Why the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover Was Important

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On May 8, more than 50 vintage military aircraft flew down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to commemorate Victory in Europe (VE) Day. The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover took nearly a year to plan and the ICAS staff was integrally involved with that planning.

Tens of thousands watched live as Texans and Stearmans, Mustangs and Corsairs, Mitchells and Flying Fortresses came down the Potomac River from the North in groups of two, three and four, turned left at the Lincoln Memorial, and flew past the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. Another 200,000 or more watched live on television or internet- streamed video as the country paid its respects to the men and women who achieved victory over the forces of tyranny and oppression seven decades ago.

I want to make four observations about it that relate to our larger air show industry:

1.The Feds aren’t all bad.  Conducting a massive flyover in the most sensitive airspace in the world required the cooperation and support of many different regulatory and law enforcement agencies.  And, from the beginning, the consensus among those not involved was that we would not be able to get the various exemptions, waivers and permissions needed to do what we wanted. Instead, at every step, government authorities were helpful, positive and excited to be involved with such an historic event.

That experience has been a useful reminder that the government is not entirely broken. Even as we struggle with the occasional government-generated problem or uncooperative bureaucrat, we should remember that the vast majority of civil servants want to be helpful. The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover would not have been possible if that were not true

2. Airplanes are inspiring. The Flyover demonstrated, once again, that airplanes and aviation have a unique capacity to inspire. Those who witnessed it were awestruck….mouths hanging open, wonderment in their eyes, often unable to articulate how emotional the experience was for them.

For me, it was a helpful reminder of why our events remain as popular as they are. We are not parades or craft fairs or food fests. We bring airplanes and aviation to millions of people every year and that is an inspiring thing.

3. Vintage military aircraft are enormously popular. Spectator survey after spectator survey tells us that vintage military aircraft are a huge attraction to spectators and prospective spectators. And yet, as an industry, we have – mostly — not embraced them.

These aircraft – on the ground and in the air – are one of our business’s greatest assets. In the Washington, D.C., area on the day of the Flyover, freeways became parking lots and people poured out of office buildings to get a glimpse of these flying museum artifacts. On the day after the Flyover, the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy annex set a one-day attendance record when it was announced that some of the aircraft participating in the Flyover would be on static display for a few hours that morning. (Sadly, most of the aircraft were not able to participate due to inclement weather and low ceilings that day).

And yet, we often relegate vintage military aircraft to second-class status at our shows or, worse, we knock them out of the line-up entirely due to budgetary concerns. Particularly at a time when the participation of contemporary military aircraft has become less reliable, we should be doing the opposite. We should be hiring more of them. We should be putting them in the most visible spots in our air show line-up. And we should be featuring their participation in our marketing and promotional materials.

4. Air shows were patriotic before patriotic was cool.  And we need to embrace that, too.  There is nothing artificial about the patriotism displayed at air shows. It has been an integral part of our events for at least the last 50 years. 

Professional sporting events, car races and music concerts are now manufacturing reasons to wrap themselves in the flag. There’s nothing wrong with that…whether it’s forced or not.

But, for a variety of reasons, air shows and patriotism are inextricably and naturally linked.  We would do well to recognize that and more deliberately integrate it into all aspects of our planning, promotion and execution.

The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover exceeded every expectation that we had for it. If we had done nothing more than express our appreciation to the Greatest Generation – those who fought, but also those who stayed home to build the weapons of war – it would have been a huge success.

But we did much more than that. We reaffirmed the public’s fascination with airplanes and aviation.  And we demonstrated the unique capacity that the air show industry has to commemorate, entertain, educate and inspire.

It has been a rough couple of years for the air show community. But, the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover reminded all of us that our business is built on a strong and reliable foundation.

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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.