Life After Sequestration: The Warbird Alternative

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Everyone interested in air shows – even casual observers – is aware of the impact of sequestration. Attendance dropped off by as much as 70 percent at some of the larger shows that relied heavily on the military jet teams for their gate receipts.

Even though the dark veil has been largely lifted for this season, savvy promoters know that the world is not all rosy and light. Yes, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are back flying. But the suddenness of their removal in 2013 has everyone wary that the same could happen again. And recent directives from the Pentagon have instructed commanders of active duty, National Guard and Reserve units not to support civilian air shows. Some shows relied on such participation for flybys, static displays or both.

Ralph Royce, Chairman of the ICAS Board of Directors, said surveys among air show spectators consistently show that the jet teams are, by far, the strongest draw. Bill Roach of the Wings Over Houston Airshow pointed out that he experiences a 30 percent drop in attendance when the Canadian Snowbirds perform in their Canadair CT-114 trainers compared with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels in their F/A-18s or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in their F-16s.

Years of surveying confirm that single-ship contemporary fighters are the next most popular. It seems the crowds want to hear and feel the rumble of afterburners. But now, even those are off the table for most shows based on the new mandates. That brings us to the number three draw on the list: vintage military aircraft, usually referred to as simply “warbirds.” It’s probably safe to say that most shows, large and small, have some warbird participation, whether it’s a single performer in a T-6 Texan or aerial performances and static displays of dozens of warbirds at once.

The appeal of warbirds is different from that of contemporary military aircraft, but it is undeniably strong. For those who do not have the option of a jet team, or have seen their options for modern military aircraft whittled down, the next line of attack is to increase warbird participation, and better leverage their marketing accordingly.

That may include ramping up the non-flying portion of the show…the static aircraft displays, but also participation from collectors of vintage military vehicles, period re-enactors, and even a dash of influence from non-military activity, such as Rosie-the-Riveter-style clothing and 40s-vintage dances with live big-band music.

One of the most successful examples of this kind of event is the World War II Weekend at Reading, Pennsylvania’s Carl Spaatz Field Airport. Hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Museum (MAAM), the event is held every year on the weekend closest to D-Day (June 6). This year will be the 24th running for MAAM head Russ Strine, who has also been an air show performer since 1979.

He said, “Folks who have gotten the Blues and T’birds every year need to change their mindset. It’s easy to get into the habit of ‘instant attendance’ and ‘money in the bank’ from the jet teams and de-emphasize the other acts.” The MAAM collection appears at up to 25 other shows per year, and Strine has strong feelings on how warbird operators ought to be treated. Part of that is adjusting the pay scale, but it goes beyond dollars.

He mentioned Barry Centini, airport manager at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as one who took good care of warbird operators, though that show no longer operates. Even though the show regularly had jet teams appear, they would also have upwards of 80 warbirds on the ramp. “He treated us right,” said Strine.

MAAM is a well organized group of performers, with professional direction from Strine and his staff. He cites that professionalism as a quality that show organizers should seek out among warbird operators. Strine has no objection to the private aircraft owner who brings his airplane to shows, sometimes for little or no appearance fee. But he suggests that relying on such participants exclusively can be problematic. “We won’t call at the last minute saying, ‘Sorry. My wife wants to go to Newport for the weekend.’” When an organization relies on its reputation for continued support, he said, there is a stronger incentive to follow through on a commitment.

As for the non-aviation elements to the Reading World War II Weekend, there are few events that can match it. As many as 1,500 period re-enactors set up encampments, subdivided by nationality, including American, British, Polish, French and an impressive contingent of German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe representatives. Clothing and equipment are either original or highly accurate reproductions, right down to the portable stoves for the field kitchens. There are antique military vehicle owners and operators who display their trucks, jeeps, half-tracks and motorcycles with pride. Weapons experts are eager to share their knowledge with anyone who expresses interest. And the quality of the 250 vendor spaces is scrupulously controlled.

Reading is famous for its battle re-enactments. They have re-created tank battles, the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, and daily performances of battles within a set up French village involving German and American troops and members of the French Underground. Throughout the grounds, there are also non-military activities, including continuous “broadcasts” from the studio of WRDG, a wartime radio station complete with news, commercials and entertainment programming. At the “officers’ club” in one of the hangars, bartenders sell bottles of Coca-Cola. On stage, comedians and singers recreate the performances of stars such as Abbot and Costello and the Andrews Sisters.

Besides creating an attraction for non-aviation and even non-40s enthusiasts, the added attractions have another element. Strine said, “It insulates us from rain. Sure, we have our loyals who will show up no matter what in their raincoats. But the indoor events give folks something to remember even if the airplanes can’t fly.”

Bob Boswell, who runs the TICO Warbird AirShow in Florida, has a similar situation, in that his show has always been warbird-centric. The three-day show is billed as a “membership” event, and the Tico group has some 1,500 members, similar to the Commemorative Air Force. Because most of the aircraft in the show are operated by members, the turnout is usually very strong. There are around 35 “core” aircraft that are hangared at the group headquarters in Tico. “That number can double or triple on the show weekend,” said Boswell.

One area where Tico has lots of experience is coordinating the static display of warbirds with the flying display. Having the airplanes available for close-up inspection by ticket-holders is a vital draw. But transforming from a static airplane display to an operating, flying air show aircraft is not always an easy transition. Tico does it with three separate areas.

Several of the airport taxiways are closed to traffic and given over to non-moving static displays. They stay open to the public throughout the air show hours.

“Warbird Alley” is an area of the ramp that is open to the public from 9 a.m. until about an hour before the air show starts at 1 p.m. In that hour, show volunteers clear the ramp area of spectators so it can be safe for engine runs in time for the show.

A third section of the show grounds is set aside to give rides in C-47s, a Waco biplane and sometimes a helicopter. It’s a controlled area where passengers can board safely and the aircraft has easy access to the runway. One year, a member was giving rides in a de Havilland Tiger Moth, and a 91 year-old passenger produced his wartime logbook. The first entry was a flight in a Tiger Moth. “We were pleased to be able to let him make what will possibly be his last logbook entry in the same aircraft type,” said Boswell.

Boswell said he also includes re-enactors, a military automobile club and vintage armor. “Our show starts with a parade of military vehicles,” he said. He incorporates a carnival, an aviation flea market, military surplus dealers, and antique and hot-rod car clubs in his show.

Jerry Wilkins heads up the annual Planes of Fame Airshow in Chino, California. The world famous museum includes a flying Japanese Zero, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, and the only existing Northrop N9MB “flying wing.” In 15 years, the show has never featured one of the military jet teams, though they have hosted A-10s, F-15s and other military aircraft in the past. “In the 1980s, we flew everything,” he said. “But we stopped doing that, and now it’s just a World War II show.”

The aircraft at Chino don’t just fly around in circles. For the past half dozen years, the show has featured authentic scenarios, aided by ground equipment such as the museum’s operational Sherman tank. This year’s edition features a “Salute to the Mighty 8th” theme, including a pair of C-47s, each dropping a stick of 10 fully equipped paratroopers. The transports will have fighter cover from museum aircraft as part of the show. In past years, the show has featured ground events coordinated with aircraft overhead.

As with the Tico show, Planes of Fame incorporates a “hot ramp” that closes off to the public approximately 45 minutes before the start of the show waiver time. At Chino, they reopen the hot ramp during the show, and close it off again for recovering the airplanes after landing. It’s a lot of work, but, “We’ve got 300 volunteers who work really hard and know what they’re doing,” said Wilkins.

As for financial viability, he said, “If we were in this business to make money, we’d be in the wrong business.” Rather, he said it’s about fulfilling a mission statement. Over the years, they have learned to “trim fat” from the process; they spend nine months preparing the show. “Our goal is to have the show paid for before the first person walks through the gate.”

Ralph Royce said the surveys show that increasing warbird participation can be “pretty successful.” He also said (with at least a bit of “tongue in cheek”) that there’s a “small problem with warbirds; they’re what you might call ‘fuel intensive.’” He said it’s the organizer’s job to balance fuel expenses with crowd appeal. And, if the military jet teams touch a patriotic nerve for the public, then vintage warbirds can tap into the same emotions.

Royce notes that the re-enactor movement has grown in the last five years, and is likely to continue to do so. Modern technology enables even greater realism in the form of sophisticated pyrotechnics, rifle fire and machine guns. When coupled with a patriotic salute to veterans – whether it be World War II, Korea, Vietnam or even Desert Storm, Iraq or Afghanistan – mixing history with the appeal of the hardware is a winning combination.

But, to be effective in attracting spectators, the introduction of warbirds to your show is not something that can be an on-again/off-again proposition. “Building a show around vintage military aircraft is a multi-year commitment,” says Kevin Walsh of the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show. “It’s an opportunity for a show to help its audience understand that warbirds can be educational, inspirational and entertaining. And that’s a process that is conducted over many years, not in a few months after a show finds out that it won’t have contemporary military participation.”

Pat Higdon knows about the history element of air shows. His event isn’t one of the biggest, but it has great local appeal. The Dyersburg Army Air Base in Halls, Tennessee was a B-17 training base during World War II. Some 7,700 crew members destined for Europe’s 8th Air Force trained there on 72 B-17s. Today, the airport operates as Arnold Field Airport, a largely general aviation-oriented civilian airport.

The Wings Over Halls Air Show draws up to 30,000 visitors on a good-weather weekend (the population of Halls is all of 2,400). “We have living history re-enactors, and the museum on the field is open during the show,” said Higdon. The last five years have brought increased interest, and part of it has to do with the facility…35 acres of concrete parking (no parking in the grass) and enthusiastic participation by museum staff and volunteers.

“We host fly-in breakfasts every weekend this summer, and women wear Rosie-the-Riveter costumes. That is attractive to visiting pilots, and a lot of them come back for the show.”

Bill Roach’s Wings Over Houston Airshow is one of the clearest examples of how much sequestration hurt. The Blue Angels performed in the 2012 show, along with an F-22 Raptor and an Osprey tiltrotor. It was a record year. For 2013, the Thunderbirds were scheduled, and when they had to drop out due to sequestration, Roach expected a 5 percent drop in attendance. Instead, the show’s gate fell by 50 percent, though he points out that there was also a major weather event that weekend that kept people home.

“You have to have an A Budget and a B Budget,” he said. “Though you need to spend more on the ‘marketing’ column for your B Budget show.” This year, Wings Over Houston is saluting the Vietnam era, and will have civilian-owned F-4, A-4, F-100, AD-Series Skyraider, C-47 gunship, O-2 Cessna observer, a Cobra helicopter gunship, and a pair of UH-1 “Hueys.” They plan to incorporate a “downed pilot” scenario, including Viet Cong enemy troops, a helicopter rescue and supporting aircraft flying overhead. And the Blue Angels will be back.

As early as March, the November show has already seen an uptick in sales, said Roach.

Rodney Roycroft has an unusual role in the air show business. He represents the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team, one of the groups that re-enact paratroop drops from authentic C-47 transports in authentic reproduction military gear from the World War II era (either original or accurately reproduced). Their reenactments are as authentic as they can be with the constraints of safety taken into account. For example, they use 35-foot-diameter round ‘chutes rather than the 28-foot ‘chutes used by WWII paratroopers. “You’re still coming down like a bag of rocks,” he said.

Roycroft runs an eight-day jump school for re-enactors, and this year he’s busy with several shows in Europe, as they recreate several 1944 events on their 70th anniversary, including jumps in Normandy, southern France and Holland, commemorating Operation Market Garden. In coming years, it’s safe to say that Roycroft’s group will become more and more popular at U.S. air shows as well, leading up to the 75th anniversary of World War II. Learn more about them at www.wwiiadt.org.

And finally, Dennis Dunbar has one of the more interesting perspectives on the value and importance of warbird operations at air shows. Now a specialty consultant for air show operators (including EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh), Dunbar previously served seven years with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) team that operates B-25 “Panchito.” From his current perspective, he sees warbirds, military vehicles and ground re-enactors as a positive influence on air show attendance. “Air shows are one of the few remaining family-friendly patriotic venues [for entertainment],” he said.

He cites the positive influence of incorporating local history into an air show. For example, one of his clients is the Lancaster, California air show in Los Angeles County. They have worked to get Douglas A-4s (built in nearby Palmdale); Lockheed T-33s (used as chase planes at nearby Edwards Air Force Base); and the Northrop N9MV flying wing (originally designed in the region) for their show.

Dunbar recalls his work with DAV with great satisfaction. He said, “You came home after a DAV weekend and you felt real proud of yourself.” The effect was long term, as well. Dunbar said he could return to a show after having been there a few years before and people would tell him, “Because of you guys, my uncle was able to get the operation he needed.” Or, “Grandpa got the hearing aid he should have had a long time ago.”

Dunbar has seen the attraction of warbirds up close. “The surveys are accurate,” he said. “Warbirds give people a feeling of pride. We can educate young folks, and bring memories back for those who lived through the war. The B-25 was the hook. It allowed us to reach all the demographics that best serve our service people…of all eras. And there’s no greater honor than that.”

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