Just in Time: Planning, Scheduling and Time Management in the Air Show Community

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Air shows, by their complex nature, require careful and detailed planning. Without a doubt, there are hard and fast deadlines that must be adhered to in the process, but approaches to building schedules vary and the bottom line is doing what works for you and your team. 

When Bill Braack took the helm of the very successful Oregon International Air Show a few years ago, there was an established planning process in place and he only had to adjust it to fit his way of doing things. “I consider my schedule a version of a dance chart. I’m always fine- tuning it based on what we learn from year to year, especially in the area of marketing,” Braack said. 

For Braack, a schedule is essential, since the show is a frequent stop for jet teams. It means he is continuously developing timelines two years out which is the best way to keep his team from tripping over themselves. “Once we set our schedule, we can see what can be pushed out into the future while we work the current year’s show. Having a blueprint allows us to make some key decisions earlier than we otherwise might, and that’s a big relief,” he said. 

Missing important deadlines can be devastating, especially when it comes to submitting paperwork for military support and to the FAA for waivers and Temporary Flight Restrictions. Building those dates into the program prevents oversights. Another benefit for Braack and his team, as they go forward from year to year, is that their highly structured timeline forces them to make spending and resource allocation decisions very early. “It’s part of our review process that has served us well,” he said. 

Timelines also ease leadership transitions. “Any time there is a leadership change within our organization, our timeline fills any gaps in the corporate knowledge base [to help newcomers get up to speed more quickly],” said Braack.  

Braack is “old school” and keeps his schedule in a three-ring binder that includes a lot of checklists. “By the end of the show, the printed copy is a mess because we keep updating it and modifying it. I’m working to digitize it, so I can have it in my hand at any given moment;” but, he says, it isn’t there yet.  

Dennis Dunbar is another experienced air show producer who admits he is a total procrastinator. He’s been producing air shows for 17 years and says a timeline for him is a must. “I’ve done shows from start to finish in less than four months and I’ve done them in twelve months or more. By working ahead, Dunbar is able to negotiate the best deals because he has the time to look for opportunities. Waiting until the last minute can limit his options. A solid timeline also allows him to pace himself, produce a quality product, and avoid trying to cram too much into a short amount of time. 

“If you come away from the convention and your air show is in March, your timeline will be a lot different than if it is October. Timelines have to reflect the reality of the event because every air show is different,” he said.  

In spite of her many years of experience, Darcy Brewer says she never wings it when it comes to organizing her air show. Brewer is executive director of the California Capital Airshow in Sacramento. “I’m a checklist-oriented person. Timelines are my checklist and they are mandatory for me,” she said.   

Brewer’s team uses a rolling three-year timeline, so they always keep their eye on the future. “Originally, I didn’t have much of a timeline other than communications, military deadlines and FAA deadlines. One year, I forgot to meet with the health department regarding our food service until it was almost too late. But, as we have become more professional, we have developed a procedures manual, we study the economy, we keep an eye on the political environment, and we stay ready for whatever happens.” 

Brewer also has a separate communications timeline that details when and how she will keep the fan base informed. And there is another advantage. “To avoid conflicts, our communications plan advises other community events of our show dates. Two big events on the same weekend compete for tickets, compete for tents, chairs and even portable restrooms. A good communications strategy reduces those issues,” Brewer said.  

Bill Roach is the managing director of Wings Over Houston, a well-established show at a mixed-use airfield. Once home to a World War II military training base, it was turned over to the city of Houston after the war. The military has since moved back onto the field and coordination between the civilian and military sides of the airport creates scheduling challenges. 

Unlike some shows, Roach doesn’t use a set road map. “Our planning starts once we receive confirmation of a jet team. At that point, we line up our civilian acts and I try to get things done sooner rather than later to avoid getting stacked up.” What eases the pressure on Roach is that the show is a Commemorative Air Force event and is loaded with warbirds. Little changes in that regard from year to year. But deadlines are rarely far from his mind. “If I have a deadline in August, I will set my personal deadline for July to give myself plenty of time to get it done,” he said. 

Comprehensive timelines are the most important when a show has been in hiatus for several years or is a first-time event. The Idaho Air National Guard in Boise staged an air show in 2017 for the first time in 20 years. Early on, organizers recognized the need for meticulous planning because those with any institutional memory from the previous event were long gone. 

Lieutenant Colonel Ron Hedges said his team sought guidance from the Air Force, as well as from other military bases. “I traveled to other military shows similar to what we wanted to do, gathered what they knew, and adapted their plans to fit our needs,” he said. His team then began setting milestones for the work they knew was needed. 

“Our commitment was to share the timeline and report on progress during every team meeting. This allowed us to track our progress, identify problem areas before they became show stoppers, and overcome any issues we were facing,” Hedges said. 

Hedges said that, without the timeline, he would have been lost. “Without knowing what you are doing, you have a sense that you are forgetting something. Are we ahead? Are we behind? If we didn’t share our timeline regularly, it would have put a lot of unnecessary stress on our team.”  

When preparation for the Idaho Air National Guard’s October 2017 open house began, they were two years out and had no commitment from a jet team. Then, in October 2016, a full year before their show date, they received a commitment from the Snowbirds and had to move their date by two weeks. This meant a change in their planning. And, when several weeks later the Thunderbirds had a cancellation and offered to come as well, even more adjustments were made.  

“These changes made detailed planning all the more important. Our needs changed exponentially in a matter of weeks. Our process worked because we didn’t assume anything. We followed through on every detail,” said Hedges. 

At SUN ‘n FUN in Florida, timelines cover every aspect of what they do. Air Operations and Business Development Director Greg Gibson said their plan includes a hierarchy of critical deadlines, then gets down to the nitty gritty. “We need to know early on how much fuel we need, how much smoke oil to purchase, and, have time to negotiate the best deals.”  

Gibson says a good plan prevents complacency. “We don’t rubber stamp everything simply because we have done things the same way. We constantly mix things up, keep them fresh, and keep a critical eye on everything we do.” 

Gibson notes there is a generational shift taking place within our industry which puts added pressure on them. “We aren’t just an air show. We are also a trade show. We have to look at what sparks creativity and what we need to do to engage our audience. This means timely and relevant activities have to be added into our planning mix,” he said. 

The Thunder in the Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia is 21 years old. It’s been led by Phaedra Childers for the past 13 years. “I have 194 tasks documented that I have to complete to have our 2018 show. The list is broken down by month in a spreadsheet that includes committee assignments, due dates, status and when completed. It is rigid and is my key reference tool,” she said. 

Her schedule is synced to the show’s budget needs, starting with early sponsorship commitments. “We lost a title sponsor six months from our show this year and that hit us hard, but, by making sponsorships an early requirement on our schedule, we had time to adjust, either by trimming the budget or finding additional sponsors,” she said.

The show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is organized and conducted through a strategic partnership between a community organization and the South Dakota Air National Guard. They stage a show every three years. The last show was in 2016 and preparation is well under way for the next show in 2019.

A unique element of the South Dakota event is a regular changeover in leadership. New leaders usually come up through the ranks and bring new ideas with them. “We have been doing this show the same way for nearly 30 years, but recognized the need to bring in new blood. A comprehensive timeline is essential to make sure key requirements aren’t lost in the transition,” said Ron Mielke, who chaired the 2016 show. 

As his way of tracking key milestones, Mielke relied on project management software when he led the 2016 event. Each committee had its own checklist and there was a master checklist to ensure all of the elements were being addressed. Status reports were then given to everyone at regular committee meetings. 

Air boss Ralph Royce has produced his share of shows. For Royce, a major benefit of a comprehensive timeline is that it evens out the workload through the planning period. “I find that the time between eight weeks out and two weeks out can create the biggest problem if things aren’t done on time. The first ten and a half months are spent lining up what needs to be done. The last few weeks become a logistical exercise. If you want a jet team in 2020, you need your paperwork in by July of 2018. That’s 26 months ahead of your show, and nothing much happens for a year and a half; then everything happens,” he said.  

Experienced show producers can whip a show together in as little as five months, said Royce. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. But for new shows or places where shows are infrequent, comprehensive timelines are vital. “Until you develop a timeline, you don’t know what you don’t know and that puts everyone at a disadvantage. A plan helps you think, but without one you don’t even know what to think about. You can’t grade your performance and don’t know if you are ahead of the curve or behind the curve. You have to be able to see the future in order to make it happen,” he said.

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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.