WORDS BY ADAM LANDAU
The 2020 airshow season has perhaps been the single most challenging in the industry’s history. With the majority of airshows cancelled due to sweeping restrictions on outdoor gatherings, it seemed for a time that virtually no airshows would be able to take place at all this year – and yet, starting in around July, the global airshow scene began, slowly, to creak into life.
Staging an airshow in 2020 required audacity, flexibility and imagination. New formats, unthinkable just a year ago, have now been tried and tested globally, often with great success. The fact that airshows have been proven to be workable during a pandemic is good news for the 2021 display season, as even though life may have returned to normality by next summer, this would be a foolhardy assumption for any airshow organiser to make at this stage. Any airshow that does insist on a normal, pre-pandemic format next summer will be dogged by scepticism and uncertainty, and ultimately faces a far higher risk of cancellation than a Covid-secure event.
If the past few months have proved anything, it is that coronavirus itself did not kill off many of the airshows which unfortunately cancelled over the last few year. Some airshows fell as a direct result of rightfully cautious health regulations in the first few months of the pandemic, but from mid-summer onwards, the decisive factor in deciding a show’s fate was time. It has now been proved on dozens of occasions that socially-distant airshows can work, but by the time this became clear, many organisers had to choose between completely re-inventing their entire event in a matter of days or simply taking a year out – and most, quite reasonably, opted for the latter. Ahead of the 2021 airshow season, event organisers in the northern hemisphere now have the gift of time to draw up plans for socially-distant events next year as the six-month “off-season” begins. Many airshows which did not go ahead in 2020 have already committed to doing exactly this.
Airshows in Europe and North America which did go ahead this year have broadly fallen into two categories: drive-in shows, and relatively conventional events, albeit with strictly capped crowd sizes. The drive-in airshow format made its debut in July at the UK’s Shuttleworth Collection, which staged five drive-in flying displays throughout the year. The following month, Airshow London in Canada went ahead with the same format, shortly followed by a smattering of shows in the USA – Wings Over North Georgia, Wings Over Houston and the Fort Worth Alliance Airshow among them.
I attended one of Shuttleworth’s drive-in affairs this year, while my colleague Nathan Thompson reviewed two such shows in the USA, and each event attracted very positive feedback. Although missing the distractions of trade stands, static displays and ground exhibitions, it is a stress-free and low-effort way to watch a flying display, which many visitors said they preferred to the more traditional event format, and all the lengthy walks, meandering queues and crowdline jostling it entails.
It is likely that, in North America, we will see many more events planning drive-in airshows for next year. Generally speaking, US airshows are exceptionally well-suited to this format: most are held at sprawling airports or military bases with abundant hard-standing and good vehicle access. In Europe, this is not the case: huge numbers of airshows are held at tiny grass airstrips or cluttered airfields with limited hard-standing, the owners of which would probably not be thrilled to see thousands of cars churning up their precious turf. Others nestle in the grounds of country estates or on rough, relatively unkept military bases which would make for uncomfortable driving in anything other than a four-by-four off-roader. Off-site parking, in any normal year, may not be a problem, but for most European airshows, arranging sufficient parking with a reasonable view of the flying displays would require a total redesign of the venue at best, and be downright impossible at worst.
While drive-in airshow formats may be out of the question for some events, a number of organisers in Europe successfully staged much more traditional walk-in airshows with conventional car parks outside of the main showground. Once inside, spectators had near-2019 levels of freedom while exploring the site, with masks required where appropriate and visitors kindly asked to stay separated from each other by two metres – a small price to pay for the chance to enjoy an airshow in relatively normal conditions.
I personally attended three such events: a couple of Showcase Days at IWM Duxford, and Antidotum Airshow Leszno in Poland, and from a purely selfish perspective, I enjoyed the visitor experience much more than at a normal airshow. With capacity capped (just 2,000 at Duxford, down from a usual airshow capacity from around 25,000 visitors per day, and 4,000 at Leszno, down from around 20,000), the events were certainly more relaxed and less crowded than usual. While good news for me, this is far from ideal for the organisers, however, who were left seriously short of ticket revenue. Both Duxford’s Showcase Days and the Leszno Airshow are reasonably small affairs, but such a large cut in capacity would not, in all probability, sustain a full-scale Duxford Airshow, for example.
European airshows are again at a particular disadvantage here. In the USA, it is normal for an airshow of any reasonable size to attract six-figure crowds on any given day. Even if capacity was cut by three quarters to accommodate social distancing, organisers can still expect huge attendance, and decent revenue to go with it. In Britain, meanwhile, it is rare for an airfield-based show to attract more than 20,000 visitors in a single day, and many would be pleased to welcome less than half of that. Also unlike in the USA, where many major shows are non-profit, military-run affairs, virtually all over-land British airshows are commercial events which cannot function without high ticket revenue. A significant reduction in attendance would leave many organisers with precisely half of diddley squat.
There is another inevitable problem with giving a crowd unfettered access to an airshow site, too. Putting 4,000 children, families and hard-nosed aviation photographers in a field and asking them politely to keep their distance will be of little effect when the flying display begins, and there was no stopping an ill-advised build-up of spectators along the crowdline both at Duxford and at Leszno. In the heady days of August 2020, when case numbers in much of Europe were low, this may have been deemed acceptable, but the virus is now surging across the western world and an airshow in this format is clearly not sensible if the pandemic is not under control. As proved by Duxford’s failed bid to host its Battle of Britain Airshow in September, these more conventional airshows are also particularly vulnerable to the wrath and suspicion of health regulators: betting on an event format for 2021 that cannot guarantee social distancing is a risk some organisers will not want to take.
Perhaps the most promising airshow format is one which has only once been properly attempted: an imaginative half-way house between drive-in and conventional flying displays. By marking out drive-in style boxes on the ground, and asking each group of spectators to remain in one of these boxes for the duration of the show, organisers can enforce social distancing much more effectively than at conventional walk-in events, without many of the challenges of a true drive-in airshow. With parking located outside the main showground, pitches can be smaller and closer together than at a drive-in show, increasing capacity within the showground and making the format better-suited to smaller airshow venues. The Battle of Britain Airshow at Headcorn is the only event so far to have trialed this on a significant scale, welcoming a total of 4,000 visitors per day – around half the show’s usual capacity.
Unlike drive-in airshows, this method of enforcing social distancing can also work in places that cars cannot go, such as the beach: in August, the organisers of the Ocean City Airshow in the USA introduced a similar scheme, known as “Beach Boxes”, in which parties of up to four could reserve a small, marked plot on the sand. Unlike at Headcorn, where all spectators had to stand within a plot, Beach Boxes were sold as an optional $350-per-day premium ticket option. The majority of visitors, who couldn’t justify spending such an exorbitant sum, were relegated to zones where social distancing could not be guaranteed. To help prevent the build-up of crowds outside of the Beach Boxes, most airshow infrastructure, such as the parachute drop zone and public address system, was removed. Pilots extend their performances over a ten-mile stretch of stretch of coastline (the usual aerobatic box is about two miles long), and spectators were asked to consider watching the show via an online livestream or from their home if possible.
Quite aside from being a less entertaining spectacle than usual, the event also required a last-minute grant from the city authorities, totaling $100,000 of public money, all for a show which people were actively encouraged not to attend. This is not, one suspects, a sustainable way forward, but if the number of Beach Boxes was increased and the price was significantly lowered – or better still, removed – “zoned” airshow viewing could be rolled out more broadly in the future. Marking out an entire beach in this fashion would be a huge undertaking, and the enormous size of any likely crowd would make social distancing impossible to enforce effectively across the whole site – but it would be much more effective than having no restrictions at all, and could be the best hope for staging exciting and reasonably safe seafront airshows in 2021.
Any major seafront airshows that do go ahead will be of particular significance next year, more than any other, as the economies of resort towns across the world have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. The return of airshows to towns such as Eastbourne, already suffering from a dramatic fall in domestic tourism over recent decades, will be particularly crucial: restrictions on international travel, combined with big-ticket tourism events, could could create the perfect conditions to revitalise a stricken industry, as local councils will be well aware.
Some countries, particularly in East Asia and Australasia, are in a very different position to those in Europe and North America, and will be able to organise such events with relative ease. In October, the Republic of Korea Air Force Black Eagles made their 2020 public airshow debut in the skies of Sacheon, flying for a small but densely-packed crowd with minimal social distancing. The Republic of Korea has seen fewer coronavirus deaths all year than the United States endures every twelve hours at the time of writing, and the country is reaping the rewards of a culture which wholeheartedly accepts the wearing of masks, coupled with a strict pre-emptive lockdown. As such, the country’s airshows, which tend to rely on a very small pool of domestic performers, will probably be able to proceed very much as normal in 2021. Here in the west, that particular horse had bolted long before the idea of lockdowns was being seriously entertained.
Despite localised successes in containing the virus, plus a plethora of ways to hold events in a socially-responsible manner, it is still inevitable that many of 2021’s shows will be lost regardless. Major international affairs and trade-oriented events are perhaps at the most risk: some, like the Royal International Air Tattoo or the Frecce Tricolori’s upcoming airshow in Rivolto, rely on contributions from over a dozen individual countries, and would be totally unrecognisable without it. Restrictions on international travel, as well as differing virus supression policies between individual air arms, could well make this kind of show impossible, or at least extremely complicated. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first and only 2021 European airshows to have cancelled at the time of writing are the Danish Airshow in Denmark and the Rygge Airshow in Norway – two major events which cannot be sustained by their domestic airshow industries alone.
Airshows in the USA have another distinct advantage here. Unlike in the rest of the world, where most major airshows can expect to recieve international participants, the North American airshow industry is almost entirely self-contained. A few acts may traverse the border to and from Canada border each year, but it is otherwise unusual for either country to host airshow performers from abroad. Coversely, very few events outside North America will be hurt particularly badly by the temporary loss of US or Canadian participation, especially when US military units based in countries like the UK, Germany and Japan may step in to fill the gap. This doesn’t guarantee total stability (ever-changing regulations and other organisational challenges could, quite reasonably, persuade some organisers to sit on their hands for another year), but it is one less complication for North American airshow organisers to deal with, compared to many of their overseas counterparts.
It is extremely unlikely that 2021 will be a normal airshow season: it is inevitable that a number of events will be cancelled, and overwhelmingly likely that international airshow participation will be lower than usual. Equally, though, it is almost certain to be a much busier year than 2020 has been. Against all the odds, the last few months have seen some incredible flying displays which will live long in the memory of all who witnessed them. If that can be achieved at short notice, amid the confusion of a relatively new and unknown pandemic and the ever-changing health and travel regulations that have accompanied it, taking another step towards normality in 2021 should be easy by comparison.