It’s no secret that the main draw of many airshows are the aerial performers. That’s how you get big numbers at the gate, that’s how you draw in the non-pilots, and that’s how you inspire the next generation.
Airshow performers range from precision military demonstration teams, to energy management acts like glider aerobatics, to high-energy tumbling displays.
With so many acts to chose from, how do show organizers make their selections? With some difficulty, apparently.
“Your goal is to have a safe, energetic and entertaining show,” explains John Smutny from Positive Show Control. He’s the man behind the aerial performances at the Arlington Fly-In in Arlington, Wash., every summer. Arlington is the third largest fly-in in the United States, behind AirVenture and SUN ‘n FUN.
Smutny started as a volunteer with the Arlington Fly-In in 2000. He has been involved in Air Operations since 2006, and today holds the title of Air Operations Manager.
“You balance new performers and crowd favorites,” Smutny explains. “You want warbirds and ‘flip flops,’ airplanes and helicopters. You want a variety so everyone has a chance to have a favorite.”
Performers are booked months in advance, very often through contacts made at the International Council of Air Shows convention held in December.
“ICAS is a trade show where performers interact with airshow organizers,” he explains. “A large portion of the airshow industry come together for networking and educational sessions. Then in the first quarter of the year, the regional groups, Northwest Council of Air Shows, Southwest Council of Air Shows, and the Northeast Council of Air Shows have their individual conferences. All these conferences put airshow acts, support services, and promoters in rooms together to help facilitate the show planning process.”
The physical venue of the show plays a large part in the acts that can be booked, says Smutny, explaining that there needs to be a show box for performers that is free of potential hazards, such as congregations of people, homes and businesses. People are kept out of the area during the performance as a safety precaution.
“To have jet aerobatics, you’ll need at least 3,000 feet from one crowd line to the other,” he notes. “For warbird aerobatics you need 2,000 feet and for the smaller aerobatic acts, you need 1,000 feet.”
Airshows do not come cheap. In addition to performer’s fees, you have to factor in the cost of fuel and hotel rooms.
“A basic, small airshow needs to budget between $30,000 and $50,000 for a two hour per day, two day event,” says Smutny.
“One of the most challenging aspects is deciding which acts to bring in to ensure a good mix of crowd favorites and new up and comers,” adds Greg Gibson, director of operations for SUN ‘n FUN in Lakeland, Fla., considered by many to be the kick-off to airshow and fly-in season.
“We take into account crowd appeal and uniqueness, but logistics, availability, and expenses play a factor as well,” he continues. “A record of impeccable safety is paramount, and most performers adhere to very strict policies on that. Getting the right mix of entertainment to appeal to a week-long crowd is also a huge factor. We are very fortunate to have a few more days than most shows to showcase a wide array of talent.”
Gibson notes that there are some favorites that the SUN ‘n FUN crowd expects “and revels” in each year.
“The AeroShell Aerobatic Team, Gene Soucy, Michael Goulian, Patty Wagstaff, The AeroStars, EAA Warbirds of America, and many others are regulars to our event,” he says. “We keep a close watch on our social media feedback for ideas and requests from our patrons. As interesting or unique acts are mentioned, we always investigate and, of course, when there is considerable volume on a certain performer we take that into consideration as well.”
“You also need to tailor the show to fit the audience,” adds Dennis Dunbar, director of airshow operations at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. “Oshkosh is different from other shows because most of the visitors are pilots, so they appreciate things like Short Take Off and Landing demonstrations and the Manufacturers Showcase. A few years ago we had the public premiere of the Terrafugia, the flying car. Those acts might not go over so well at other airshows, say the Los Angeles County Airshow, where most of the airshow audience are non-pilots. At Oshkosh, you are entrusted to provide the level of entertainment for an audience that is a lot more knowledgeable than your average airshow crowd, so the pressure is on!”
AirVenture, he notes, is one of the shows that most performers want to book.
“You want someone who is safe, and who cares about your show, in that they are easy to work with,” Dunbar says. “Oshkosh is a special show. Performers want to come here, so my biggest challenge is trying to build a schedule that balances the crowd favorites with the opportunity to get some new blood into the show. I’m trying to fit 30 pounds of airshow awesome into a five pound bag!”
Planning for a show as large as Air Venture takes years, he adds. “We have already started strategic planning for 2018,” he notes.
Dunbar notes that the big airshows would not happen if it were not for the thousands of volunteers who dedicate their time and energy every year to making the shows a success.
“It’s an incredible sense of camaraderie,” says Dunbar. “It’s hard to explain, you have to experience it.”
Gibson echoes Dunbar’s sentiment, adding,“It is very challenging, but when it all comes together I get great satisfaction out of seeing people have a great time and enjoying the results of a lot of hard work on the part of all of our staff and certainly our volunteers. They really deserve all the credit for the 41 years of SUN ’n FUN’s legacy of being the airshow season opener! Managing the performers’ schedules, the needs of the sponsors, and respecting the business needs of over 500 exhibitors is a huge task. Getting everyone working in the same direction requires incredible coordination. Again, hats off to our wonderful volunteers!”