Air Shows in a Post-Sequestration World: Paradigm Shift or Same Ol’ Same Ol’?

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When the USAF Thunderbirds flew over the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day, a dark veil lifted. Sequestration had ended, the wicked witch was dead, and America’s military jet demonstration teams were once again able to fill citizens with that unique sense of pride and purpose. For air show sponsors, organizers and fellow performers, there was a palpable sense of relief. Unlucky 2013 was over; and this year would be different. 

But how much different? And what about next year? 

Along with that sense of relief came an underlying realization that, this time, it might not be enough to have weathered the storm. Those who added up their numbers for last year’s shows – the ones that weren’t canceled outright, that is — received a precise financial comparison of how reliant some shows had grown on the jet teams and other military participation. With polls and research, we now can say very accurately how much the jet teams meant to attendance, nationwide. For those who may have been deluding themselves, the numbers were scary. 

And it wasn’t just the big shows with the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels that suffered. Military aircraft on static display, or performing fly-bys from nearby bases also contributed to the numbers who attended smaller shows around the country. Before last year, maybe it was possible to believe certain shows were popular enough that they could stand on their own without military involvement swelling the paying crowds. But, until the furious hammer of sequestration struck, it was only an academic question. 

Not only did many show organizers discover how much they relied on the draw of military involvement; they got a first-hand look at how easily the government, which had given them so much to make their show a success, could take it all away with the smack of a gavel in Congress. Could it happen again? For many in the air show industry, the more important question is, “What can we do to be ready if it does?” 

For the shows that depended most heavily on the military for their draw (and now they know exactly who they are), it’s unrealistic to expect to make up all that interest at once. They can’t expect a civilian jet team or some other single attraction to fill the gap. The prevailing wisdom runs that it makes sense to explore multiple options that could each bring back some percentage of the turnstile clicks that went south with the lack of military presence. And when it comes to arriving at a solution, creativity has to be the key. 

Some have suggested simply scaling back – shortening the shows and lowering expectations. Another school of thought leans toward consolidating air shows with other events: local car shows; carnivals or music festivals; even wine tastings and/or summer food festivals. Combining a local air show with a fireworks display is another possible draw; and the emerging trend in twilight air shows makes that alternative even more plausible. 

Kevin Walsh, who heads up the Thunder Over Michigan show, said that there is potential in reaching out to organizers of other nearby events to try to find synergy. Chances are, with the economy the way it’s been, they may be looking for ways to help their event, too. A little “out of the box” thinking can go a long way; and every city, state or county situation is at least a little bit different in some way. 

Jay Rabbitt has been managing audio at air shows for the past 16 years; and working other events for more than three decades. Jay loves aviation – it’s why he got involved in the first place. But he sees one recurring theme with air shows. “Some of the people running air shows are too close to the airplanes. They might not want to hear this, but they don’t really understand entertainment.” 

Walsh points to other entertainment businesses that have adapted. He said, “The Detroit Tigers stadium has a carousel, retail stores, batting cages and other facilities not directly related to the baseball game on the field.” Fans can also run the bases at Tiger Stadium, he said…the better to keep the public engaged with the team, and coming back for more. 

Other sporting events have added fan attractions: firing T-shirts into the crowds at NBA basketball games and half-court shooting contests where a fan can win a car, for example. For decades now, the Boston Bruins NHL hockey team has featured its “mini one-on-one” segment between periods, where kids from youth hockey teams match up in a shootout. 

There will always be purists who decry such practices as cheapening the product and violating the sanctity of the game. The same is true for legacy air show aficionados. And their opinions need to be respected and incorporated into the decision-making process. At the same time, they need to acknowledge that those standards have been in constant flux.  

For years, the Boston Red Sox management resisted the lure of allowing advertising within the sanctified confines of Fenway Park. But a look back into the history of one of baseball’s iconic facilities reveals that billboards were commonplace in the early days. Similarly, the National Hockey League has submitted to the pressure to allow advertising along the side boards – a practice that would have been considered heresy a few decades ago. 

When it comes to adapting air shows in a similar way, Rabbitt goes by the maxim: “Think like a family would.” How long can Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public sit in torrid temperatures staring up into the sun? Even if the adults are interested in the show, how long before the cranky ten year-old has had enough? And how likely is it the same family will return next year? 

As hard as it may be to accept for a dedicated aviation nut, sitting through one aerobatic performer after another for four or five hours on a hot day might not do it for some people. Even the snarl of warbirds’ radial engines can grow stale pretty quickly. And for some, once they’ve watched one parachute jump, they’ve seen them all. 

Walsh said, “In the Detroit area, we compete with an incredible array of entertainment options. We need to think: ‘How can we persuade that family of four to come to our show rather than a food festival?’” One of the keys, he said, is to keep the experience interactive. That can be hard with an air show, but he suggests adding other elements, such as World War II and Vietnam-era re-enactors. With a strong presence of vintage warbirds flying in the shows and on static display, adding a combination of air-and-ground components to a show can work well. The patriotic theme is always popular, he said, which is one reason why the jet teams do so well at attracting show goers. 

“We started small with the re-enactors,” said Walsh, “and plan to grow with it in the future. We can have tanks, large artillery guns and small arms firing propane.” In 2011, Walsh’s show included a simulated Pacific battle, complete with heavy armor, flamethrowers, and Corsairs and Zeroes dogfighting overhead. “Of course, there is historic license; all that would not have been going on in such a small space. But the combination presents a compelling spectacle.”  

Some show organizers may have tried alternative strategies and failed. That doesn’t mean the idea is wrong. Maybe it was the execution. Rabbit has extensive experience with outdoor music events, and, he said, “For an air show, just hiring a mediocre mid-range country act doesn’t work. It’s a bad mix. Production costs and complications are too high.” He suggests tapping a group of local bands, instead. Maybe combining that with a food festival, barbecue or an antique car show. “Ramp up the presentation. Too many air shows are presented like a bad circus.” 

Not surprisingly, Rabbitt suggested that one strategy would be to explore higher-end sound and video presentation. Cockpit camera images projected on Jumbotrons combined with cutting edge audio can bring the crowd into the air show performance on a more first-person level. He suggested approaching sponsors with the idea of bankrolling the rental of the big screens, with the assurance that all eyes will be glued to their name which can appear on the screen throughout the show, along with video ads.  

But that approach can meet with substantial pushback, he said. “There’s a lot of the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude among show organizers and sponsors,” he said. 

There are those who staunchly maintain that all the crowd wants to hear is the roar of the engines; and music is just a distraction from the main event. Some would even like to cut back on air show narration; just let the airplanes do the talking. Another problem is inconsistency among air show management from year to year. While many of the usual suspects are involved from year to year, there may be a revolving door of local committees and airport authorities making the final decisions. “That can make it harder to change the format of a show,” said Rabbitt. 

Think outside the normal borders of air show performances to find new ways to survive without a military presence. For example, Walsh suggested a flyby of a Northwest Boeing 747 at low altitude. Local law enforcement might be able to display a police helicopter, or maybe even recreate a drug interdiction, an aerial rescue or some other event that would also serve to promote their programs. Local television stations might put their electronic news gathering (ENG) helicopter on display, and have on-air personalities available to meet the public. 

We live in an interactive age, where people expect to be able to express their opinions and become a part of the event – linked directly with the headliners on the program. Maybe combining that dynamic with today’s technology is an option for improving the public’s experience at air shows. Could we consider interviewing members of the crowd and asking their opinions on the last performance? The interviews could be presented on the Jumbotrons. Maybe ask a random fan to participate with the air show narration as the show moves along? Or talk with one of the performers over the radio during the flight? 

The next step is up to you, the ICAS members who shape the industry and determine its future. Whether you’re an air show organizer, support service provider or performer, it’s up to you to make the next move. All ideas are on the table for taking the next step, whether it’s your air show, one you are involved with as a supporter or whether you might have influence on others in position to make changes. And sharing ideas can benefit the entire industry. Maybe what works for someone else will also work for you, or a new idea from somewhere else might spark something fresh in your mind. 

The bottom line: the return of military participation is great; the collective sigh of relief should be temporary. As Kevin Walsh said, “Plan your show as if you had no military participation. If it continues, great. But if not, you’re prepared with a plan to survive without it.”

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Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is an active general aviation pilot and longtime freelance writer who has spent his career researching and retelling stories about aviation heroes.