We are in Control of our Future: Managing the Challenges of Sequestration by Looking at the Air Show Industry’s History

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If one thing is certain about the future of the North American air show industry, it is this: if we are to fill the gap created by the reduction in military support, we will have to fill it ourselves. No one is going to do it for us.

But where do we start?  It seems as if everything imaginable that we can think of to do in this business has already been done. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be an impediment. Loops and rolls have been around almost since the dawn of powered flight, yet we continue to perform them. Airplanes racing cars are as old as the days of Barney Oldfield, yet we see such races at hundreds of air shows every year. And strapping a jet engine to the belly of a Waco? Well, that isn’t exactly a new concept either. But, these reliable old favorites are still entertaining and our fans love them. As former air show performer Tom Poberezny puts it, “Our industry has been changing since it began, and today is no different.”

Poberezny is just one of many performers who made their contribution to our industry, then moved on, but still retains the passion and knowledge to offer helpful ideas on what can be done to the air show business. Once a part of the well-known Eagles Aerobatic Team, Poberezny is now retired. He ended his career as an air show performer after taking over the reins of the Experimental Aircraft Association and its annual AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

While he was in charge of one of the largest aviation events on the planet, he faced the same challenges as any other air show organizer…keeping the show fresh and interesting. Poberezny said that it may be time for shows to try new approaches, even if it’s blowing the dust off an old idea. “Most air shows are very predictable. The gates open. People visit the static displays. Aerobatics fly in the afternoon. And people go home. A few shows include fireworks in the evenings, and that’s about it. But air shows don’t have to be just air shows. They can be merged with other activities like car shows and concerts that have something going on all day and into the night,” Poberezny said.

In the “Golden Age of Aviation,” the surplus Jennys from World War I were the planes of choice for most barnstormers.  Surplus Stearman trainers and European trainers dominated air shows in the years after World War II. The family of small biplanes developed by Curtis Pitts were dominant in the 1970s and 1980s. And today, as a result of modern composites, monoplanes are all the rage.

But, each change, while offering exciting new opportunities for pilots and fresh and innovative entertainment for fans, also brought with it a pervasive sameness to air shows.

“What’s so hard in our industry is that — no matter how exciting an act — few performers have brand identity outside the air show world and one airplane looks like another to the fans. The military already has the brand identity, which means our industry has to get more creative as we move forward. For new performers, getting hired will depend on how well they package what they present,” Poberezny said. Bruno Mars, he noted, is already a brand and his name sells tickets.  Air show performers have no brand identity. “ICAS has enough performers to fill every air show in the country, but more and different acts are needed if we are to keep people coming back. It’s impossible to keep a show fresh if you keep offering the same types of acts. Shows need to give fans new reasons to come to the airport,” he said.

In his last years flying air shows, Tom and his teammates on the Eagles Aerobatic Team, Gene Soucy and Charlie Hillard, were on top of their game. From the team’s earliest days, they wanted to distinguish themselves from their peers and were quite innovative for their day.  At a time when the industry was moving into the Pitts era, they flew Christen Eagles to give fans a different look.  Instead of one or two ships, they were the only three-ship act on the circuit, doing a variety of maneuvers that included a formation snap roll on takeoff. They once took off, flew a loop, and landed with the three planes chained to one another. “It seemed like a new trick, but [Mike] Murphy and two friends used to do that routinely before World War II.  We did it only once and that was enough for us,” Poberezny said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was the Acme Duck and Air Show Company. The act had all the elements for pure entertainment: It featured a stained and dilapidated-looking Super Cub, a floozy with a shotgun, a crate full of ducks, and Ace the Wonder Dog. What more could an air show want? Founder Brian Lansburgh, now a film maker and instructor in Central Oregon, was an often outspoken voice who preached not only entertainment, but show business.

“We still don’t have enough people in the air show industry who understand show business. We’ve seen a few come and go; Jimmy Franklin with Zar, was one. He developed an act that told a story of a hero from outer space, of good triumphing over evil, and included a taped narration to carry the theme. It was amazing,” he said.

Brian’s act also told a story, but his was the story of sorrowful pilot Crashburn T. Throttlebottom, who would bust into an air show’s airspace unannounced, saying he wanted to get into the air show business. The announcer, exasperated at having to deal with such a pilot, would explain that it took big bucks to break into the air show business, and sent him on his way. After another act flew, a truck — driven by a gum-chewing floozy — suddenly appeared in the infield, delivering a crate of big ducks. After the announcer explained the difference between big bucks and big ducks, the floozy became angry that the show wouldn’t pay for the ducks, which — by now — had escaped their crate and were running in all directions. She pulled out a shotgun and fired at the Cub — which then lost an aileron — flew through a range of antics and eventually landed. Then, confronted with big ducks milling around everywhere, Throttlebottom called in Ace the Wonder Dog, who ran in from the crowd, rounded up the ducks, and herded them back into the crate where they were loaded onto the truck to end the act. Throttlebottom never made it into the air show business, but he did get the girl.

“I have always thought there are opportunities for performers to use their acts to tell stories rather than just fly routines. I would love to see an air show presented like a play with different performers in different roles. There would be good guys, bad guys, and even damsels in distress. It could really be exciting,” he said.

Lansburgh believes that an air show needs to be thought of as a stage. “Most people who produce air shows have no clue about show business. They are often hard-working community leaders, but show business is not their strength.” He cited an example of how, at one show, his dog was rounding up the ducks as the finale of his act, when a big warbird was allowed to taxi between him and the crowd. “People who understand show business would never allow such a thing to happen,” he said.

Lansburgh had a few other observations:  “The industry is populated with many exceptional pilots, but shows put them up one after the other, flying similar airplanes. And the shows are often way too long.” Lansburgh said our industry needs to adopt the old vaudeville concept. “Get ‘em on, get ‘em off, and leave them begging for more.”

Lansburgh points to the rodeo industry as a good example of how to stage an event. “Rodeos aren’t just one rider after another. Clowns perform in front of the audience throughout the event, pacing is fast, and there are a variety of activities taking place between acts, such as chuck wagon races and barrel racing.  Once the show starts, there is no dead time. It is choreographed from beginning to end.  If rodeos can figure it out, then why can’t air shows figure it out?” he asks.

Another air show innovator in the 1980s was Craig Hosking.  Now a Hollywood movie pilot, Craig was born into a Utah aviation family and created the act we all know as Otto the Helicopter. It was very successful, but — in the back of his mind — Craig wanted to do something that he believed had never been done before….install wheels on the top of an airplane and land it upside down.  He turned Otto over to his parents (Bob and Annette Hosking, who then sold the act to its current operators, Roger and Pauline Buis) and came out with a highly modified Pitts S2 that he called “Double-Take.”

“I watched Jimmy Franklin at the Reno Air Races one year when he did an inverted ribbon cut. He was so low that I thought, ‘Why not have wheels on the top wing so the plane could be landed that way?’”

Hosking was so successful with his innovation that he was awarded the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award just four years later. “I’ve always seen things from an artistic and entertainment perspective. I had success because my act was entertaining. It was unique and captured people’s imaginations,” he said.

Only after creating “Double-Take” was Hosking to learn that it had been done before. Renowned air show performer Mike Murphy had been doing the same kind of thing with a monoplane prior to World War II. “I didn’t hear about Mike Murphy until after I created my own airplane,” he said.  But it didn’t matter if Hosking had heard of Murphy or not. That was not going to stop him, and he became an instant success.

While no longer an air show pilot, Hosking still attends shows with his family and applauds the innovations he sees, including night shows, fireworks, jet vehicles and comedy acts. But he believes more can be done to entertain people, such as integrating live music with aerobatic performances, stage lighting, specialized laser shows and other special effects that could enhance the overall experience.

Another pilot who worked hard to break out of the traditional air show mold was Bobby Bishop.  Best known for flying the Coors Light Silver Bullet, Bishop said he knew pilots who were more interested in impressing other pilots than trying to provide an entertaining package.

“To be entertaining, you have to think a routine through from start-up to shut-down. It needs a rhythm, plus choreography, not just a display.  And air shows can’t be about how many performers they can put in the air.  Like an individual act, a show needs an attention-getting opening, a strong middle and a finale,” he said.

Bishop says that there are many spectacular pilots who fly well, but their acts have no themes, and the audience, he says, doesn’t appreciate much of what they do. “My most popular trick was to fly past the crowd straight and level and pop my landing gear up and down. That’s what people remembered most about my act.  ‘Now you see it, now you don’t,’” he said.  And, because they remembered it, he knew he was entertaining them.

Like Lansburgh, Bishop feels more can be done to choreograph acts and shows. “We have too many performers doing the same types of routines.  Air shows have settled into a sameness. We’re not serving our audience well and we’re not serving our sponsors well when we’re all doing the same thing year after year,” he said.

Bishop says the industry reveres Art Scholl as a showman because he understood entertainment. “He was like a three act play.  He had a fantastic opening to get your attention, followed it with a meat and potatoes routine that included tumbling maneuvers, then had a big ribbon cut at the finish and ended on the taxiway with a cloud of smoke, and he emerged with his dog Aileron on his shoulder. It was fantastic.”

Bishop remembers the way the crowd responded to the show opener at Pt. Mugu years ago. “The show opened with a traditional flag jumper and the national anthem, and, just as the jumper touched down, a fighter jet roared in and went vertical at show center, rolling as he went. It was loud. It was exciting. The crowd screamed. And it set the tone for the rest of the show,” he said.

Bishop is also a strong advocate of storyboarding to help air show organizers understand the many elements of a show and how to improve each segment. “Storyboarding helps you understand everything from how someone hears about the show to how they buy their tickets, how to enhance the look of the gates, and how to make sure people have a good time at the show. It’s an age-old technique developed by Walt Disney’s people, and the benefits are amazing,” he said. (Note: the 2014 ICAS Convention will feature several workshop-style presentations by a Disney-trained storyboard expert.)

Lansburgh and Bishop have a kindred spirit in Darcy Brewer, who is in charge of the California Capital Air Show in Sacramento. In just six years, she has made her mark in the industry by producing shows with themes that are both entertaining and inspirational. “Show organizers are going to have to realize we should consider ourselves as movie producers. Our shows need to be choreographed so that they are entertaining, but also tell a story. The days of throwing airplanes into the sky and banking on the military are nearly over. I believe that, if you’re not telling a story during your show, you are cheating yourselves and your audience,” she said.

The story may be as simple as telling kids to stay off drugs. It may be honoring our veterans who served and sacrificed.  “Shows make the messages come alive because kids and adults alike can reach out and touch those who are telling the story. It’s not like reading it in a book. This makes it real,” Brewer said.

Brewer recognizes, however, that education doesn’t sell tickets. Jets sell tickets. Warbirds sell tickets. New and different acts sell tickets. “That’s why I love acts like Kyle Franklin with his Dracula act, and John Klatt with his Screamin’ Sasquatch. They are different, exciting, and entertaining. They give us something new to take to the media that has never been seen here before,” she said.  “And, if we can entertain, then we can educate and inspire.”

Like all show organizers, Brewer says it is a constant struggle to find something new and different. “There are a few new acts, but not many, so being creative with our show’s theme is so important. When we open our gates, we want to make it count. We want to make our show unforgettable,” she said. Rarely does her show repeat performers within a three or four year period. She constantly mixes the show with warbirds, vintage aircraft, pyro, civilian jets, and military…when she can get them. “We want the serious, we want the funny, and we want the loud, both in the air and on the ground. The top performers are doing an outstanding job, but I wish there were a wider variety,” she says.

Cleveland National Air Show producer Chuck Newcomb says 2014 is going to be an interesting year.  “We have to plan for the reduction in military support, understand its impact, and decide if we will still be in business at the end of the year.”

Newcomb knows his numbers. “If I lose a jet team, I will lose 22-30 percent of my paid attendance. But, when we get no military whatsoever, we’re facing a different problem.” Like many who lost military support as a result of sequestration, Newcomb opted to cancel his 2013 show. He’s back in business this year, but recognizes that he — along with the rest of our industry — will simply have to adjust to a world as it is or stop doing shows. “Ultimately, it gets back to whatever the situation is; you have to do your own evaluation and determine the economics to decide if you can afford it or not. Can you live without it, and can you adjust to it?”

While always the consummate businessman, Newcomb faces the same entertainment challenges of any other show.  “When I put on a show, together I want jet aircraft, high performance aerobatics, a parachute team, and whatever else I decide to put in the mix.  People are first drawn to jet teams, then to the tac demo teams, then to warbirds, then to everything else — in no particular order — so those are always my priorities,” said Newcomb.

He said now is a very good time for performers to be successful if they have something new and different to offer.  “When technology improved and performers moved from the Stearman to the Pitts, their acts became more exciting and more dynamic because they could do so many more things. Technology advanced again and pilots moved into the composite monoplanes, and that brought yet another level of entertainment.”

Newcomb isn’t as concerned as some who worry about too many of the same-looking airplane in a show. “Most people only see these airplanes once a year, not 52 weekends a year, so we can still be successful. But the performers are the ones who will decide what they want to do,” he said.

For former performer Steve Soper, lack of variety among performers remains a big issue.  Soper was part of the wave of Pitts pilots in the 1970s. Based in northern Idaho, he teamed first with Steve Wolf and later with Delmar Benjamin flying Pitts S1s under the name, Northern Knights. The fast-paced act opened with dramatic, opposing four-point rolls on takeoff. It concluded with dual ribbon cuts, one inverted and the other knife-edge.

In 1986, Steve broke his back in an accident, robbing him of the use of his legs. Not one to stay down for long, he discovered that he could fly a Cessna Skymaster with just hand controls, and the airplane was easy to enter and exit from his wheelchair. After some research on the aerobatic capabilities of the Skymaster, he and Benjamin returned to the air show circuit two years later flying a matched set of Skymasters, billing themselves as Masters of the Sky. They became the only act flying such airplanes and became an instant hit.

Soper retired from performing at air shows a few years later, but remains active as an air boss. “Comedy acts, different kinds of acts, and gliders are still in demand. So are big, noisy biplanes. And I believe there are still opportunities for some of the old-time acts,” he says.

“There’s always been a shortage of novelty acts. Shows can encourage more performers to move in this direction, but that’s about all they can do. If shows were to ask for a specific type of act, performers may be willing to add it to their program or even switch over, but it’s clear that most performers aren’t interested. Most have found their niche and will tend to stay there,” Soper said.

One of the most innovative performers in the modern air show world is Kyle Franklin. At 34, he’s also one of the youngest performers on the air show circuit.  While following in his father’s footsteps, Kyle long ago emerged from his father’s shadow to become a top performer in his own right. Kyle is the only performer to develop his act around pop culture, first with Pirated Skies, and now with Dracula, capitalizing on the popularity of those two entertainment genres. His level of showmanship is top-rated, combining all of the elements of aerobatics, the roar of the radial engine, visual effects, storytelling and costuming.

“When I develop an act, I try to gear it toward the public, because they are the ones who come out to watch us fly and to be entertained. I consider myself more of an entertainer than a pilot. I came up with Pirated Skies to set myself apart from everyone else. Pirates of the Caribbean had just come out and I felt dressing up the plane and wearing pirate costumes to tell a story would work across all generations.” And he was right.

He did the same thing with the Dracula act, but he acknowledges it was a tough sell at first. “The airplane has the look and feel of an old airplane, but plays to the modern era. Some show organizers simply didn’t get it. Many are of another generation and don’t always understand or appreciate pop culture,” he said. “But telling a story throws in another level of entertainment. It’s not just the flying that’s important,” he said.

Franklin is also a proficient comedy pilot, and can also take a page out of the barnstorming era with the old-style car-to-plane or motorcycle-to-plane transfer.  But, he said the interest by show organizers in that kind of act just isn’t there, largely because of the cost. “Air show fans love it, and going back to the old days is fine, but the biggest problem is the cost of the additional logistics, plus compensation for the additional risks. Transfers require a lot of people and equipment to do it safely and it’s expensive. For what we do and the risks involved, we don’t get paid enough, so we don’t do much of it,” he said.

Franklin’s acts have been very popular, and he says that, while he has a lot invested in his Dracula act, he has even more ideas. But then he says, somewhat cynically:  “All it takes is time and money. I have grown up in this industry. It’s my life and my passion. I love entertaining, but who ever thought that flying air shows could be so complicated?”

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Mike Berriochoa
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.