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It's Summer; it's Air Show Season!
There is a 97 year old man that I have the privilege of knowing through the struggling Air and Space Museum here in St. Louis. His telling of the varied career that has been his is a veritable cornucopia of historic events and people. Much of what he has revealed to me is profound, the greatest of which is his assertion that people of the digital age today, have sadly lost all interest in our industry because it is no longer exciting. He underscores this belief by comparing the present day lack of public engagement with aviation, to the pre-World-War-Two days where there wasn't a day that went by without the newspapers reporting on at least one act of 'derring-do' in the sky, whether it was Lindbergh, Doolittle, Hughes, or any other of the pioneering aviators that captured and enthralled the hearts and minds of the public.
Even though my senior friends view is somewhat depressing, I feel like he has managed to succinctly sum-up a large part of why our industry is now struggling to find its place in this new terror-mongered world. By raising the safety level of air transportation to its current level, we have effectively made the act of flight so common in nature that it has all-but become mundane. In fact the post 9-11 security regime that has been adopted by most aviation authorities around the world, has managed to turn public feeling entirely against our industry, and instead of people eagerly awaiting the day that they get to take their flight to see family, friends or business acquaintances; arriving at the airport in their Sunday best. The soon to be fliers now openly deride their upcoming flight as torture, and only consider it as a necessary nightmare that must be endured unless of course that there is a viable alternative mode of transportation open to them like the motor car, they cave-in. Instead of moving forward, the world is slowly trying to turn progress backwards. First our shoes, then shaving foam, then Concorde; lord knows what will be next to be on the public hit-list!
Fortunately there is still an area of our industry that appears to be holding its own within the realm of the public's hearts and minds department. This is that wonderful event called the Air Show. I know that I have definitely been to my fair share of these over the years, and yet I still get a little 'wobbly knee-d' at the prospect of going to another. I must say that it is an equally eye moistening experience to see and hear a frail Bleriot in the sky in front of me, and thousands of others that share the Air Show passion, as it is to see and hear a full battle-dressed FA-18 Hornet smash through the ether with both after-burners managing to trip all car alarms within a five mile area. Of course I have favourite memories from past shows; some of them are good and some of them bad. Usually if the memory is bad, then either the weather was the culprit, or forbid my bringing this up, a performer has misjudged a manoeuvre and they have tragically made history.
It is very hard to tie down when the first Air Show took place. I am certain that the philosophers: Mozi and Lu Ban both publically demonstrated their Kite inventions in 5th century China. Has any historian been able to conclusively prove that Leonardo did not build, perfect and demonstrate many of his flying contraptions in front of an audience, instead of merely exploring their design on paper alone? Is it possible that the Montgolfier Brothers in the summer of 1783 were the first to conduct an Air Show with their paper-lined linen bag balloons?
It is an incontrovertible fact that the Berliner, Otto Lilienthal captivated hundreds of spectators in the mid-1880's as he made his glides from atop the artificial hill, that he had built for this purpose. As romantic as it might be, even though the famed Parliamentarian Sir George Cayley, the 6th Baronet living at Brompton Hall in Yorkshire pre-dates our pioneering German friend by 80 years or more, it is unlikely that few people outside of domestic service at the Hall ever saw the Baronet fly his gliders in a form of public display.
St. Louis can even boast of several of the great Air Shows during the formative years of aviation history, including the gas balloon demonstrations at the 1904 World's Fair. Probably the first display at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1908 can be argued to be the first internationally acclaimed Air Show. Technically however all of the exhibits were displayed indoors and remained static. Officially the world's first Air Show which featured heavier than air, powered aeroplanes was the Internationale Luft-und Raumfahrtausstellung, known simply as the ILA which started in July 1909 in Frankfurt. This has now turned into the Berlin Air Show and continues to this day. 1909 proved to be a monolithic year in Air Show history because during the following month after ILA, the French held their Grand Semaine d'Aviation in Reims. Many of the budding designers and aeronauts of this age came from all around the globe to demonstrate their machines and skills.
After the first Air Race in the U.S.A had taken place at Dominguez Field in Rancho San Pedro near Los Angeles, California in January, 1910, the true founding fathers of powered flight: Orville and Wilber Wright created an exhibition team to demonstrate their Wright Company aircraft across the nation. However it took a newspaper man, Mr. Ralph Pulitzer who was the owner of the New York World daily, to solidify the success of Air Shows in Europe and bring the concept of a large scale aviation event to the U.S.A. and develop it into a medium that was uniquely capable of inspiring the public to become more 'air-minded' beyond the then normal, rag-tag displays that were offered by ex-World-War-One barnstorming jockeys who hop-scotched their way across rural America.
Mr. Pulitzer sponsored the organization of six Air Show extravaganzas that included an Air Race where competitors vied to win the Pulitzer Trophy. This series began at Roosevelt Field on Long Island in 1920, with the last of the shows ending in 1925 back on Long Island but at Mitchell Field this time. 1921 saw the show hosted at Muny Field in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1922 the show ran in front of excited crowds at Selfridge Field, Mount Clemons near Detroit; thousands were thrilled by the next show in 1923, which was held at Lambert Field here in St. Louis. The penultimate show in 1924 played quite fittingly at Wilber Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. After Mr. Pulitzer retired his trophy in 1925, the series continued as the National Air Races, with Cleveland becoming the centre of the Air Racing universe.
If you remember my earlier mention of the static Air Show in Paris in 1908, you will be pleased to learn that eventually the exhibits took to the skies at Orly Airport in 1949, and still to this day the event is held bi-annually, now at Le Bourget, and is one of the best known Air Shows, simply named the Paris Air Show. The Royal Air Force's (RAF) annual show at Hendon Aerodrome in London in the 1930's eventually grew into the Farnborough Air Show in 1948, and like the Paris Air Show, it occurs bi-annually (on the off-years, so that they don't compete for attendees.)
The world's largest military Air Show today, the 'Royal Air Tattoo' can be enjoyed every summer at RAF Fairford in the beautiful county of Glostershire in England, while the world's largest civilian Air Show, 'Air-Venture' is organized every year by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
I am very proud and lucky to say that I have attended both of these mega shows. As well as the U.S. Air and Trade Show in Dayton, Ohio; the National Air Races and Air Show in Reno, Nevada; the Army Air Corps festival at Middle Wallop in Hampshire, England; the Yeovilton Air Days at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset, England, plus many, many other shows on both sides of the Atlantic. There are plenty more that I want to attend before I start dribbling and have completely lost both my sight and hearing. These include the Cape Town Air Show, South Africa; Hunterfest in St. Stephan, Switzerland; Commemorative Air Force Air Show in Midland, Texas; Classic Fighters Air Show in Blenheim, New Zealand; and the Planes of Fame Air Show in Chino, California.
Unfortunately as I intimated earlier in this article, there is a dark-side that comes out at some Air Shows. Most notably the many rules and guidelines that govern how an Air Show is organized and run, were drastically changed after the summer Air Show tragedy in August 1988 at the USAF air base in Ramstein, Germany. Horrifically 75 people including pilots, ground crew and spectators died, while 326 other people were seriously injured when an in-flight collision of three Aeromacchi MB-339 of the Italian Air Force's national team: Frecce Tricolori occurred. Up until that point in Air Show history, there were no requirements for barriers to be placed between active runways and spectators, and the display line (the path that display aircraft took during their show) was often right overhead the crowd of spectators. Now Air Shows are strictly regulated, or at least there are certain protocols in place and yet unfortunately the horrible events witnessed at Ramstein were repeated tragically with a similar death-toll as the result. In July, 2002 at Skniliv Airfield in Lviv in Ukraine a Sukio SU-27 experienced a flame-out during a low-speed, low level turn which prompted the pilot to eject before the aircraft hit the ground and cart wheeled through a crowd of spectators killing 78 people and injuring 115. All of us can only pray that these horrors are never repeated again and as long as organizers and performers follow the new safety requirements that are now in-place, we should never read of such atrocities again.
Back in a lighter frame of mind, I am pleased to report that both enthusiasm for, and attendance at Air Shows all across this planet are up, even though the global economy is struggling to recover from the enormous fiscal downturn. It is now summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Air Show season is in full swing. Why don't you try and convert the general public's present apathy towards our industry by encouraging everyone that you know, both within our industry, and out, to go to at least one Air Show this year. I promise you that you won't regret it, and to assist you in this challenge, here is a list of a handful of events that you might place onto your calendar (thanks to Airshows.com):