How Can An Airshow Be Boring?

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We were all so excited! It had been 13 years since Tulsa had an airshow of its own and not only were we not having to drive to Oklahoma City or Fort Smith, but the show itself was shaping up to be a good one.

Kyle Franklin and Matt Younkin were going to be on hand with their extensive repertoire of aerial goodness. Tulsa's vibrant warbird community would insure that we'd have our fix of vintage iron. National Champion Paul Jennings would bring his aerobatic glider act and the Air Force was going to send a B-52 and a B-2 over for a flyby.

Add to this a number of other acts and your typical airshow dance card was pretty well filled. But the Tulsa show promised something more, something new--the debut of the Rocket Racing League with their rocket-powered Velocities racing on a virtual aerial raceway. Oh yeah, this was going to be good! So how did it turn out? To quote my co-worker's 10-year-old son, "Dad, can we go home? I've got some homework to do." If your airshow makes pre-teen boys want to do homework on a Saturday, you know you're doing something wrong. For all of its potential, the Tulsa show failed on execution.

Just getting to the show was a hassle, with all of the show traffic funneled down one road to a single entrance causing a traffic jam so bad that many people chose to park alongside the road and walk in--some over two miles. Others decided that it wasn't worth the trouble and just went home. Once on the show grounds, a good static display complete with a Jumbotron for watching the racing action, could only absorb so much attention as watching an airshow became waiting to watch an airshow, with long stretches of dead time between acts.

To make matters worse, what was meant to be the highlight of the show, the rocket racing, fell far short of people's expectations. More exhibition than race, the RRL's demonstration flights were brief. The second flight was made even shorter by a problem with one of the racer's ignition system, the stricken racer's pilot making an impressive deadstick landing. It was seemingly aimless. Sure, it was cool to watch the racers fly about, lighting their rockets, which were pleasantly loud and shot satisfying tongues of flame, but more time was spent watching a Cessna 402 demonstrate the virtual racetrack. (And there's a reason that Cessna 402s aren't a staple of the airshow circuit.) The rocketplanes were neat, but they didn't deliver. Most people I talked to were more impressed with the B-52's low level flybys.

Watching a show like Tulsa's reminds us that for all of the emphasis on the pilots and airplanes, it's the behind the scenes planning that can make or break the airshow experience for the audience. Good airshow planning indicates its quality by being invisible. In a really good show, you never even think about all of the hard work that goes into presenting an unbroken stream of aerial performances, much less the vital things like making sure you can actually get to the show, or that there are enough restrooms.

Indeed, the Tulsa show, born of a desire to provide a venue for the RRL to demonstrate its aircraft, was put together in six months instead of the 12 to 18 months normally invested. It showed.

Despite falling somewhat short, I'm still glad to have a hometown airshow again. To make amends for the traffic problems, the Tulsa Air & Space museum offered free admission for anyone with unused tickets, with those taking advantage of the offer being entered into a drawing for free airfare. The problems with traffic are being addressed and with the lessons of this year under their belt (and twice the time to plan), I'm confident that next year's show will be great!

Or at least good enough to ensure that the homework can wait!

Comments (15)

I think there is something to be learned from the Redbull series - they've done a great job making the show interesting, dynamic, fast paced, and fun to watch. I saw the RRL demo at OSH 2 years ago, and other than the fact they sound like an F4, I wasn't too impressed. Much like auto racing, seems like IRL has been playing catchup for years to NASCAR even though the IRL cars are much faster and great examples of cutting edge technology - they're just not as much fun to watch.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | June 11, 2010 1:18 PM    Report this comment

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Wustrak, except perhaps for the optimism about next year's show. I'm sure KTUL will ever be a good venue for a mojor show. We flew in for the show from Missouri (45 min en route) and parked at Atlantic Aviation where ground control said all airshow visitors had to park. We had been told previously there would be shuttle service to the viewing area near Sparks, which is about 500 yards north across the closed east-west runway. Atlantic seemed to know nothing of any shuttle service and did not appear to be expecting any visitors, but after a small number of aircraft showed up they took it upon themselves to arrange for a van. We expected a 2 minute ride across the field, but instead the van driver had to negotiate the public streets driving completely around the airport, and queue up with all the rest of the arrivals funneled into a narrow 2 lane road. It took us over 2 hours to get from Atlantic to the airshow entrance. We called for the van after an hour knowing the exit queue would be just as bad if we waited. The ramp by Sparks and the Museum is too small for a major airshow, the parking/entry/exit facilities are completely inadequate, and the inability to shuttle fly-in attendees across airport property will discourage me from ever going to another airshow there.

Posted by: John Johnson | June 14, 2010 8:11 AM    Report this comment

Correcting a typo above: I'm NOT sure KTUL will ever be a good venue..."

Posted by: John Johnson | June 14, 2010 8:13 AM    Report this comment

KTUL is a challenging place to have an airshow, referencing the aerobatic box. There are lots of built-up areas on the west side of the field that would have to be vacated for anything other than "smaller" acts. At first glance and from past experience flying off the airport it will be difficult to have a jet team perform due to these limitations. If you want to see a no gap airshow come to Ada (KADH) on June 26th and you will see a 4 hour show with 14 performers and no gaps. Air Boss for Ada Air Expo.

Posted by: Bruce Huddleston | June 14, 2010 10:06 AM    Report this comment

You should forward a copy of this article to Sun 'n Fun. Their event has become dull and attendees are getting this. The air show can put you to sleep. Time for them to wake up. H.L.Goldstock

Posted by: Howard Goldstock | June 14, 2010 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Tulsa International IS a difficult place to stage a major airshow. The layout of the runways and taxiways, the available ramp space, and the placement of the aerobatic box may well keep Tulsa from ever being a show on the scale we're used to seeing in OKC. Still, there's no reason Tulsa can't be a great LITTLE show. Most of what went wrong can be addressed, and must be addressed if the show is to become an annual tradition. The two things that must be fixed are the traffic problems and the pacing of the show. Remote parking and shuttles could increase the number of routes into the show reducing the traffic problems. As for the pacing of the show, I have no experience running a show, so I don't know how to address that issue (wanna step in here, Bruce?) It seemed to me that the performers suffered an unusual number of mechanical problems, which doesn't help matters. But, 30 years of attending airshows suggests to me that mechanical problems don't have to be the kiss of death to the show schedule.

For the fly-in attendees, you'd think that a van route down a closed taxiway could be arranged.

And -in the interest of full disclosure- I watched the show from the relative comfort of our hangar (my co-worker was on the show grounds). A place for the kids to play (thank God for that), cooking out on the grill, and real bathrooms. Like my wife said: This is the best setup we've ever had for watching an airshow, it's too bad the show was boring.

Posted by: Jeff Wustrack | June 14, 2010 7:58 PM    Report this comment

Pacing is easy.. it just takes planning and a commitment to execute from the performers down to the ramp rats. It starts with the pilot briefing. Sned my your email and I'll send you our sequence so you could see what it takes to have "no gaps". Mechanicals can cause disruptions but you should have in the back of your mind what to do and know how to proceed. Coordination between the air boss and the ground boss is key to overcoming these issues. You fly the sequence not the time. If a sequence is broken you fly the next one as soon as you can. Without a jet team you are not constrained to be finished with all the other acts at a certain time and you have the luxury of extending if necessary. I can't at first take draw a box for a jet team without having to evacuate a large piece of the airport including places that probably can't be evecuated. I can only see a skinny, 1000FT wide CAT III box available without having to evacuate buildings. That is the smallest box (500FT crowdline) and it means a Pitts up to a T-6 act. A good show can be put on with these type acts (come see ours). The Franklins do a terrific act in this size box. So does Matt. I offered my help with the show but was turned down. They already had an air boss and a mini boss. I plan on contacting the organizers again. I also have it first hand that there was not a plan to announce the air show portion. I'm sure I could help (just ask Randy Harris from Tulsa) so maybe it could turn into that "great LITTLE show".

Posted by: Bruce Huddleston | June 14, 2010 9:25 PM    Report this comment

We tried to go to the Tucson, AZ show at Davis AF base this Spring. Its a big big deal and we had it planned for quite awhile. We got there during the hours posted, and they would not let us in as they said it was too crowded. What? It was very poor and an amateurish execution.

Posted by: Jon Fulton | June 16, 2010 9:17 AM    Report this comment

I have been hearing more and more the complaints that Jack Wustrack eluded to in this article. And YES, it's all about the planning and execution. As a former F-16 West Coast Demo member flying back in the 1980's I remember what it took to make a great show versus just a good show. A well written show script, informed ground personnel with COMM Radio in hand who stood next to your aircraft making sure you were in the cockpit, ready to go, engine turning at the exact right time, etc. It took a dedicated team of professional minded individuals who not only cared, but had watching over them a superior leader who made sure it all went off like clock work. I'm not just talking about the military element here. I flew in low budget airshows where my F-16 was the star of the show as well as high end airshows parked next to the T-Birds or B-Angels. The difference was ALWAYS planning and execution. Things go wrong. Engines don't start. Equipment failures happen. Miscommunication and poor planning for these events are un excusable and get the poor reviews like the one we read here. We can do better than this. We must do better than this if we hope to continue to lure a newer, faster paced, attention hungry youth into this world we call aviation. Besides, it's a whole lot more fun to watch by all of us!

Posted by: Kim Barnes | June 16, 2010 11:54 AM    Report this comment

From what Jon said about the show at Davis AFB, I am glad we cancelled going there recently at the last minute. This happened to my family last year at Luke AFB with the T-birds as headliners - there was a line on the street to get in to the base about one mile long. After walking the same distance to get there, then waiting in line for an hour and and 45 minutes, we finally got in at lunchtime. There is a real disconnect nowadays it seems at these airshows, and I am sure planning and execution are major players. But there is something else that I can't put my finger on that is different too. Unnecessarily long lines for a 5 dollar lemonade is not going to attract families, if that is who we want to attract. Many folks I know, pilots and non alike are seeing the same thing as I am, someone mentioned SnF to include here too, and are just not interested in constantly fighting the crowds, security, prices and seemingly disinterested patrons texting and talking on phones constantly at these 'shows' anymore. I've had more joy and fulfillment meeting people at airports when flying pet rescues than I have recently at airshows. Maybe that's part of it - we are so demanding nowadays of our entertainment value being personal to us that participating in a text message is more interesting than the guy pulling 7g's above our heads working his magic for us. Or maybe it's just that in these shows, size does matter.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 16, 2010 3:55 PM    Report this comment

It is likely of some social value to have a place where so many can come together on "Monday Morning" to opine obvious shortcomings. This was a small show with a big crowd. I have to confess my prime motivator was sharing aviation with my grand kids’ generation. We dove in from Owasso Gundy airport (O38) about 10 to 12 driving miles departing a half hour before “show start time.” It took about 20 min. to arrive at the Air and Space Museum entrance to parking, from there required another 30 minutes before walking in the gate. We were pleased to be among aviation enthusiast and thrilled to see the exhibition of rocket racing technology. Others have well outlined challenges this location has for big show events. For my purposes, it was a success. I sincerely hope to see many more venues with the distinct drive to connect new generations with both the past and their own era of aviation. (yes with improvements in ground access etc.) “Connecting the crowd,” in this new era likely, means introducing various forms of interactivity for those in attendance. Technology demonstrated in the rocket racing may provide this. Other forms may be through simulcast web based video of from the cockpit and/or “God’s eye views from other aircraft. Planning is certainly key, as Dave Miller points out the “Magic” just doesn’t connect the same as it did when we were young. Therefore, what is planed is very important in addition to fixing the nuisances we all observed.

Posted by: C. David Buchanan | June 16, 2010 5:45 PM    Report this comment

“I’m not the kind of man who tends to socialize” but when it comes to aviation and passing it on to those that follow our generation; the romance of it all fires a passion stronger than waiting in line for an hour can quench. “I’m still Crazy After all these Years”

Posted by: C. David Buchanan | June 16, 2010 5:46 PM    Report this comment

I must speak in defense of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum regarding the airshow and the difficulties that arose and were exposed. They had never done an event like this before and there were many constraints and hurdles that had to be jumped,including the FAA, TSA, the Tulsa Airport Authority and even the Tulsa Zoo (the main entrance was inside the aerobatic box and had to be closed during the event). The one thing that could not be anticipated was the overwhelming response from Tulsa to an airshow at Tulsa International Airport. The geographic limitations forced the traffic issue- there is only one road into that side of the field. The gates were opened around 9 AM but, of course, everyone wants to show up 15 minutes before the action and just walk in. Doesn't happen that way, not even at Oshkosh. So lessons were learned and the Museum publicly apologized to those stuck in traffic who could not get in. The main point that was showcased is that Tulsa is an aviation community with a rich history and heritage in growing and supporting this country's aerospace industry and achievements. It is this legacy that we hope NASA will notice when they decide where the retired Space Shuttles should be delivered. Quit bashing the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and begin supporting them in their efforts to insure that Tulsa's aeronautical involvement which began in 1897 with a "smoke balloon" flight on July 4th is preserved and promoted now and in the future.

Posted by: Bob Ferguson | June 17, 2010 9:48 AM    Report this comment

I live several states away and did not get to attend (although I do have relatives in Muskogee I visited earlier this week). But I bet the following applies -- modifying the fishing axiom, "a bad day at an airshow beats a good day at work", unless your office is at the helm of a Pitts, etc. Sounds like the quality and execution were subpar, but it also sounds like that'll change for next year.

Posted by: David Homan | June 18, 2010 8:44 AM    Report this comment

I am buoyed up by the optimism that many people exhibit when they make comments about "Next year's show". It shows that There is a great spirit in the aviation community and it is alive and well in Tulsa. I doubt that the airport would tolerate an annual event of this magnitude but I know the Tulsa Air & Space Museum is planning more events, such as Spartan's Defender Days in September and Kitefest for kids in October as well as other featured exhibits that are part of the Reynolds Foundation Grants for the Oklahoma Museum Network and more that are yet to be announced. Keep checking www.tulsaairandspacemuseum.com to stay in tune. Please remember that the museum is not supported by any tax dollars and your support will be welcome!

Posted by: Bob Ferguson | June 18, 2010 11:18 AM    Report this comment

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