Are aviation events storm ready?

Amidst this year’s airshow season and continuing extreme/destructive weather, I wonder if aviation events are fully prepared. The National Weather Service’s Storm Ready program can help event organizers minimize weather catastrophes like 2011’s SUN ’n FUN tornado or the multi-fatality Indiana State Fair stage collapse. But how many fly-ins and airshows are so prepared?

Visitors to this year’s SUN ’n FUN noticed something different this year: Signs on exhibit buildings (potential weather refuges) attesting to their wind loading and date of testing. At the show’s entrance, a new sign proclaimed participation in NWS Storm Ready. Under a new SUN ’n FUN president, something had changed since 2011’s tornado.

I was there for that one — but more telling, I was there the day before. A very threatening area of severe thunderstorms had pushed in from the Gulf. It hovered all day behind a front slowly sinking south and east to I-4 just north of Lakeland. Clearly, the next day would expose SUN ’n FUN to its chaos and local forecasts said so. I took a small poll that afternoon to find if exhibitors had instructions from show organizers. Hearing none, I advised a few people to batten down the hatches.

The next morning, local Tampa TV news was on-air at 4 a.m. to track severe storms making landfall. Around 6 a.m., they hit Tampa’s northern beach towns and were forecast to move south and east. I burrowed in at my hotel east of Tampa. About 10:30 a.m., the sky there turned green and a tornado outside my window marched down State Road 60 for Polk County and Lakeland. SUN ’n FUN was hit with the tornado and torrent around 11:30 or noon. Airplanes and exhibits took a strong hit. The show closed, promising to reopen the next morning. But there was more to this than the next day’s muddy car parking crisis and a later dust-up about damage claims.

This year, I interviewed new SUN ’n FUN president John “Lites” Leenhouts for his take on the storm. He was frank, saying managers of the 2011 show just “let it happen.” As a former military man, he said it was in his nature to anticipate problems, prepare in advance and then react decisively to situations as they develop. Accordingly, SUN ’n FUN reached out to the local Tampa NWS office to earn NWS Storm Ready certification.

The program pre-arranges with NWS or a private contractor to monitor and interpret weather and designates an event official (available 24 hours) to receive and act on their weather warnings. The system then requires NWS-approved plans and resources for crowd alerting and evacuation (or sheltering in buildings sufficient for the purpose.) NWS also wants a visitor education campaign so attendees are attuned to warnings and pre-planned emergency action. And they want show staff to hold an exercise to practice the plan.

Our aviation events are spread out all over airports. Large, dispersed crowds may not be in range of the show announcer’s public address system. Organizers may be volunteers or other non-professionals. Although police and standby fire trucks/ambulances may have been arranged, most shows probably don’t have written and coordinated protocols for weather monitoring, interpretation, warning and evacuation/shelter. How about arranging in advance for emergency vehicles to circulate through the crowd with sirens in case of weather emergency, backed up by show signage advising what those sirens mean and what to do about it? Or take NWS guidance about new alerting methods like social media.

When establishing Storm Ready in 1999, NWS asked itself, “How could communities become accountable for their own severe weather preparedness?” This is far from academic today, as Indiana OSHA this year imposed $80,000 in fines for last summer’s State Fair tragedy. “Unforeseen” weather is no excuse now with the weather resources we have today. NWS advises, “… all too often, the ‘surprise’ is the result of multiple failures with the entire warning system: NWS, emergency managers, the community (itself) and the public.” If bad weather is an issue, Storm Ready’s goal is “to make sure everyone knows about it, they know what to do, they do it and live.” Program requirements and guidance can be found at

How many aviation events are participating? I don’t know, but National Warning Coordination Meteorologist Chris Maier says there are now 1,934 NWS-certified “sites,” most being county or local government jurisdictions. Of these, only some 232 are “Storm Ready Supporters,” participants like SUN ’n FUN. But few of these are event venues; many are college or corporate campuses, hospitals or factories. Moreover, the influential International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) has neither involvement with NWS Storm Ready nor organizational policy on weather issues. It sounds like many more airshows and fly-ins could participate or at least adopt program principles.

Not in Tornado Alley? There are other threats. NWS’s Maier emphasized this year’s potent heat-related (and by extension, drought-related) weather issues. (Think not only of more severe thunderstorms, but of mass heat exhaustion casualties or wildfires in car parking fields covered with dry grass that’s lit off by cars’ hot catalytic converters. The latter I’ve seen personally.)

NWS works primarily with county/municipal emergency managers and two national organizations for this fast-growing specialty, the International Association of Venue Managers and the Emergency Management Association. Organizers of smaller shows/fly-ins might start by working with their local emergency manager — or the police or fire official who also serves in that capacity. And check in with the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at your local NWS forecast office, too. There are 122 of them nationwide.

Going to Oshkosh this week? Perhaps you’re covered. Last summer (three to four months after the SUN ’n  shocker), EAA announced that AirVenture 2011 was in the NWS Storm Ready program. Other shows may have some weather monitoring/decision-making in their plans and procedures, but I suspect relatively few are certified “NWS Storm Ready.”

If you’re part of a volunteer-run air show or fly-in, get with it! If you’re just a show-goer, arm yourself with 1) an advance plan for where to shelter on-site, 2) an eye to the forecast, and 3) perhaps a pocket-sized NOAA weather radio or radar picture on your smart phone. The weatherman is trying to tell you something. Listen up!


Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

© 2012 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved.


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