You wanna run an airshow?
Gill Howie/Squadron Prints found out just what it takes at this year's inaugural Arbroath event on 3 July...pictures by Berry Vissers and as credited.
Here I am, sitting on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, reflecting on the 2004 season. A season that has brought me a completely new view on airshows - their organisation, their running and the countless rules and regulations that have to be adhered to.
I have been an enthusiast for many years, but this year my thoughts have changed dramatically. I have attended every IAT since it moved to Fairford and every Leuchars Airshow for God-knows how many years. I have been lucky to be involved in different areas from buying a ticket to now having a stall at very many shows. I hear complaints - I hear compliments. I speak to my customers - I speak to veterans. I get excited about shows - I get disappointed when special things don't happen. Why, you may ask, am I telling you this - well, 2004 has been a very special year for me, as I effectively had my very own airshow, a dream come true. As most of you know, I run a small company called 'Squadron Prints Ltd' together with my 'other half', Berry. Contacts I have made through this business helped me realise my dream, enabling me to talk to many people in the airshow industry and get lots of good advice. I also had help from many people, including my friends, who all rallied round to 'muck' in with the event. I had this idea for a long time and together with another aviation enthusiast friend (Hi, Howard) we approached the local Business Association and our local Council to help us stage the event.
Please don't think that I am moaning, but I had six months of panic, worrying, very hard work and thousands of phone-calls, e-mails and letters, and that was only for a small one-day event on the north-east coast of Scotland. It was a great day for our town and the East Coast, even though the weather was dreadful - we had all four seasons in one day, but thankfully it cleared for the Red Arrows attracting a crowd of about 9,000 during the worst rain showers and 15,000 when the skies cleared. It was a HUGE learning curve and a HUGE expense. Insurance, the cost of having an ambulance, the cost of AA signs, the cost of barriers, a PA system - the list is endless. How were we going to pay for it? Traders helped by paying for their sites, the Council gave us a one-off grant and we appealed to the local business community. Again, they all came together to help but it was a risk. Of course, we made it, but it was a major worry. On the seafront Mini stunts were performed by stunt driver Russ Swift, the Arbroath Lifeboat took part ALL day and the RAF Careers site had a static Harrier that was the most popular attraction, with queues all day to get on board and sit in it.
As this was a new event, we had additional problems of not knowing what to expect - we had environmental health, emergency planning and Police meetings to contend with but by far the worst thing was some of our traders trying to take advantage: a complete nightmare. On top of that there were the mountains of paperwork - licences for the park, licences for the radios, permissions for this, permissions for that. It has opened my eyes to what other airshow organisers have to go through, because I kept in touch with a few of them for advice and tips. Take RIAT for example - behind that huge event is a small army of employees and volunteers, all of whom are enthusiasts and just as excited about their project as I was about mine. They get calls from people to say "Yes, we are coming", and like me were keen to tell everyone that such-and-such were coming to their event. One thing they endure is the constant barrage from people saying that they should get this and they should get that - as aviation enthusiasts themselves they KNOW what to get and they DO ask, but they HAVE to go though the Embassies and the proper channels, and they have to adhere by the rules of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices who can stop anything at a moment's notice. I heard the disappointed voices in the RIAT offices and, at the same time, their despondency at un-thoughtful comments from enthusiasts on web sites. The days of phoning a squadron and inviting them to attend are over - it is all budget-orientated now and each squadron seems to have to manage its own budget.
I remember my sheer excitement when I was told that I WAS getting the Red Arrows for my event, AND the Tornado F3 - I actually announced it before I had the letter! It was a great feeling - the guys at RIAT and Leuchars are the same - they are so thrilled when things are added to their list and so very disappointed when things cancel. I have not had to face the feeling of disappointment for my event yet, but RIAT has and Leuchars certainly did this year. Both these events suffered badly at fairly short notice, but at least they managed to have a show and give us, the aviation enthusiast, something to look forward to. I did get a little upset at some of the comments floating about on forums saying that the organisers should do this-and-that, but I do know that they tried their best to fill the gaps and get replacements but it is not easy. People moan about the Red Arrows - well, the Reds are the best ambassadors for the Hawk aircraft all over the world and they display for twenty-five minutes - has anyone seen the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds this year? Their display is very different and very much longer - from the ground show of kitting up, through the air display to the recruiting drive at the end takes about ninety minutes, ending up with nearly two whole hours out of the flying programme.
Today I have been looking at some show reviews from all over the world - take the USA for example. NAS Oceana's show seems to have been THE exceptional show in the US this year so far, but generally the flying displays are disappointing. Take Nellis for example - the most well-known base for any enthusiast - there isn't much military flying at the airshow except for a few assets spread out over the two days, but plenty of civvy stuff, which seems to be the norm for most US shows. Maybe UK shows will go the same way.
Waddington's static this year was full of civvies - certainly not full of military hardware - I think there was something like seven Jet Provosts. I DO understand that things are tough for our armed forces with all their overseas deployments and cuts, but surely the few RAF shows that we still have deserve to get supported by the RAF. Leuchars were let down badly at the last minute because of the weather and as a result several acts flew more than once - I thought that was a very kind gesture on behalf of the civilian performers and the fact that the Leuchars crowd were able to see the beautiful Typhoon fly twice was a bonus. I cannot wait to see the Typhoon do a full display because I think it will be astounding - hopefully next year! I know I am biased towards Leuchars but they did get a bit of hard time, especially with the B-1B - they asked and asked for a fly-by but were refused. Several static aircraft cancelled shortly before the event and some others were called away - all unfortunately resulted in an emptier static display area but the real attraction was the first gathering of Typhoon's - all four of them and something unique for Leuchars.
Despite the hard times, look how much flying there is at RIAT - loads! Maybe not what YOU want to see, but I think we should be thankful for what we have because it is only going to get less and less. Believe me, I think we are very lucky here in the UK and I would like to think that we will all support the events - constructive criticism is welcomed by any air show organiser, but please remember that they too have hearts and are just trying to do their jobs.
This is MY personal view and hopefully a view that doesn't upset anyone, but I think that we all should be supportive and thankful for what we have here on the UK airshow scene. Every year the costs get higher and this results in the entry fee being higher, but at least we still have shows to go to - but for how long?