Thunder Over Michigan Driving Forward


For Kevin Walsh, it’s a constant fight for everything. His Thunder Over Michigan Air Show is held each year in Ypsilanti, just outside of Detroit, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country for the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of those difficulties, the state has some of the most stringent guidelines for re-opening post-pandemic. Still, hoping to hold an event on the show’s scheduled August 29-30 dates, Walsh and his team are entertaining multiple options to make sure that no matter how the show goes on, it will be socially responsible.

Normally, two months before an air show, event organizers would never consider the kinds of format pivots that Thunder is discussing. One option on the table is the drive-in format (see related article, COVID-19: A NEW AIR SHOW PLAYBOOK). While the drive-in option poses significant challenges and creates a considerable reduction in the size of the potential audience, the Thunder team believes that it is vital to continue connecting with the community. Walsh thinks that a single-year event format change is manageable and could actually boost audience buy-in for future shows, if appropriately handled with current ticket holders.

Under the best of circumstances, late adjustments to a show’s format come with significant planning challenges, but COVID-related public health requirements pose additional and substantial hurdles. “To get something approved, you must meet the standards today,” said Walsh. To give the show a chance at success, Thunder is working closely with government representatives (including public health officials) to make them part of the event planning process. But first you must work with spectators, sponsors and other stakeholders. As Kevin says, “Come with a plan.”

The majority of Thunder Over Michigan’s audience is traditionally under the age of 60, which decreases the number of high-risk attendees, but the health threat remains strong. Event planning has been helped by recent CDC revelations that the virus does not spread well on surfaces or outdoors. That is good news for organizers but planning and executing a show in the current environment will still be very challenging.

Walsh is hopeful that no matter what format his team decides to use, Thunder will be able to hold their show this year and put them into a good position for future events post-pandemic. The difficulties of today’s environment may soon be a memory, but adjusting to be successful now is key for success. “We’re not strangers to a brutal climate [in the air show industry], but this one is complicated,” Walsh said of the difficulties surrounding the pandemic and the ability to persevere through this challenging situation.

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The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.