In a 32-page handwritten farewell address to the country written near the end of his second term as president, George Washington warned Americans against both excesses of political party spirit and divisions related to geography. And, while the intent of his farewell address has been the subject of extensive research and hundreds of scholarly papers in the 222 years since he wrote it, his final words as president serves as a springboard to something the air show industry holds near and dear: patriotism.
In this divisive period of our country’s history, is it possible that the lines between patriotism and politics are blurring? And, if they are, is there a possibility that these unsettled political times could have an impact on air shows or audiences? For decades, air shows have been a truly non-partisan environment…an opportunity to leave behind a wide variety of contentious, divisive issues. Are our events in danger of losing that distinction as a neutral noman’s land?
Discussing these issues here and in this form is not intended to contribute to the antagonism, hostility and divisiveness that has often split our country during the last decade, but – rather – to make the case that, as air show professionals, it is very much in our best interests to work hard to maintain the status our events have enjoyed as a place immune from and irrelevant to those political disagreements.
ICAS members across the country agree that, with apologies to President Washington, geographic location does, in fact, play a role in the “patriotism vs. politics” question that has embroiled the country.
“I don’t see us being politically correct, but I do see us being reflective of the community in which we reside,” said Bill Braack, President of the Oregon International Air Show.
That air show commissioned a “needs assessment” study with a local college marketing department. The final conclusion from two separate student surveys? Tone down the patriotic nature of the event. It’s important to note the school’s location sits in a notably “blue” hotspot, Portland, Oregon, which certainly affected the outcome. The show, as it always has, goes out of its way to remain both patriotic and non-political.
“We are in the business of selling tickets to support our charity work and we will not do anything to isolate 50 percent of our customer base. That said, we will always sing the anthems: Canadian, French, and American. We will celebrate our first responders and invite our at-risk youth, our kids of color, and our gay and lesbian kids to participate,” said Braack.
“It’s a complicated topic,” said Kevin Walsh, Event Director of Thunder Over Michigan and Chairman of the ICAS Board of Directors. “The product we put out is patriotic, but we’re immersed in a veterans’ organization with the Yankee Air Museum, and a military hotbed with Selfridge Air National Guard Base and 31 aerospacerelated businesses here.”
As such, his show identified five top things the audience wants to see, and they all involved the military either currently (jet teams and single-ship demo teams) or historical (warbirds).
“If there is a gap, it’s likely rooted in a misunderstanding of what we do. We’re about entertainment and accessibility to aviation. The vast majority of pilots had an aviation experience that inspired them to fly, and that’s what we hope to provide,” said Walsh. “We also strive to thank the military in a way that is non-political.”
“I don’t disagree that air show audiences are overwhelmingly conservative,” said Greg Gibson, Sun ‘n Fun Air Operations and Business Director. “And, I think our audience is relatively the same group it’s always been. So,how do air shows not alienate the 50 percent on the left? Simple: we don’t try to get all of them. We need to be who we are, but never intentionally make anyone feel unwelcome. We should absolutely not stop standing for the anthem or celebrating our military. What we should do is work on the population that has no political or social agenda at all, and simply reach out to those who have not seen or felt the need to attend due to a lack of interesting and compelling content.”
Gibson offers multiple examples: celebrating the Tuskegee airmen more robustly; highlighting the contributions of immigrant and female aviators, engineers, and others; and adding STEM education elements to air shows, something Sun ‘n Fun has stepped up in recent years as it enjoys a five-year run of record attendance.
“We provide a designated protest area each year,” said Darcy Brewer, Executive Director of California Capital Airshow, well respected for its STEM efforts. “But we have somehow managed to stay off the radar of special interest groups looking to share a different message than the mission, vision and values we boldly share.”
Brewer’s show happens in one of the more diverse areas of the country that’s also a vanguard of American liberal politics. Her team has had success highlighting the courage and sacrifice of the state’s 1.8 million veterans. And, to Sun ‘n Fun director Greg Gibson’s point, the mission of the show is to offer content that appeals across any political divide.
“We will continue on our current path as long as the fans keep coming through the gates each year. We do not plan to change the process of how we design a thrilling and theatrical annual show with narration, music, flying, and endless displays that are very patriotic and may showcase what could be viewed by some as a controversial or potentially politically charged story,” says Brewer. “What we are doing differently is striving to create an event that has something for everyone, investing more in the overall guest experience than ever before, gathering survey feedback from attendees, and collaborating with both air show and event industry colleagues that are finding success in attracting all ages including younger generations, and delivering unforgettable events.”
Acknowledging the way patriotism is perceived outside of our normal circles suggests we may have a unique opportunity to introduce pride in our country, flag, and the opportunities it affords everyone to an entirely new group, by showcasing unique content and experiences.
Early in his Farewell Address, Washington made a point that is particularly relevant to the situation in which the air show community finds itself today: “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”