiring a professional air boss may result in your performers “suffering” through the same one-liners about “bags of hammers” and doing “somethin’ dumb,” it also provides an opportunity to insert valuable experience and consistency in the actual execution of the event.

Your air boss should put enough time into a sequence so that a performer flying multiple times during a show has the ability to refuel, reset and re-prepare for their next demonstration.  A professional air boss understands these needs and will create a sequence that will accommodate those situations.  Experienced air bosses are almost never dealing with the problem in front of them. They are constantly assessing the current situation – weather, delays, unexpected developments that come up during the show — to determine how those things might negatively impact the rest of the show. And then they make adjustments to address those potential issues before they become actual problems. An experienced air boss also makes the performers comfortable that they don’t have to include concerns about the air boss among those things that they must consider as they prepare for and fly their sequence. 

Desire to Please/Communication

Given all of the various concerns that a performer might have about avoiding distractions, it may be difficult to imagine that keeping the event organizer pleased might be an additional, possible distraction. But performers are, almost without exception, eager to please and to be liked. As event organizers, it’s our responsibility to recognize that about them and to not to take advantage of this need to please.  The performer side of the ICAS Safety Committee has gone to great efforts to instill the importance of flying a known and rehearsed sequence.  When we request a performer to “go long,” we are essentially asking them to ignore longstanding prohibitions on ad-libbing all or part of a sequence. Of course, nobody ever demands that a performer extend his performance; it’s always a request. But, for people-pleasers, that kind of “request” is tantamount to a command. So, avoid the potential problem entirely; never ask your performers to go off sequence or do something at your event they haven’t practiced at altitude and become comfortable with first.

Similarly, it is critical to avoid making potentially dangerous requests of your pilots when weather deteriorates. Ask a pilot to fly in poor weather and his first instinct will be to do what you have asked him to do. You thought enough of him to invite him your show and pay him to perform. He doesn’t want to disappoint you and he wants you to invite him back next year. So, again, don’t ask your pilot to fly in poor weather.

Another example would be surprising the performers by revealing a “funky box” during the performer briefing.  If your aerobatic box is anything but standard, you should email a depiction of the box and communicate any unusual restrictions to your performers immediately.  This gives the performer the time to plan and rehearse any changes in advance at altitude prior to arriving at your event.  For some performers a 2,600’ long aerobatic box is a non issue, however most will have to adjust their sequence to remain legal.

No stranger to a “funky box,” one veteran performer relates an example where he didn’t find out until the performer briefing that the box was only 85 feet deep.  With essentially no room to maneuver, these surprises can result in putting performers into dangerous situations with no margin for error.

Prior communication can dramatically reduce on site drama.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to your contracted performers with potential issues or what you may think is an unusual request.  They may say no, but most likely they have seen a similar case before and know how to help work through a situation and make those requests a reality.  They want your show to be a success. If something can be done safely, most likely the answer will be yes …so long as they know in advance!         

Support Manual

“Did you read my support manual?”  Those dreaded words no event organizer wants to hear.  Support manuals aren’t written to unnecessarily task events to pander to rock star-like egos.  Support manuals are written for the sole purpose of allowing your performers to put on the best and safest show possible.  Everything in the support manual is there for a reason. The wrong type smoke oil can fill the cockpit of an aerobatic plane with toxic fumes. The 50 gallons of de-ionized water isn’t for their aquarium. And they probably have a reason they want the rear doors on their rental SUV to open outward and to the sides as opposed to a lift gate.  Hangar requirements, ground service equipment and exact oil types are essential to putting on a safe show.  Bottom line: read the support manuals.  The information in these documents are provided to help you avoid last minute fires while providing the most entertaining and safe event possible.

Portapotties

One near-constant source of angst and distraction is the lack of a portapotty located at or near show center that performers can use as they go through their pre-performance preparations.  Asking your performers to get in the bathroom queue with spectators or requiring that they get in their car to drive somewhere else on the airport grounds is precisely the kind of distraction that an event organizer can easily help eliminate by ordering one extra portapotty and specifying that it be placed at show center with the door facing away from the crowd so that spectators don’t get an up-close look at the very last step in your performers’ preparation.

Miscellaneous 

You may discover that performers like to unexpectedly mail you strange packages.  Although those long poles may be somewhat bendy, I’m not aware of any pole vaulters in the industry.  Give the performer a courtesy call to let them know their packages have arrived and then put those poles and other packages aside in a safe place until they are to be delivered to your performer upon arrival.

It’s inevitable that your performers will have to make the dreaded trip to the local Wal-Mart for one reason or another.  As an event organizer, you can minimize those trips by providing each performer with a five-gallon bucket filled with various aircraft cleaning supplies to use during the weekend.  Some may keep the buckets; some may not, but experience has shown that this low cost investment creates good will, helps the performer recognize that you understand his needs, and is often paid back many times over by the mutual support and respect of those performers.

Many performers look back on a season to find one big blur.  While we don’t want to overburden our performers with mandatory social commitments, many shows have quickly become performer favorites due to their hospitality.  All-you-can-eat lobster dinners in Maine, use of an extensive firearms collection at an expansive range in the Midwest and vineyard tours in California are examples of some of the various opportunities used to build performer loyalty.  Look at what your community has to offer that is unique and may prove entertaining.  Provide options that will make your event stand out!  This is not an obligation on your part, but it’s an opportunity to build a stronger and deeper relationship with the performers that your show hires.

Summary

The suggestions included in this article are made not to ensure that air show performers are treated in the rock star fashion that they think they deserve. They are made so that, as an event organizer, you can take steps to improve safety at your show. Accidents almost never happen for a single reason. Mistakes are made. Procedures are overlooked. Distractions occur. And, together, they create a situation in which an accident takes place. As an event organizer, you are limited in what you can do to positively impact that potential accident chain. But make no mistake: there are parts of the accident chain that ONLY you can impact. And, frankly, you can do it with a minimum of money, time and effort. And doing them will help create an environment in which trust is built, distractions are minimized, and your performers are given the best possible chance to fly a safe, entertaining air show. And, after all, isn’t that what we all want?

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Dennis Dunbar is Director of Air Show Operations for EAA AirVenture, President of Dunbar Airshows, and chairman of the ICAS Event Organizer Safety and Operations Subcommittee of the ICAS Safety Committee.