Weather Permitting

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Of all the variables that can possibly go wrong at an air show, the single biggest show-stopper is bad weather.

The odds are daunting. Show organizers pin their resources and hopes on one weekend in the year to stage their outdoor aerial entertainment event; and its success is a random toss-up, subject to the whims of weather.

Weather affects everything from ticket sales at the gate to concession sales on the ramp; safety for performers flying in high winds or with low ceilings; the well-being of spectators subject to lightning strikes, oppressive heat or flying debris; the debilitating effects of extreme temperatures on sensitive plane parts and mechanisms; the fact that a flooded parking lot from the previous night’s storm could still shut down your show on a sunny Saturday… the list goes on.

As Kevin Walsh, producer of Thunder Over Michigan, puts it, “With every show, I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ The bottom line is this: ‘It’s not reasonable; it’s a passion.’”

Handling weird weather at an air show is a wild ride. You cannot expect to tame it. You must respect its power. And if you’re patient and forward-thinking, it may permit you to have the ride of your life.

Just ask Walsh, who produced a new show in mid-March, Thunder Over Utah. “It should have been sunny and 70 degrees, as usual, in that part of the country. But on Saturday, high winds blew in, causing a sandstorm. Then we got two inches of rain overnight, high temperatures of 48 degrees, and mountaintops covered by clouds and snow. There were snowflakes in the air. And, of course, by Monday (once the show was over), it was sunny and 70 degrees again!”

It was touch and go on Saturday. Thirty-thousand spectators gathered on the show grounds. The show went on as planned. By midday, threatening weather rolled in, but the show soldiered on. The Blues performed the grand finale, then everyone took cover.

Having squeaked by with a weather-threatened show on Saturday, organizers woke to snow and rain on the show grounds on Sunday. After assessing parking lots at 5:00 a.m. and determining that cars would not get stuck, they proceeded with the Sunday show.

In other cases, show cancellation is unavoidable. Phaedra Childers is event coordinator with the Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia. In 2010, thunderstorms shut down the second day of their two-day show.

Ten days before the show, weather forecasts called for a 100 percent chance of heavy thunderstorms on Sunday. But organizers forged ahead, hoping for the best. But things started falling apart early. On Saturday, despite record attendance, some performers left the venue to avoid the coming storm.  On Sunday, rains were heavy by midmorning. Winds were strong. Thunder and lightning were in the air. Sponsor and vendor tents blew away; one hit the blade of a military helicopter on display.

“We decided, with the flying debris and lightning, we needed to get everyone off the airfield,” Childers explains. “We planned for a delayed start with only a handful of entertainers that could perform. We opened hangars to allow spectators shelter, but we got them out as soon as there was a break in the weather. Safety of our spectators and performers was the main reason for canceling the show that day.”

The financial fallout of losing a day can be debilitating. But in this case, careful planning helped Thunder in the Valley avoid dire budget consequences. In a sense, the show insures itself, according to Childers. It uses sponsorship money to pay for acts, statics and fuel. So, if cancellation is unavoidable, pre-ticket sales and vendor fees cover costs associated with set-up, and the show breaks even. “Every year, with the exception of 2010, we put back a little money into a reserve, just in case we have a complete washout and need the money to cover costs,” says Childers.

Rain is one thing. Hurricanes are quite another. The NAS Oceana Air Show in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is scheduled every year in September during prime hurricane season. Show producer Richard “Corky” Erie says the threat of potential hurricanes is like a dog whose bark is worse than its bite, but the ramifications can be just as bad.  “Weather people make the weather news more dramatic than necessary,” Erie comments. “The hurricane threat was still a week away, and nonspecific, threatening most of the eastern seaboard. It was still hundreds of miles off the coast with an erratic pathway that was hard to predict. I wasn’t too worried about it.”

The 24-hour track of predictions indicated the hurricane could hit anywhere from the southern tip of Florida all the way up to Boston, so organizers couldn’t make plans based on those speculations.

“Meanwhile, a mid-level [air show] staff member started spreading a rumor that we might cancel Saturday’s show,” Erie continues. “He had no authority to say that. The Navy’s base commanding officer is the only one with that authority, and he never uses the ‘C’ word (for ‘cancellation’) until he must make the official announcement. When we’ve got to focus on tamping down a disruptive rumor rather than executing the show, it’s a terrible diversion of resources. Ultimately, the show went on. It was cloudy, but no problem.”

On the other hand, weird weather can hit with no warning whatsoever. On a Friday night in 2005 at around 1:00 a.m. — with nothing on radar to predict it — NAS Oceana was subject to a microburst with 60-mph winds and a downpour unloading five inches of rain.

Erie recalls, All the pop-up tents got blown over. The cartwheeled, crumpled tents looked like dead white spiders scattered all over the place. Our vendors weren’t too happy about their soaked food-stores and the ruined tents, but, fortunately, we got the flightline put back together and fixed all the damage before anybody but the vendors knew it even happened.  The show went on as planned.”

In Redding, California, the weather threat is not rain, but extreme heat. Bill Wagner, chairman of the biennial Exchange Club of Redding Air Show, has dealt with 111-degree temperatures.

Seasonal timing is an aggravating factor. The show falls in late September during wildfire season, so cooling resources like water misters and shade tents are hard to procure. The show compensates by allowing plastic water bottles to be brought onsite. A local spring water distributor places free water dispensers on the tarmac. The Red Cross also distributes water.

Bad weather can cause issues both before and after a show, adds air show producer Bobbi Thompson. “Pre-event weather can play havoc to setting up various tents and vendor exhibits, and prevents aircraft displays and performers from arriving when scheduled, or at all. Rain-soaked parking areas can cause a complete or partial restructuring of your parking plan, which may also impact traffic patterns into and out of your show. High winds or hail can damage tents and equipment that cannot be replaced in time for the event. If the weather happens following the show, organizers need to have a policy on how to deal with extended stays for military teams, statics, or performers. Who is responsible for hotel-associated expenses?”

One event that Thompson produced had tornadoes pass through the area the day before the show. Damage at the show site was minimal, but family and friends of several volunteers suffered major problems. “As a result, only about 50 percent of our volunteers were available on show days,” Thompson shares. “Volunteer schedules and assignments had to be completely modified.”

While bad weather is a headache for show organizers, it can be a matter of life and death to aerial performers.

Veteran performer Steve Oliver sums up decades of air show weather experience succinctly: “My rule basically is this: Get rid of the ego and testosterone. If it’s scary or questionable, don’t fly. Pretty simple. Be professional enough to stand down. The pay’s the same. If it looks uncomfortable, don’t do it. Now that will raise an argument with those who believe the show must go on, weather be damned. We’ve buried a lot of our fellow performers with that attitude.”

Which brings us to our next conundrum: When the ceiling is too low for some performers but deemed acceptable to others, some planes are sent up in the air to offer a measure of aerial entertainment during bad weather. End results are mixed.

“History has shown that if all goes well, it’s great. If it doesn’t, it’s bad,” Oliver comments. “Low shows are entertaining to the crowd. They appreciate that we’re doing what we can, and often don’t know the difference. The pressure is on those who are flying for their peers, and that’s bad. Do what you can for the paying crowd; not your fellow performer. There should be no pressure on a performer in regard to what fellow performers might think… but there is, unless you’re old enough and are mature enough get a grip on it.”

“Bad weather is probably the biggest and most unpredictable problem that faces our industry,” says ICAS President John Cudahy. The only predictable thing to air show professionals is a “fair amount of certainty that they will eventually face bad weather and the decisions that accompany bad weather. And, just as predictably, everybody in the business can also be sure that those decisions will have to be made under less than ideal circumstances. So, it makes sense for shows to think about those circumstances ahead of time.”

Cudahy offers these examples: Will flying continue right up until FAA/Transport Canada minimums mandate that flying has to stop? Or will the show institute its own minimums and end flying when those minimums are exceeded? How will spectators be directed to shelter if thunderstorms are imminent? If, 24 hours ahead of time, the weather forecast calls for 100 percent chance of heavy rain, will the show be cancelled the night before? How hot does it have to be for the show to be cancelled entirely? If there’s a light drizzle and very small crowds, will the show push to get airplanes into the air to entertain the few people present? “If these types of situations are discussed ahead of time, it will be less likely that show organizers will make a decision that introduces unnecessary safety hazards into an already difficult situation,” Cudahy says.

Beth Vahle, Director of Operations at Indianapolis Air Show, has learned what kinds of things a show can do to mitigate weather risks, in terms of both finances and safety.

Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Vahle recalls, “On Saturday, June 12, 2010, an unusual amount of rainfall in a short period of time forced us to cancel the show that day for the first time in our 14-year history. Our logistics team, along with several dedicated volunteers, actually built a temporary road throughout the evening which allowed us to open the gates on Sunday.”

However, when even extraordinary measures aren’t enough to keep gates open, shows may benefit from securing weather insurance. Susan Amey with Insurance Technologies & Programs says, “If a show is concerned about losing gate receipt revenue due to weather and does not have the funds to pay bills or continue their event in future years, I’d strongly suggest they purchase weather insurance.”

Insurance coverage (and the premiums that you pay for that coverage) is determined by stipulating a specific amount of rainfall in a specific place during a specific period of time. For example, a show can purchase coverage for 1/10 inch of rain to accumulate between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on a specific spot on the air show property with a limit of $50,000. If it rains that much during that four-hour period of time, the insurance company will issue a check for $50,000.

Amey advises a time period of four hours; two to three hours prior to gates opening and one to two hours afterward. This is when most spectators are deciding whether or not to attend the air show, based on the weather. If it’s a free show, this time frame would change to later in the day, depending on which acts are flying and the location of the event. Keep in mind that rain insurance must be purchased no less than 30 days prior to the event.

If a show already has enough of a cash reserve to pay bills even if weather cancels their event, then they can avoid purchasing weather insurance. However, weather insurance can be considered a safety net for future events.

While pondering the need for weather insurance or a rainy day fund, shows mustn’t overlook the impact of weather on concession sales, because that’s lost revenue that can have a dramatic impact on a show’s bottom line.

“Weather is the single largest factor on the financial success of an air show,” says Jim Breen, President and CEO of Umbrella Entertainment Group/The Air Show Network.

Weather conditions during the show also affect the mix of items that sell. Severe heat can be just as significant as rain or wind. Breen says the perfect scenario for maximum concession sales is a temperature of 78-80 degrees, sun and a light breeze; not too different from ideal air show conditions.

“At that temperature, the entire menu of food items sells the best… Just right for beer, water and soda sales,” Breen explains. “Foods like hamburgers, brats, pizza, and hot dogs sell great.” Sunny conditions propel the sale of hats, visors and sunglasses. If it’s too hot, beer, soda and food sales all decline. “Water is the only item that sells well in extreme heat,” says Breen. “Even ice cream sells poorly in very hot conditions.”

But, as diverse and disastrous as the impact of bad weather can be on an air show, the single biggest concern and the driving factor behind all decisions related to bad weather must be safety.

“We’re in the entertainment business, so we have a responsibility to ticket buyers to put on a show. We have an obligation to the fans,” says Walsh from Thunder Over Michigan. “But we never compromise safety in the process. If you get weathered out, you need to accept that. There’s no sense in getting hurt for something as trivial as an air show. We’re going to execute our show in a professional manner or not at all.”

Bonus: ICAS Members Share Tips on Minimizing the Impact of Inclement Weather

  • Keep safety first, both for performers and for those on the ground.
  • Prepare for bad weather to avoid serious health and safety risks for spectators, staff, vendors and volunteers. Meet with air show personnel and your emergency team to discuss procedures for handling specific scenarios. Then develop a written document that puts those decisions in black and white.
  • Include a reputable local meteorologist on your team. Work with the airport or local FBO to gain access to live radar imaging for real-time weather tracking.
  • Effectively communicate air show delays, cancellations and air performer schedule changes to the public, spectators, sponsors, vendors and volunteers. Ideally, that decision should be made by the air show organizer, emergency team and staff prior to opening the gates.
  • If aerial performances must be cancelled or delayed after spectators are already onsite, ground activities should remain open, if possible. Since most tickets are non-refundable even if the air portion is cancelled, they should get some value on the ground for their tickets.
  • Set aside hay bales for mud in case of rain. Also have a tow truck driver and locksmith onsite for people who lose keys or get vehicles stuck in the mud.
  • Air shows are dependent on legions of volunteers, so arrange for communication with them on short notice in the event of inclement weather. The show’s volunteer coordinator should have a list of volunteer names, cell numbers and their assigned areas so they can be easily contacted and informed of alternate plans and pick-up areas.
  • Radio communication among volunteers, staff and emergency personnel is always vital; even more so in bad weather. Emergency radio channels should be assigned solely to key personnel.
  • Office staff should be trained in emergency procedures and have immediate access to decision makers, since they can be inundated with hundreds of calls from the media, spectators, and vendors needing help.
  • Don’t allow pop-up tents on the flightline, where wind can turn them into flying projectiles unless they are properly secured to withstand severe winds.
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Estelle Brown is a freelance writer and independent public relations specialist based in northeast Ohio.