Flying into Uncharted Territory

Flying into Uncharted Territory

T he Dayton Air Show defies sequester

By Mark Luedtke

Photo: The World War II-era B-29 Superfortress “FIFI” is the last of its kind; photo credit: Scott Slocum

The Sequester

According to John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, the Dayton Air Show is one of the most prestigious shows in the country. Cudahy said, “The Dayton Air Show is a flagship show of the airshow community. The manner in which it’s run and its position in the Dayton community all indicate it’s one of the top three or four shows in the country.” But the people around Dayton already knew that. In 2010, an estimated 80,000 people attended the show, and it pumped $5 million into the local economy.

But that was before the sequester. Congress passed spending reductions called the sequester in 2011, and the reductions were scheduled to occur January 1, 2013. At that time, Congress pushed back implementation of the reductions to March, then the federal government cut $85.4 billion of its $3.6 trillion budget for the current fiscal year.

The military responded by cutting all support for airshows.

While this impacted all airshows in the U.S. – 20 percent have canceled so far – Cudahy explained why these cuts were a special problem for the Dayton Air Show.

“They are such a strong show and get such strong military support, they’ve probably been more negatively impacted by the sequester than a typical show and perhaps as much as any other show in the country.” The Dayton Air Show has strong ties to the military. In any given year, up to half of the performers might be active duty military acts. In addition, Wright Patterson Air Force Base offers significant ground support for the show.

Scheduling aggravated the problem for the show staff. Record high temperatures last July precipitated low attendance and low revenue. The economic impact of the show fell to $3 million. To avoid that problem in the future, the staff rescheduled the show to June, leaving them less time to adjust to the sequester. On the other hand, Cudahy described why the Dayton Air Show management was well prepared to adapt to the situation.

“Because of its position in the airshow world and because of unusually strong management, they reacted immediately. Actually, they anticipated some of the problems and had contingency plans in place before most people knew what the sequester meant, let alone saw the impact.” The Dayton Air Show staff was so successful at adjusting to the sequester that Cudahy uses them as a case history to educate other shows about responding to the sequester and still putting on a quality show.

Overcoming Adversity

Brenda Kerfoot, general manager of the Dayton Air Show, is not one to toot her own horn. In typical understated fashion, all she said of the sequester is: “No one has ever had to face this before.” When asked how she and her staff adapted to adversity, she matter-of-factly listed private acts that she contracted to replace active duty military acts. While other shows are canceling left and right, Kerfoot said, “Our preparations for this year’s show are not much different than in years past.” She offered one hint to why her team succeeded while others did not: “The airshow industry is almost like family, and for every show – even this year – we get contacted by far more civilian performers than we can typically contract within a given year. So it didn’t take much to add to our line-up when we realized that we needed more performers.” That’s the advantage of being one of the flagship airshows in the country.

But putting together this show is not that simple. The budget for the air show is about $1.5 million, all spent on one weekend. If the show has a bad weekend, there’s no making it up next week. It’s all or nothing.

While airshows pay for active duty military performers, military performers are subsidized, so they tend to cost less than private acts. Kerfoot downplayed her pressured budget acrobatics: “Once we knew the sequester’s impact, we revamped the budget line-by-line, realizing that in some areas such as performers we would have to spend more money, but there were other areas that we could reduce expenses – hotel and rental cars that the military would have used are no longer expenses for us.”

Kerfoot told how the Dayton show benefited from cancellations by other shows because performers became more flexible. “We get a lot of support, even from our local participants. For instance, Team Fastrax told us they would forego a performer fee, but we hope to help them out by promoting their skydiving business. There are many variations on that theme where performers would reduce fees, etc., to make it work for both of us.”

The 2013 Vectren Dayton Air Show

Kerfoot believes her staff planned a terrific show this year. While active duty military will not appear, plenty of historically significant military planes will fly. The only B-29 Superfortress still flying in the world, FIFI, will perform at the show. This World War II bomber will be available for rides. A MiG-17 will appear at the Dayton Air Show for the first time, exhibiting legendary speed and maneuverability. A P-51 Mustang will appear with an exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen. An F4U Corsair, F-86 Sabre and A-4 Skyhawk round out the military planes. In addition, a UH-1H “Huey” and an AH-1F Cobra Attack Helicopter will be available for rides.

The civilian acts promise to be equally impressive. Kerfoot reports that because of cancellations, she managed to assemble a once in a lifetime ensemble of three top performers who had never performed at the same show at the same time: Skip Stewart flies a Pitts S-2S biplane he calls “Prometheus,” National Aviation Hall of Fame member Sean D. Tucker flies his biplane backwards and Mike Goulian attacks the show in the world’s highest performance aerobatic plane. The show includes wingwalker Jane Wicker, team acrobatics and team skydiving exhibitions, and favorite, the Wright B Flyer.

The Dayton Air Show bills itself as Dayton’s premier family event, and this year it supports that claim by presenting Dusty from the new Disney movie “Planes,” a movie similar to Disney’s “Cars,” to be released Aug. 9. In addition, Disney presents an interactive display based on the movie. The show also includes the Vectren Kids’ Hanger, which provides activities for children.

There’s also a jet bus and a wall of fire.

When not flying, all planes will be on static display in potentially the most exciting new feature of this year’s show called Performer Pit Row. There, spectators will be able to interact with exhibition pilots and their aircraft. Kerfoot described the feature: “For the first time this year we are presenting a Performer Pit Row right in the middle of the show grounds. This area will include all the performer aircraft that spectators will eventually see flying in the show. In all of the previous shows, performer aircraft were parked in front of the fence in an area called the ‘hot ramp’ that spectators would have no access to. Because of the location of the Pit Row on the grounds, fans will get a much better look at the aircraft and are more likely to see some of the performers up close as well.”

Because of the security and logistical demands of Performer Pit Row, Kerfoot warned this level of access may never occur again. “This is unprecedented in show history,” she said, “and it is possible that this may be the only year it is available to show attendees. While performers like to share their airplanes with fans, they also have to be assured that nothing has been tampered with before they take them to flight. We will provide plane captains to ensure aircraft security and our air operations group will safely tow/push airplanes out in front of the fence line in a secure/safe area before any engines are started. Spectators are sure to see and even speak with performers in the new Performer Pit Row.”

The typically reticent Kerfoot reserved her greatest praise for the volunteers of the show. “We couldn’t produce a show without volunteers,” she said. “This year we will have approximately 1,500 volunteers that will provide 13,420 hours of service on behalf of the show. We have one volunteer in our ticket reconciliation group, Karen Ortega, that has volunteered for all 38 shows and will be working again this year.”

Kerfoot explained why volunteers are even more important this year: “Wright-Patt personnel would normally provide all of the ground support, parking and some security for military aircraft. They could have over 200 personnel at our show site over the course of setup week and throughout the weekend. The civilian aircraft we will host at this year’s show don’t require as much ground support and therefore we were able to secure most of that equipment from fixed base operators at Dayton International Airport such as Wright Bros. Aero. We also have our own skilled air operations team to handle civilian aircraft and a complete security plan.”

The Future

While no sponsors pulled out of the Dayton Air Show, there’s clearly concern. Kerfoot projects up to 60 percent of this year’s shows could cancel. Cudahy predicted general losses at airshows because of the military pull-out. “Attendance is down in some cases by a little and some cases by a lot, depending on the contingencies that the show introduced. Some of the shows that had more time to prepare for sequester had time to fill in and implement contingency plans. I expect their drop-off will be in the 5, 10, 15 percent range and for shows that were less responsive, it might be as high as 35, 40 percent.”

Nobody knows what the future holds – Cudahy cited political uncertainty – but the good news for airshows is the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels are taking reservations for next year’s season. Cudahy offered reasons why he’s bullish on military participation in the future: “At a time when our military is stretched to the breaking point and it is an all volunteer military as it has been for the last 40 years, it’s very important for the American people to have an opportunity to interact with the military, and airshows are one of the few venues where they can do that. The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels are not just recruiting tools. I think there’s a much more complicated and multifaceted impact that both jet teams have. They’re the Navy and Air Force’s way to stay in touch with the American public, both for recruiting and other reasons, and I think that, collectively, that’s enough reason to have them back in the air. Moreover, they are doing things and making plans that would suggest they will be back.”

Whatever comes, Kerfoot and her staff will adapt to put on a great show.

The Vectren Dayton Air Show is Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23 at Dayton International Airport, 3800 Wright Dr. in Vandalia. Gates open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. General Admission tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children and seniors. Children five and under free. For more information, visit daytonairshow.com.

 

Mark Luedtke is an electrical engineer with a degree from the University of Cincinnati and currently works for a Dayton attorney. He can be reached at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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