I’d flown into the two big events several times, and marveled at the Air Traffic Control at both places. People wearing bright pink polo shirts, armed only with binoculars, headsets, and quick wits, were standing on flat-bed trailers, calmly directing more traffic than O’Hare sees on a bad day. I was impressed.
A trip last fall to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Fly-In at Saint Simon’s Island (KSSI) was even more impressive, mainly because I really didn’t know what to expect of something called “enhanced Unicom” at this uncontrolled field.
I knew that the FAA had priced itself out of the airshow/fly-in market, and I figured it was going to be a free-for-all. I needn’t have worried. Turned out it was just like the big shows, with professional level ATC services, delivered with efficiency and crisp good humor, and now offered by privately-contracted services, like Air Boss & Consulting International, among others.
Call it what you like — herding cats, narrowly averting disaster one airplane at a time, making order out of chaos — the arrivals aspect of air bossing is just your ordinary Air Traffic Tower Controller’s job, only busier. They must handle hundreds of airplanes in the space of a few hours, coordinating a wide variety of aircraft, from nordo ultralights to slick high-performance aircraft and warbirds. Then toss in the scheduled carriers and bizjets, just for fun. And directing traffic is only part of the air boss job description.
“We provide solutions,” says Air Boss & Consulting International‘s head honcho Wayne Boggs.
During a fly-in or airshow, the job might entail sequencing arriving aircraft and acting as a temporary tower. It might include managing ramps or “non-movement areas,” or it might mean running an entire airshow, including planning and coordinating the whole aerobatic demonstration.
“We control the event, the entire waivered airspace, and we keep the event safe,” Boggs explains. “That’s it, in a nutshell.”
Every event has its own requirements and possibilities, and the Air Boss people are up to the challenge.
Fly-ins at uncontrolled fields might operate temporary towers, albeit without tinted glass walls, radar, and air conditioning. The job requires lining up lots of pilots of all skill levels, unfamiliar with the area, maybe a little shaky on their radio technique, arriving from all over, channeling three at a time onto downwind, base and final, then getting them on the runway and off it onto taxiways expeditiously, and issuing a cheery “nice job” to the pilot who gets it right.
“We’re more referees than anything else,” says John Walsh who, with his wife Nan, are the forces behind Air Boss and Advisory, which works with Air Boss Consulting at many shows. “It’s all fun. When we have no-radio aircraft, they circle around above the traffic pattern. We’ll say, ‘Yellow high wing, rock your wings,’ and if they don’t, then it’s obvious they don’t have a radio, and we just move everybody around to get everybody safely on the ground. It works out just fine. “
These rent-a-controllers are all pilots and ATC pros. Everybody on the Air Boss & Consulting roster has spent a full career at some of the busiest towers in the nation. They each have a knack for careful planning and clear communication with pilots, and the ability to think several moves ahead.
They’re old hands at coordinating with nearby ATC facilities, working with them to help inbound traffic transition smoothly from Center or Approach Control to the special airspace. Finally, they each have a passion for what they do, working airshows and fly-ins all season long around the nation. It’s a challenge, but that’s what they thrive on.
“I guess you could say we’re all adrenalin junkies,” Nan Walsh confesses.
Boggs and his consulting company are based in central Florida, but they’ll be at major sporting events around the country, including some that draw business jets by the hundreds, like the Masters’ golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, and the Super Bowl. There they run ground control operations, a job that can have a dozen controllers keeping kerosene burners from running into each other on crowded ramps.
They’ll be supplementing tower operations at the airshows at Plant City, Florida, and at SUN ‘n FUN, working with FAA ATC to keep things running smoothly, and they’ll be doing quite a few big airshows and fly-ins at non-towered airports, like the one at Tarkio, Missouri, the 2015 AOPA fly-in at Tullahoma, Tenn., and many others. Nearly every weekend will have the Air Boss & Consulting crew craning their necks, squinting skyward somewhere in the country.
What can pilots do to make arriving at a big fly-in less stressful and also make the air boss’s job easier?
“It’s just common sense, if you’re going to aviate,” says Nan Walsh. “Just like doing a pre-flight check, you check the weather, you check NOTAMs for a special event. Pilots can enhance their own adventure by checking the special procedures, tuning the proper frequencies, watch for the reporting point landmarks. Maybe it’s the flight instructor in me, but you need to know your fuel requirements, and always have an out.”
“It’s really not that complicated,” she continues. “The procedures are designed to stay ahead of the pilot. They’re well thought out.”
At a controlled airport, arrival operations are not typically part of a fly-in, though at fly-ins like the one at KSSI, they’re a big help. Maybe a month before the fly-in, she explains, they’ll scout the situation from the air to get a pilot’s eye view. They’ll go over the procedures they’ve established. The day before the fly-in, the controllers set up to direct early-arriving traffic.
“It’s more like a trial by fire before the fly-in itself,” she explains, noting it gives them a chance to work out unforeseen snags.
One of the major safety considerations is to design approach and operations procedures that have pilots doing what they’re accustomed to doing, so that the occasional pilot who didn’t get the NOTAM isn’t caught short, says John Walsh.
“We expect to use standard left-hand traffic patterns for instance, and easily identifiable reporting points,” he says.
Long before the event, the air boss team will have been studying the area, the airport, and the local airspace, consulting with the sponsoring organization, arranging for airshow waivers from the FAA, working with area approach control and Centers, hammering out agreements on who “owns” what airspace, how hand-offs will be accomplished, designing approach and departure procedures, filing reams of paperwork, and writing and publishing easily understood NOTAMS.
“Safety is always our number one concern,” Boggs emphasizes.
Then there’s a glamorous side of the air boss business, which is organizing an airshow aerobatic program. Not every event the air boss crew attends has an airshow, but when there is, an air boss is in charge of building in safety factors, doing a thorough preflight briefing, coming up with the choreography, and airborne communication of the flight demonstrations themselves. That’s where Air Boss Wayne Boggs shines.
“An airshow is still entertainment, though, so you want to choreograph the show to make it entertaining to the crowd,” he says. “What performer should follow which, biplane, monoplane, jet truck, energetic aerobatics and precision team demonstrations, you want to keep it moving, and varied.”
That dress rehearsal for aerobatic flight demonstrations requires flying the whole airshow from beginning to end. Before the first performer leaves the ramp, “You perform an FAA briefing in depth, go over the weather, explain to the pilots about the fire, crash and rescue trucks, what order they’re flying in, the holding points,” Boggs explains. “Everything that can happen is discussed in the preflight briefing.”
Even with all that planning, some events, says Boggs, are more exciting than others.
“Unfortunately, sometimes you have emergencies,” he says. “Canopies blow off, there are fires, and sometimes an intruder, especially in non-towered airspace, comes zooming in, even though there’s an aerobatic performer flying. That always makes it very difficult,” he notes dryly.
A Flight Standards Inspector in Charge attends every airshow, representing the FSDO that issued the airshow waiver, and that person, the enforcement arm of the FAA, has the final say on everything. This representative would likely have a word with a pilot who inadvertently wanders into an active aerobatic box.
Of the airshow community, aerobatic performers, controllers, behind-the-scenes organizers, Boggs says, “there are a lot of wonderful individuals we work with on a regular basis. It’s a very close-knit family, the airshow industry, the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS). We take care of our own, and everybody looks after everybody. We have scholarships, a family fund. We reach out to the family in the case of the occasional mishap to provide funds, to make sure they’re able to carry on with their lives until they can get settled. There’s an infinite number of things we do to take care of each other. You’re dealing with everybody with a Type A personality, with people who have a passion for aviation. Whether you’re in a support role, as we are, or a pilot, you’re the best you can be.”
Part of being a family is bringing up and encouraging the next generation.
“One thing we are doing, “ Nan Walsh adds, “is providing mentorship for people breaking into the industry, to get new airshows, to get exposure. There are people who are going to take our places, and we are looking for new people who have the skill sets and passion to do it, to carry on this great stuff as we fade into the sunset. Starting when they’re young, that’s what is going to keep the industry going.”