Sqn Ldr Paul Byram is the airshow organiser for the RAF's premier display at RAF Waddington in June. Here he takes a look at just what is involved - it's a bit more than just a few aeroplanes pitching up for the weekend!
There is no training course I am aware of that can provide the background and corporate knowledge required to organise a large military air show. Instead, the skills and experience you need to run such an event have, for the large part, to be gleaned on the hoof! For me, the learning curve began on a dull winter's day in 1989 at RAF Finningley when the station commander invited me to take on the task of organising the Finningley At Home Day, 'for one year only'. Thirteen years on, with twelve shows behind me, I am still in the air show business, but I am now the professional organiser of the RAF Waddington Air Day. What I have learned during those thirteen years is that the two things you need above all else are a sense of humour and patience ~ if you do not have an abundance of these two attributes, do not get involved in the event organising business!
In the 1950s and 1960s nearly every major RAF base opened its gates to the public; however, the escalating cost of funding these events, particularly over the last ten years, has reduced the number to just three - RAF Leuchars, RAF Cosford and RAF Waddington. The RAF Waddington event, in particular, has grown to become the premier RAF military air show and is now one of the largest events of its type in the UK. The Show, which takes place at the end of June, attracts about 125,000 visitors over the two public days. Two full-time and two part-time staff carry out most of the preparatory work and around eighty co-opted project officers assist with specific Show tasks. The MOD guidelines for staging the event dictate that no additional costs should fall to the Defence Budget; therefore, the Show is run as a business in its own right, with staff salaries and all expenses paid from the Show's proceeds. The aims of the event are to raise the profile of the RAF, to stimulate recruiting and to raise money for charity. The Show's annual turnover is now approaching £1 million and the proceeds, some £200,000 each year, are donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF Association and a number of local charities. Since the first Show in 1995, the event has raised over £1.5 million for these worthy causes. Very few businesses give away their hard-earned profit every year and then start the whole process again from scratch, but that, in effect, is what happens!
The heart of any air show is obviously the flying display but, surprisingly, it only accounts for around ten percent of the staging costs! The RAF Strike Command Secretariat tasks RAF aircraft to support the event, but foreign aircraft participation is by invitation to London-based air attaches and direct to foreign air force squadrons, world-wide. To encourage attendance, the Air Show office pays for meals and accommodation for all aircrew and support personnel, and fuel for any non-NATO aircraft. Special arrangements also have to be made to insure some non-NATO military aircraft, premiums for which can be as much as £3,000 per aircraft, per display. Responses to invitations vary greatly from year to year; nevertheless, over 200 aircraft, from twenty-four countries supported the 2002 Show. The Show was held over the same weekend as the World Cup Final and the visiting German F-4F crew were so confident that Germany would beat Brazil in the Final that they painted 'Soccer World Champions 2002' on the aircraft tail fin before the match. By 1430 on Sunday it had been hastily erased, using a can of light grey paint! Of particular note at the 2000 Show, Waddington became the first UK RAF airfield to host the USAF aerobatic team, the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels typically complete a European Tour once every ten years, so it was quite a feather in Waddington's cap to have them perform. However, their support requirements can be very demanding - the support manual for the Thunderbirds team comprises over one hundred pages and the Team's transport requirements total thirty vehicles, all of which we are expected to supply!
UK First Appearances
Over the year's, the Waddington Air Show has gained a reputation for attracting aircraft that have not been seen before in the UK. The first appearance of the Lockheed F- 117A Night Hawk stealth fighters of 49th Tactical Fighter Wing, from Holloman AFB, New Mexico, generated huge interest and the appearance of two Republic of Singapore Douglas A-4 Skyhawks drew many enthusiasts to the 2000 Show. Although they did not take part in the flying display, the Skyhawks, which were immaculately turned out, took a short break away from their year-long detachment at Cazaux, France, to appear at Waddington.
The highlight of the 2001 flying display was the appearance of the Israeli Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-15 Ra'am (Thunder) aircraft - the latest multi-role fighter to join the Israeli Air Force. Designated the F-15I, the aircraft is the same as the USAF F-15E, with only a few minor differences. Over a hundred personnel supported the detachment, which also included a static Hercules C-130; the particular aircraft on display was one of those that took part in the famous Entebbe raid, in Uganda. The 2002 Show was the UK debut for the Swiss Air Force display team, flying the indigenous Pilatus PC-7 Trainer. The Swiss team was formed in 1998 as part of the Swiss Air Force's 75th anniversary celebrations- The pilots are drawn from front-line squadrons, but do not stay together all year round as a dedicated unit, as do most other air forces' display teams.
The unpredictability of the English weather makes organising a major air show a risk business. Inclement weather can play havoc with a well-planned flying display and in extreme cases can mean that twelve months hard work comes to virtually nothing! The British are more tolerant of the vagaries of the weather than most, but a rainy day can dramatically reduce attendance and gate receipts; for example, in 1997, when we experienced five days of torrential rainfall in the week of the Show, proceeds fell from an average of £200,000 to just £30,000! To minimise the impact of poor weather, admission tickets are sold in advance at a discount. In 2002, revenue from advance sales and other pre-show income, such as catering concessions and trade-site receipts, which account for £150,000 of total costs, are negotiated and awarded, normally by the end of November; toilet hire, at £42,000, is the most expensive hire contract. This is one area where you can never totally satisfy the public; however much you spend on toilets there will always be queues and some dissatisfied clients! Surprisingly, the amount of what is euphemistically called 'wet waste' removed from the site gives a very accurate estimate of attendance at the show! Four thousand crowd barriers are also hired to protect static aircraft and to mark the crowd-line. Hotel accommodation for the anticipated 600 or more visiting aircrew and support personnel has to be booked. Brochures are prepared and mailed to some 5,000 bus companies, organisations and clubs, and hospitality leaflets are mailed to prospective clients. Some 300 or so invitations are sent to individual traders who have previously attended the show - most of whom will want to come back each year.
Emergency Planning is an essential part of any major air show and regular meetings are held throughout the year with the 'blue light' services to formulate plans to respond to any major security incidents, including, of course, an aircraft crash. Many of the current rules and regulations concerning display aircraft are based on regulations that were framed in 1988, following the tragedy at Ramstein, in Germany. Safety at an air show must always be paramount and it is perhaps reassuring to reflect that no member of the public has been killed or injured at a UK air show since 1952. In that period of fifty display seasons, there has been an average of over 500 display events each year in the UK- Security has taken on a greater significance in the light of recent terrorist events and nobody, no matter who they are, is immune from security checks. One of my predecessors, a senior RAF officer and the At Home Day organiser, found this out to his acute embarrassment. A security alert was in force on the base and he was so anxious to get to his office during the week of the show that, rather than wait patiently in the queue of cars at the main entrance, he decided to park his car and climb over a nearby security gate. He was promptly arrested by a RAF Policeman and spent the morning in the Guardroom!
By late winter, things are already beginning to move at a pace. Replies to the letters of invitation sent the previous August start to come in and admission tickets and passes for the Show have to be printed. Regular meetings are held with the various Station project officers to discuss all aspects of the Show, insurance requirements have to be identified, and rates negotiated. Insurance has become a major issue since the 11 September attacks in the USA, with some premiums increasing fourfold; insurance charges for the 2002 Show totalled £46,000 compared to around £20,000 the previous year. By April, with just three months to go, the Air Show office resembles a busy operations room. During May and June, around SGO phone calls a week are made by office staff and twice as many incoming calls are answered; office mail is delivered daily in sacks and can take over two hours just to be opened! From two weeks before the event, marquees start to spring up all over the airfield and around 2,000 vehicles arrive to deliver support services for the show, or to set up trade stands and exhibits. Aircraft begin to arrive from the Monday of the final week and a Press Day, attended by national television networks and some 150 members of the press, is held on the Thursday. The three-hour flying programme arranged for the press provides an opportunity for foreign national display teams to practice their displays and gives the show organisers an opportunity to validate and approve the display of any non-NATO aircraft before they appear in front of the public. On the Friday, aircraft arrive every three or four minutes throughout the day - this period is by far the most demanding phase for air traffic control, which, by the end of the day, will have handled over 200 aircraft arrivals, all carefully dovetailed in between scheduled practice displays. By late afternoon on Friday, most of the trade stands, military exhibitions and mobile catering units will be in position, with the remaining balance of around 75 traders arriving between 0600 and 0730 on the Saturday morning.
The seven-hour flying display forms the centre-piece of the Air Show, but Waddington is very much a family event and the entertainment includes craft fairs, a funfair, bands, vintage car and military vehicle displays and a large trade fair. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the world-famous magical car featured in the film of the same name, has appeared for the past five years and has always proved a great attraction for young and old alike.
Show Day Arrives
The gates at Waddington open officially at 0830, but the car parks and pay points are manned from 0630 to cater for the enthusiasts who often camp out overnight to be sure of a prime viewing location. By mid-morning, the spectator arrival phase is in full swing and traffic builds up rapidly on the surrounding feeder roads, reaching a peak at around 1130. Random searches of vehicles at Show entry points are now an essential feature of all military air shows, and occasionally these searches produce some surprise items; at the 2001 Show one check revealed a wife and child hidden in the boot, presumably to save the £15 admission charge! Perhaps that's how they always travelled!
By the end of the Saturday, around 20,000 vehicles will be parked on the unit and in off-base fields surrounding the airfield. Statistically, 350 vehicles make a one-mile traffic queue: therefore, the 20,000 parked vehicles would equate to a 57-mile traffic jam if they were put end-to-end on the road!
At the end of the Show, the problem for the organisers trying to get vehicles off the base in an orderly fashion, and for the police controlling traffic once it reaches the public roads, is that most visitors elect to leave at around the same time. Traffic congestion and hold-ups are an almost inevitable consequence. People not being able to locate their own car amongst the thousands in the Air Show car park is another recurring problem. The gates officially close at 1830, but it is normally around 2100 before the airfield is completely cleared of vehicles and the litter removed. However, to end up in the public car park of an international air show, when all you wanted to do was to go shopping in Tesco, is more unusual. This happened to one old lady at the 2002 Show. When the security staff finally managed to get her on her way to Tesco, she did admit that she thought the traffic seemed a little busier than usual that morning!
At 0630 on Sunday, the whole process starts all over again!
Increasing demands on the Service and a shrinking workforce has led to major changes in the way the large military air shows are now organised. Today, the air shows staged annually at Leuchars, Cosford and Waddington all employ professional organisers and a civilian workforce. Each event is a medium size business in its own right. The cost of staging these events has escalated so much over the past ten years that the future of some air shows is increasingly uncertain: the Biggin Hill International Air Fair, which is unlikely to be staged again unless a major sponsor can be found, is a prime example. The three RAF events attract large crowds and are an excellent public relations vehicle, both for the RAF and for those countries that take part, and because the events are self-financing they are a very cost-effective way of promoting the RAF. A subsidiary, but important 'benefit', is that significant sums of money are raised for charities. Long may military air shows continue!
Reproduced from an article in the RAF 2003 Corporate Communications yearbook with the kind permission of Paul Byram.