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Engaging times

The RAF is changing the way it interacts with the airshow industry - Gary Parsons talked to Sqn Ldr Andy Pawsey from the newly-created Events Team to see how this will change our airshow experience

Air-Scene UK: "Let's start with an overview - why was the RAF events team created?"

AP: "It all stemmed from the RAF's 'Engagement Strategy' - a few years ago a high-level look at how the Air Force interacts with the public at all levels began. It is very wide-ranging, everything from a remembrance parade to Air Force dinners, not just airshows. It asked 'are we doing this the right way for the modern world - do we need to do more, do we need to do less' - it is a large document! One of the outputs was to co-ordinate display assets - previously display assets were not always deployed in the most effective manner. The Engagement Strategy has brought together all those posts responsible for delivering displays to the public and formed the 'Events Team' here at Cranwell. There are no new jobs; it's a coming-together of those people with the expertise. My post came out of Defence Public Relations in London, and it's the only one that has changed - the others have all kept their identities, the presentation teams, the recruiters, the old participation committee.

We are the 'Tasking Agency' for display teams and also static aircraft, although the latter is a little less formalised at the moment. We've moved a long way in a short amount of time.

We're headed by a Wing Commander, whose other hat is OC Ceremonial - I'm Creative Director, then there's the rest of the old participation committee as the core of the group."

A-S UK: "Was it a MoD driven initiative, or an RAF one?"

AP: "Just an Air Force one - very much 'light blue'. I have my own goals for the future in making it a tri-service initiative, but it's early days yet. I'm working hard behind the scenes to get both Army and Navy assets involved next year."

A-S UK: "You came from DPR in London - was this something you wanted to do or was it a case of being 'volunteered' for the job?"

AP: "Both! I've been linked to the airshow world for years - it started as a hobby. I've always had a performing background, working in holiday camps, that sort of thing, and having listened to a few commentators at airshows thought I could do as good a job, so it was a case of 'put up or shut up'. It seemed to work quite well, so I've done that as a hobby as work allows. I've been banging on for years that we (the RAF and airshow organisers) need to shake things up in the airshow world - we still do a lot of things that are the envy of the rest of the world - but that isn't good enough. If you're not refreshing, you're not improving. I made those views well known at symposia and other events and didn't know that the Engagement Strategy was underway at the time. I was due a posting in Spring last year and at the pre-season symposium at Wattisham I was brought in as a 'wake-up act' for the morning's presentations; I did a piece on airshow set-pieces and one of the Wing Commanders in the audience was a driving force in the Engagement Strategy. He collared me after the presentation and said 'We have to talk - would you like a job?'! I thought 'this doesn't happen - square peg, square hole' but here I am! It was one of those lucky occasions."

A-S UK: "How long had the Engagement Strategy been in development? 2005 seems to have been the last year of the traditional RAF support to airshows."

AP: "It's been at least two years - it was officially published in the Autumn of 2006."

AS-UK: "A lot of what's happening is good and positive, but a lot of enthusiasts are concerned on the number of solo displays disappearing - how much of it is finance-driven?"

AP: "The financial side is a huge aspect, as we have to get value for money out of what we do - we can't use assets ineffectively. We're heavily deployed in operations, which must come first of course. We have lost a lot of the solo displays - Jaguar was bound to happen, Nimrod too, which is a real shame because we lack 'big metal' in the sky. That would have happened this year regardless of the Engagement Strategy - that's being driven from the centre. It's seen as too expensive."

A-S UK: "What control have you got? Can you say 'We need this to happen' and it'll do so?"

AP: "The Events Team is tasked by a group called the Engagement Steering Group, which is Group Captain level, that sets the high-level strategy for us. They'll say 'We need to do more here or there' - we make that happen. The assets that we are given to do that with come from the Groups within Air Command or wherever - the big difference this year is the move away from displaying to demonstrating what we actually do do - not what we can do. But, the loss of the Harrier this year was not an Events Team decision - that came from high level. 1 Group has been forced to withdraw the Harrier display - we've all worked hard to make it happen, but it's just not possible for this year. It's the same with the Merlin - it was a difficult decision for OC 28 Squadron, but clearly the work-up of the new airframes is the most important thing at Benson."

It's a sad loss - I also think the C-130 is a big loss as I'm a fan of these big multi-engined machines. But as I said before, it would have happened anyway without the Engagement Strategy. Personally, I'm disappointed about the loss of the solo Tornado GR4, because Elle Hilliard would have been the first female RAF display pilot - that would have been great! At least you get to see the Tornado in the role demos, plus the F3, something that was largely missing last year. If I had a 'joker' to play though, it'd be the Harrier.

My aim is to make people feel good about the Air Force - if you feel good about something, you may be predisposed to join it, or at least encourage family members to join. Take Dawlish for example - the crowd there tends to be people that know little about the Air Force, they're not from 'RAF Lincolnshire', but when the Harrier was there two years ago people watched open-mouthed - many had never seen it before! They clapped and applauded every manoeuvre - I've only ever heard that in Malta and Dawlish!"

AS-UK: "The role demos are a welcome move, but they'll only support a certain number of shows - the 'second tier' shows, such as Jersey, are really going to struggle this year. How can the RAF help shows like this that raise a lot of money for RAFA and other charities?"

AP: "We can't get a quart out of a pint pot, unfortunately. We are given a finite amount of assets - with the scenarios, we looked at a smaller version, but concentration of force is important. One of the principles the Engagement Steering Group has imposed on us is that we concentrate on the role demo scenario at the selected venues. The Air Force Board Standing Committee decided the priority status of the airshows - we were consulted and allowed to comment but eventually given the Priority Ones. The Priority Twos simply fell out of that process, by being shows that we considered we must support in some way because of what they offer in terms of engagement. In terms of the number of displays Typhoon can do, AOC of 1 Group has allowed twenty-two displays - not events, but actual display slots. With two displays at venues such as RIAT, Waddington, Eastbourne, etc. this limits the number of shows we can support.

We do need to be smarter in how we allocate display resources - the impact of the solo Hawk at RIAT is diminished when you can see nine red ones. It would have a much greater value at a small event where it would be the star of the show - the same could be said of the Tutor and Tucano.

Having said that, organisers need to adapt - there's a few that will have to change their ways to survive."

AS-UK: "You've mentioned on Internet forums that this is very much a building year - are you hoping that next year will give you more scope?"

AP: "Absolutely - but it's not easy. What Leuchars did last year was fantastic - but it was mostly all their own stuff, the Station Commander could sign it off, they could include it as part of their squadron training. What I'm trying to do is not just multi-aircraft, but multi-Group, multi-Command in a difficult operational and financial environment. In the past we've provided eleven solo displays - you could have a flying BBMF Spitfire for £400 - we'd love to be back in that world again. But it's gone.

Next year will be busy - it's the ninetieth anniversary of the Royal Air Force, and in 2009 we'll be celebrating one hundred years of airshows - we're already planning for that!"

AS-UK: "Allocation of static aircraft must be complicated with operational and serviceability considerations?"

AP: "It is - where I'd like to get to is to completely revise the static idea. There's nothing positive about the word 'static' - it has no good meaning. It's another display, it just happens not to fly and that's how it should be considered. We're trying to move away from the days of just having lines of aircraft to fill up a bit of space - it's a huge waste. I'm much keener on the photocall approach, completely catering for the photographer and not for the person on a day out. I'd like to separate this into a different type of event, because I don't think the photocall and airshow are entirely comfortable bedfellows. I'd like to reconfigure ground displays including static aircraft - we've got some ideas this year that we'll be trying but really we're concentrating our efforts on the flying side for now.

The display value of an asset starts the moment it arrives at a venue - if you can get those live aircraft close to a crowd, you get great engagement from the crew, the start-up, the shut-down, and so on. You can't always do it due to the layout of a show, but the great thing is that Biggin Hill is changing its ground plan to make this happen and Kemble also works with a layout that supports this approach. This is great engagement - we can't keep missing out on these things.

I still go to a couple of shows a year - I pay the money and eat the burgers. If you have to queue for the toilets, it reminds you what it means to the public."

AS-UK: "How much have you been involved in the Spirit of Adventure proposal?"

AP: "It's very much a joint venture between commercial partners and Defence PR - it's certainly novel. From the Event's Team side, we have been instrumental in providing the air and many of the ground displays. The creative side is in the hands of one of our partners and I am involved in helping bring that side alive on the day."

AS-UK: "What about Jaguar this year? Can we expect a bit of a send-off somewhere?"

AP: "I've been working with OC 6 Squadron and it's looking positive, though there's more work to be done. (The disbandment announcement was made shortly after this interview.) The will is very strong, but time is moving on. I've probably gone outside of my remit to make it happen, as it isn't 'core business', but it would be a shame to let it slip away. I pushed for it to be part of the role demo, but they couldn't commit to the season because of the impending out-of-service date. Both myself and 6 Squadron are desperate to make something happen at Waddington - a formalised proposal has gone 'upstairs' - but we've yet to get the green light."

AS-UK: "Finally, going back to the photocall idea, is this something you'd like to set up in the future, maybe off-season?"

AP: "Personally, I'd love to. Engagement isn't just airshows, it's with enthusiasts, and I'd like to see more facilities for photographers, perhaps before or after an airshow. All the negative issues for photographers then go away. At the moment we're not event managers, but who knows what the future may hold."

What's clear is that the future of RAF involvement in airshows is changing, but in Andy's hands it couldn't be in a better place. Enthusiastic, aware of the issues and keen to get out to a wide an audience as possible, it would seem that the right chap for the right job has actually happened for once!

Priority One airshows: Duxford (BBMF 50th), Spirit of Adventure (Abingdon), Biggin Hill, Cosford, Kemble, Waddington, RIAT and Spirit of Adventure (Kinross).

 

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