What are We All About… Really?

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A boy plays with a model of a Blue Angels plane during the Great State of Maine Air Show at Naval Air Station Brunswick. The air show brought performances by the Blue Angels, The U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team, and a wide variety of static displays and interactive exhibits. The show drew more than 150,000 people over three days. This will be the final Navy-sponsored air show at this location before NAS Brunswick is scheduled close in 2011 by the Base Realignment Commission. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Roger S. Duncan/Released)

Introspection has been a common reaction to industry-wide events of the last eighteen months. Obviously, dealing with the immediate impact of sequestration has been everybody’s first priority. But, as time has passed, the thoughts of individuals in our business have naturally turned to larger issues about who we are, what we do, and how we might do those things differently or better or differently AND better.

Some of the questions generated by that self-analysis are being answered with large, enthusiastic crowds at many different venues. A number of shows held already this year have reported record attendance. Many shows scheduled for later in the season are reporting better-than-normal advanced ticket sales. Despite the deprivations and cancellations of 2013, our product is still very much in demand.

But the soul-searching has gone beyond traditional concerns as individuals within our business wrestle with philosophical questions about the purpose and value of air shows.

Within ICAS, some of that introspection is being formalized into a five-year strategic plan. As an interested observer and sometimes participant, I have had an opportunity to watch your Board ask and answer some basic questions about the mission and function of ICAS…deliberations that will soon be articulated in a written document that sets the course for our organization during the next half-decade.

From a broader perspective, it’s sometimes important to revisit the fundamental issues on which our business is built. The day-to-day struggles of running an air show business can sometimes distract us or cause us to forget that the air show community is something much more than a collection of loosely affiliated weekend aviation events. And it is that strong foundation and those deep roots that are helping us to put our industry’s most recent challenges behind us.

Air shows are about inspiring people. The enthusiasm, courage, skill and commitment demonstrated by our members every weekend are extraordinary.  Our industry is at its best when we are putting that energy to work in inspiring people – young and old – to pursue their own dreams and passions. 

Air shows are about patriotism. There is perhaps nowhere else that people can go to genuinely and unabashedly demonstrate their love of country. Clever public relations types have worked hard to manufacture that kind of patriotism at car races and ballgames. But, especially for those of us who live and work in the air show community, it feels a bit forced and artificial. We offer the real deal…without explanation or apology.

Air shows are truly unique spectator events. We might sometimes covet football’s multi-million dollar contracts or NASCAR’s huge television viewership. But we are much more than a simple competition or athletic event. Nor are we as one-dimensional as a music concert or community festival. We offer safe, affordable, outdoor events that provide a unique form of family entertainment.

Air shows are about honoring our veterans. Whether we are recognizing those currently serving in the military or those veterans who defended our countries in years past, air shows provide citizens with an opportunity to thank the men and women who have worn our countries’ uniforms.  That may be a sentiment that comes and goes in our larger society, but honoring our veterans has never gone out of style at air shows. (A side note: If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of sequestration, it is this: the inability for the military to connect with the American public through its involvement in air shows last year was an eye-opening experience for senior leaders.)

Air shows are about educating. Air shows have been promoting science, technology, engineering and math among school-age children since long before STEM became an acronym and the educational “flavor of the month.” This year, as they have in the past, event organizers and performers throughout North America (some of who are featured in this issue of Air Shows Magazine) are using air shows as a tool to promote technically-oriented education alternatives. And using aviation to teach history to spectators – both young and old – has long been a particular strength of our events.

As we recalibrate and reconsider who we are and what we do, it’s critical that we not diminish or undervalue the unique nature of the product we offer and the impact that our events have on the people who attend them. With or without contemporary military participation, these assets are fundamental to the nature of our events. Not only do they provide the foundation on which our industry is built; they help to focus our efforts to survive, thrive and improve during challenging times.

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John Cudahy
John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.