How Can An Airshow Be Boring?
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!