The COVID-19 environment presents significant challenges for the planning of our events in the future. We’re going to have to brainstorm, be bold and prepare for long lasting changes. We will need to be creative, proactive and forward-thinking to conduct our aerial events during the pandemic or in the weeks and months following the end of the pandemic. As an industry, if we insist on waiting until things are back to the way they were before the pandemic, we will miss opportunities. There are solutions out there, but they will require all of us to think differently about ourselves. And they will be easier to identify and implement with collaboration and discussion.
It’s been difficult to see any solution short of cancellation until now. Continuing into next year, things will be different. Already, working responsibly and carefully, some ICAS members are working around the status quo. With this kind of initiative, our status as an outdoor event with plenty of room for social distance will be useful in identifying possible solutions.
Since July, we have had few success stories to reference, but they are out there.
- Recognized principally as a longtime MiG-17 air show pilot, Randy Ball made his show over Cedar Creek Lake in Texas work by using a venue that did not obligate people to assemble in large groups.
- The folks at the Shuttleworth Collection in Great Britain executed the drive-in model very well. And, because Shuttleworth has a show every two weeks, they will continue to execute that model until circumstances allow them to change.
- The organizers of the Flying Circus in Bealeton, Virginia, put what would normally be considered a weakness (their 400-500 spectator size) to effective use for them. They worked closely with local public health officials and developed a model that needed only minor adjustments to their normal way of doing business. Right now, they expect to continue offering these small shows every Sunday afternoon through mid-October.
- The idea of three or four shorter shows in a single day with 6-8 during the course of a single weekend is another option in a small palette of ideas that have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic in March.
In the weeks ahead, we may see larger events get off the ground, thanks to courage, persistence and some creative hard work. And, collectively, these small victories in 2020 will help to identify methods and tactics for 2021.
THUNDER OVER MICHIGAN TO FRIDAY NIGHT FLIGHTS
“Right, not rushed” is the approach Kevin Walsh is using. After spending considerable time developing a plan for a drive-in version of Thunder Over Michigan, Walsh found that he could not garner the necessary government support, forcing him to search for something different. “We started to look at what is allowed in the state executive order and found that an event can allow up to 200 people.
He then invited local warbird people to gather and put tougher a plan for 100 cars, a smaller drive-in style show, opening it to members of the Museum that his air show supports. “Three Friday Night Flights, three mini air displays at 250 dollars per car for our own constituents. Our owners and members get an air show while the museum gets a fundraiser. A creative solution that is safe, within the executive order, and — if [the public health situation] changes — small enough that we can adjust.” Some of the safety protocols include masks and a questionnaire for tracing including the gathering of phone numbers.
As for the future, Walsh points out, “You need pressure to create a diamond. At one point during the drive-in planning, we realized we had a return on investment better than a full show! Why go back? Maybe we never go back. Maybe we’ve been forced to change. We have to be ready for anything in 2021. We’re staying nimble, fluid, watching what develops next year.”
OC AIR SHOW / NEW YORK AIR SHOW
Lilley Production venues like the New York Air Show and the OC Air Show in Maryland have also come up with workable, creative ideas. In close cooperation with local government and public health officials and with a hyper-focus on the health implications of every decision, both venues have been working through several changes. After moving dates and dealing with weeks of “…monumental pivots to keep the OC Airshow alive,” Lilley said, “If we make it to the finish line, the path along the way is worthy of a book. And the title will be ‘Resilience.’”
Throughout the process of preparing for this weekend’s show in Maryland, Lilley and his team worked with the Town of Ocean City and the Worcester County Health Department on a plan to make sure state directives regarding social distancing were met on the beach in the downtown area. They came up with what they call “Stay Safe and Separate” initiatives, including a new premium viewing area called “Sand Boxes” designed primarily for the at-risk, the elderly, and families with small children to be able to enjoy the air show on the beach in their own personal area. While the local government was in agreement, less than two weeks before the event, these ticketed areas on the beach were interpreted by the Maryland Attorney General to be in violation of state COVID-19 directives.
Lilley appeared before the city council, asking for financial help to offset the losses. The Ocean City City Council was still very much behind the show and came up with $100,000 dollars from their tourism budget. Ironically, as an Ocean City Councilman pointed out in a local news report, the elimination of the “Sand Box” area removed the city’s ability to control social distancing, enforce mask requirements and initiate contact tracing if circumstances required.
To help with distancing along the ten-mile beach, Lilley and his team have turned to technology. The show’s pandemic plan required elimination of his normal sound system, so Lilley’s team created a text feed version of the narration which will be made available via the event Twitter page. Technology played an even bigger roll with live video streaming. Lilley told local media, “The silver lining in all of this is the live stream, which creates a great opportunity for Ocean City.” Government officials and politicians see value and opportunities from the livestream broadcast that they didn’t get from past shows. It has also attracted Geico and other sponsor dollars back.
Lilley believes that continued innovation will be the key to air show success in the coming months. “All of us need to be ready to turn on a dime. This is going to linger into next year and probably the year after. The key is to innovate and come up with a way to produce shows under a new set of rules.”
Like Kevin Walsh, Lilley adds, “We’re finding things that work better in this. If we aren’t open to change, there won’t be a lot of people doing shows anymore.” Lilley says the value of teamwork and sharing ideas is the key to success. “It is so important to have a creative, motivated, flexible group of people. I could not do this alone. We started on our Stay Safe and Separate initiatives in April. It evolved and was easier to tweak as the situation changes. There’s going to be things that come out of this that we’re going to do for years to come.”
For the New York International Air Show, Lilley’s team moved it from Stewart International Airport to the smaller Orange County Airport with a creative “drive-up” air show featuring a preferred-seating format with a total capacity limited to just 20% of last year. Spectators would literally drive up, park behind their respective venue, and walk in to their own, separated area. But after a rock concert on Long Island experienced problems with a similar format, the state insisted on the “drive-in” model where spectators stay in or around their cars.
The New York show is scheduled for August 29 and 30.
Canada’s only show still on the schedule for early September, Airshow London will go ahead as a drive-in format, as well, and will be called SkyDrive. Holly Doty, Executive Director said, “A lot of thought, strategy and execution has taken place to reinvent our event, yet much of the initial credit goes to ICAS and some of its members who originally came up with the drive-in concept and presented it to the full membership in a webinar back in May. After listening to that webinar, we thought to ourselves, ‘We can do this.’ We had a few things on our side. Our date was later in the summer, so [that] bought us some time. We had a core group of volunteers who really believed we could pull this off. And we had performers who told us that, if they could, they would still come. Of course, we had to crunch numbers to determine whether it was financially viable. And in the end, all factors pointed in a positive direction.”
The process involved a lot of virtual meetings, according to Doty. “Regular virtual meetings have taken place with the Air Ops team, Ground Ops team and the Board, along with much discussion and collaboration with provincial health departments and politicians at every level of the government, 1CAD, ACC, and all the demo teams that are on our schedule. Everyone has been very supportive and — together — we are working hard to create a safe and exciting event.”
SkyDrive will not offer a static display or food vendors. Ticket holders will use three zones. The red zone ($150/car) is on the ramp, closely parallel to the runway and offers premium viewing. The blue zone ($115/car) offers great viewing from the regular festival grounds. The green zone ($75/car) offers affordable parking spots on the grass. Oversized vehicles (trucks/vans) and motorcycles are subject to different tickets and pricing. All tickets must be purchased in advance and presented at the air show’s entrance gate to be scanned, through closed vehicle windows. A limited number of tickets will be sold.
Vehicles will be welcomed to London International Airport and directed to park in their own individually marked parking spot of 20 x 25 feet. Guests may enjoy the show from inside their vehicles or sit in lawn chairs in front of their vehicle, safely distanced from others. Behind each row of vehicles is a 25-foot roadway on which guests walk to portable washrooms in their zone. Parking within each zone is assigned based on a first-come-first-served basis. Portable washrooms will be aligned to zones and guests will be required to use their designated zone’s washroom. SkyDrive will be a dry event; alcohol is strictly prohibited. Guests who move outside of their designated 20 x 25 area (other than for the washrooms) may be evicted from the event.
There is still lots of work going on behind the scenes to pull this off. The flying display is almost entirely U.S. military, including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Doty points out, “Unsurprisingly, one of our biggest challenges is getting the U.S. performers across the border, and receiving an exception to the 14-day quarantine. Our current plan is based on everyone being able to stay in London, and outlines a ‘bubble’ protocol. A secondary plan is based on teams staying overnight on American soil and only coming to London to perform and refuel. Although a definitive decision has not been made yet, from our audience point of view, they will still get a spectacular show either way.”
Another challenge has been insurance. “It is always complex, as there is so much to consider. Our regular coverage had some reasonable increases, but we had already budgeted for that,” she says.
Doty is optimistic. “We are very excited to test out this new format, and perhaps be a catalyst for a ‘new normal’ for our industry in the future. A tremendous amount of focus is going toward creating a format that minimizes risk and interaction while still offering an exciting and family-friendly event. We are honored to still have many performers willing to appear at our show, and — knowing the community is eager to get outside again — we are excited to offer this amazing opportunity in a socially responsible manner. Our red zone, the most expensive, was the first section to sell out, indicating the community not only wants to get out, but has confidence that we are offering them a safe, family-friendly and affordable day of entertainment. And that is what makes us happy.”