Air Shows Come, Air Shows Go:  Learning from the Challenges Faced by Other Shows

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Defenders of Liberty Air Show

“Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.”  — George Santayana 

 

Deep in the recesses of our collective consciousness lie memories of air shows past, those large and small events that successfully captured our imaginations, yet faded into history, some never to be heard from again. Others, like the phoenix, rose again to greater glory, learning from their past and shaking off the ashes of their demise.   

 

From one end of North America to the other, air shows have fallen victim to a wide range of maladies, most often victims of their own creation, though sometimes victims of outside forces.  Some are forced out of business by increased commercial airport activity. Others shut down due to encroachment around the airport, making it impossible to lay out a safe aerobatic box. Some shows end when the management team retires or loses interest with no succession plan in place. And then there are the shows that tie down their wings for the last time when organizers take their eyes off the ball: i.e., the budget. 

 

The demise of these shows is a challenge for the industry, but they also present teachable moments for the thoughtful air show professionals who take the time and make the effort to understand what happened to these events and why. Burying the unpleasant lessons of our industry’s century-long history is a nearly certain path to unnecessarily repeating those mistakes and potentially putting otherwise healthy shows at risk. 

 

One of the premier air shows in the 1980s and 1990s was the Amigo Air Sho in El Paso, Texas. The show was staged at the Biggs Army Airfield at Fort Bliss, which was ideal. It had ample ramp space and hangar space, and Army activity was light. In support of the show, units at the base would deliberately schedule exercises out of town to minimize the impact on the event. All the pieces came together with the proper leadership to make it a well-respected show with a 13,000-foot runway and strong community and military support. 

 

Rhonda Butler started with the show in a small, volunteer capacity, then was invited to join the board of directors, eventually becoming president in 1993. By then, the show had established itself as a respected event, hosting jet teams and the nation’s top performers year after year. Then, the wheels started falling off.   

 

“We had to postpone our show following the tragedy of 9-11,” Butler said.  Then they moved the show from its traditional October date to Mother’s Day weekend, which was not well received in the community. There were also problems related to term limits for the show’s board of directors. 

 

“Our terms on the board were limited to two years, according to our bylaws, so many of us timed out,” she said. Term limits are usually imposed to allow room for new talent to be brought onto boards, but it doesn’t always work that way. After seeing what was happening to the show, many of the old board members were enticed to return. “We worked hard to restore the show, successfully brought sponsors back on board, and were in the black a year and a half later,” she said.  Jet teams started returning, crowds were filling the ramp, then, just as things were looking bright, the air show industry fell victim to Sequestration. 

 

Passed by congress, Sequestration was a federal fiscal limitation policy put into place under the 2011 Budget Control Act which set targets for deficit reduction. It capped the increase in federal spending.  Air shows, of course, weren’t considered.   

 

Unfortunately for the show organizers, a larger Army restructuring brought increased activity and additional aviation units to Fort Bliss, greatly increasing activity on base, making it no longer possible for the Army to support the event. The Amigo board was forced to find a new home for the show. 

“Timing was bad for us, leaving us no time to pull our 2013 show together, so we voted to take a year off while we looked for a new venue,” Butler said. Their chosen field was just across the New Mexico border at the Dona Ana County International Jetport with its 9,500-foot runway. “We had issues with parking, with different state regulations, and we had a lot of work to do to be successful.  We also had a new executive director who had little experience with this sort of thing, plus several new board members who had to come up to speed quickly,” Butler said. 

 

They were able to attract the Thunderbirds for the 2014 show, but the show was not well attended.  “We simply had too many challenges and not enough money to overcome them.  It was the perfect storm,” Butler said.  The 2014 show was their last…done it by a combination of challenges that were difficult for show management to have anticipated. 

 

The seven-year run of the show in Redlands, California east of San Bernardino was sponsored by the Hangar 24 brewery. Sue and Paul Cook managed the show. Their son owned the brewery and wanted to give something back to the community, focusing on veterans and youth. 

 

“Our philosophy was to have a big party for the community that happened to have airplanes,” said Sue. The show ran annually from 2013 to 2020, and hosted all the single-ship demo teams from the U.S. and Canda, plus top civilian performers. “It was a lot of fun and well attended.  We had bands playing all day, and beer trucks all over the field, but — after three years — it was in a deep financial hole because the event manager didn’t understand air shows. My son’s business covered the loss and he asked me and my husband to take over because he wanted the event to continue. We stuck to the budget and dug the show out of its deep financial hole. We cut corners where we could and didn’t spend a penny extra. It worked.  Then Covid hit,” she said. 

 

Before the show could recover from Covid, they were hit with yet another problem. Kangaroo rats that were living in the vacant lots used for parking had been identified as an endangered species, shutting down their available parking areas. 

 

They were discussing moving the event to San Bernardino, then Covid happened.  Once they were past the Covid issue, planning began anew for a show in San Bernardino. “That’s when the airport got an Amazon contract, which meant a lot of flights in and out, and Amazon wouldn’t pause their schedule for the weekend of the show. We thought we might find a way to return to Redland, but we just couldn’t overcome the obstacles,” she said.   

 

The small farming community of Twin Falls, Idaho, hosted air shows on and off every three or four years starting in the early 1990s. The show started as a fly in, then added limited aerobatics and later managed to host the Blue Angels, not once, but twice. The town and surrounding farm country loved the jet teams.  But the next time around, in 2012, leadership had changed, promotion was weak, and — with no jet team — the show fell on its face. Attendance was poor and they lacked enough sponsorship money to pay their bills. Fans helped cover some of the debt and several of the businesses that were owed money agreed to forgive what was owed.  But, for all intents and purposes, the show was dead…up until 2023.  It was the 75th anniversary of the airfield in Twin Falls, and a former leader of the early, successful shows was enticed to return to take the controls once again. The goal was to provide a free air show to the community to celebrate the airport. 

 

“We learned a lot from the last effort, primarily keeping a tight rein on the budget,” said Jim O’Donnell. Twin Falls, a community of just over 50,000, is surrounded by many smaller communities. But there are limits to how much local businesses in such a small town can afford to contribute, and how many people have the skills and contacts in the community to make the event a success. O’Donnell noted that — with strategic use of social media and other resources — they were able to properly promote the show this time and made it a success.   

 

“We didn’t have any big names flying for us and had no military participation other than an F-15 fly-by from the Mountain Home Air Force Base, but no one lost faith in our ability to bring the show back,” he said. 

 

“We hired regional performers to keep our costs down and our fans loved them. And, in spite of it being a free show to celebrate the 75th anniversary of our airfield, we ended with money in the bank and are planning our next show in 2025,” said O’Donnell.   

 

Pasco, Washington staged the Tri Cities International Air Show for more than ten years, hosting all three North American jet teams repeatedly, and hired top talent to perform, but the show faded away after falling off the jet team schedules. Crowds waned, leadership changed, sponsors cut back their funding, and the show was all but done, at least at the Tri Cities Airport. But because the event was supported by the local organization that produces the unlimited hydroplane races on the Columbia River, the air show left the airport and morphed into an over-the-water event at the boat races. Before there could be any thought of returning the show to the airport, large hangars were erected on the ramp, taking up most of the available static and parking display space. The air show was preserved, in part, by moving it over the river, but the community has forever lost the full air show experience at the airport.

 

The perfect storm that shut down other shows nearly ended one of the most respected shows in the county: Salinas, California. It started with a leadership change, according to Harry Wardwell, the current air show director. “After I retired from the board, we had a volunteer director who had a lot going for him, but the organization lacked enough new people getting involved, and lacked a strong board to provide oversight, especially over the budget,” Wardwell said. 

 

“Sequestration was devastating, marketing was slipping, income was down and they had to dip into their reserves to cover their costs,” he said.  This was especially hard on the local community since the show existed explicitly to raise money for local charities. 

 

“It all goes back to the prime directive. You have to run the air show like a business,” said Wardwell. “And that includes recruiting good leadership that is diversified and dedicated to making the event successful.” 

 

Wardwell left the board when the show was still going strong, but was recruited back in 2018 after an eight-year absence in order to help save it. “They had three bad years before I returned and ultimately couldn’t pay their bills. I knew we could turn it around, so I hosted a big party at my house, invited all the board members and all the past directors to discuss our history, our traditions, and to fire up the existing board.    

 

Former directors agreed to serve as mentors to the new directors which really got us moving. We went to the community for sponsorships, not only for the upcoming show, but to cover the debt the show had incurred.  “Sponsors stepped up because they saw the show as a significant community event and were willing to help,” Wardwell said. 

 

They not only had to cover the cost of the show in 2018; they had already been promised a visit by the Blue Angels in 2019, meaning they had to raise money for two shows that would be staged just six months part.   

 

“We were able to offer some creative packages to sponsors for both events. Our efforts worked. We not only covered our debt, but paid for both shows and again had a reserve fund,” said Wardwell. 

 

Like most other shows, Covid shut them down in 2020, but they returned in 2021 and continue to remain strong. “This year was a banner year for us with both the Thunderbirds and the Snowbirds.  We’ve been viable for 42 years, and I’m optimistic we will make it to 50.” 

 

Wardwell said there was a time when the air show was the most talked about event in the community. “When we started, we had local business leaders on our board. They were a working board who did their jobs well. But they timed out and now we often get subordinates taking their places. And unfortunately, younger people just aren’t getting involved like we used to be,” said Wardwell.   

 

The lessons to be learned? There are nearly as many lessons as there are shows that have gone – or nearly gone – out of business. But, if as an industry we don’t take the time to understand the circumstances and causes of shows that are no longer with us, we also fail to learn from the last contribution that these shows were able to make to our industry: the cautionary tales they can offer about the many and varied hazards and challenges of the air show business.  

What are the Lessons Learned from Defunct (or Nearly Defunct) Air Shows? 

 

Every air show in North America has its own character, idiosyncrasies, challenges, assets and vulnerabilities. So, distilling the lessons learned from the demise of shows that have gone out of business into a “Top Ten” list of pitfalls can quickly become an exercise in simplifying the complicated and multi-layered stories of each of those shows.  

 

Nonetheless, there are some common elements that are worth studying, understanding and watching out for in your own operations. 

 

  • Airport management. Perhaps the single-most common cause for the demise of air shows in the United States and Canada is a poor relationship between air show management and airport management. Establishing, nurturing and maintaining a collaborative partnership with airport (or city, county or state/province) management takes one of the biggest long-term threats to every air show off the table. 

 

  • Contingency plans. Inevitably, the search for a realistic Plan B often does not begin until it’s already clear that Plan A is halfway down the toilet.  That’s human nature and, in many ways, an indication of how difficult it often is to simply execute Plan A. But, when and where possible, show management should be anticipating the need for and developing Plan B well before it’s clear that there will be a need for Plan B. Easy to advocate and much harder to execute? Absolutely. But, if the stories about the demise of air shows in all corners of North America tell us nothing else, they tell us that the long-term survivability of our shows often depends on our ability to imagine a reality that is starkly different than the one we’re currently living…sequestration, Covid and the Great Recession of 2007-2008 being only the most recent examples. 

 

  • Succession. If you are not planning for and anticipating who will run your show when you no longer want to or are able to run your show, you are sentencing your event to an unpleasant and unnecessary demise. It required foresight, discipline and the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, but none of those things make it any less essential to the long-term survival of your event. You may think that you’ll be deeply involved with your show for many years or even decades to come, but life has a unique capacity to make those kinds of predictions look silly in hindsight.  

 

  • Run your air show business as a business. Harry Wardwell used nearly this exact phrase in his summation about the near failure of the storied California International Air Show in Salinas. But many shows don’t have the luxury of looking back on this air show truism through the lens of a successful recovery. Because, most often, a failure to abide by this air show maxim is fatal. Whether it’s the recruitment of strong human talent or the maintenance of good financial practices or strong succession planning, the people responsible for managing an air show should apply commonly accepted business practices to the challenges and opportunities of running an air show business. 

 

  • Use the good years to prepare for the bad ones. Because they’re coming. Whether it’s man-made disasters like sequestration or government shutdowns or natural disasters like flooding and fires, our events can often be impacted by events beyond our control. So, when and however you can, build that into your plan. Recognize that, next year, it might rain. Understand that, when there is a war, those loud, gray jets will have more important work to do. Stuff happens. And often, that stuff is beyond your control.  
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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.