Edmonton ‘air rodeo’ aims to spur economic development

The Calgary Stampede contributes an estimated $400 million annually to the local economy. Besides generating tourism dollars, the “greatest outdoor show on Earth” is also where business deals get done.

Edmonton Airshow organizers hope to model the show’s new air racing component on the Portugal Air Summit. That event’s Air Race Championship (ARC) attracts many thousands of visitors. Portugal Air Summit Photo
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According to a July 2014 article in The Globe and Mail, “Calgary transforms into a giant trade fair, a real-world LinkedIn collision of schmoozing and boozing that’s critical to the city’s–and in turn, the country’s–economy.”

Now, a group of Edmontonians is looking to create the same kind of economic advantage through a different kind of rodeo–but this one will feature airplanes, not chuckwagons.

Revived five years ago at the city’s Villeneuve Airport, the Edmonton Airshow has been growing steadily under the leadership of Richard Skermer, the show’s president and CEO.

In 2017, he was approached at the International Council of Air Shows convention in Las Vegas, Nev., by the organizers of the famous Reno Air Races. They were looking to expand their brand, and they saw Edmonton’s Villeneuve Airport as an ideal location.

“Our advantage is we have an airport that is basically unencumbered by neighbours or structures, but we’re just eight minutes outside Edmonton, which gives us the access to a major municipality that the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) is looking for,” explained Skermer.

Edmonton’s Villeneuve Airport is seen as an ideal location for an air racing event due to its relative isolation but its close proximity to a major urban centre. Portugal Air Summit Photo

He said RARA is “bringing Edmonton into the fold because they’re looking to us to come in and be the innovative newcomer on the block, to build this between Reno and Edmonton.”

Ultimately, the goal is to encourage other North American airports to join a new air racing circuit, where Edmonton would host the semi-final race before the annual competition moves to its conclusion in Reno.

The 10-member organizing team behind the Edmonton Airshow is convinced that an air race has the potential to stimulate regional economic development, in the same way the Stampede benefits Calgary.

“The longer-term conversation is to diversify the airshow offerings to the point it becomes an economic opportunity, which breeds a centre of excellence in aviation,” Skermer told Skies.

Jeanette Bancarz is chair of the airshow advisory board. She believes an air race in Edmonton would build on the airshow as “a catalyst to kick off an economic development play for an aviation industry cluster.”

She said the idea is supported by surrounding municipalities and other community stakeholders.

Organizers are aiming to start small, by incorporating one air racing event into the 2019 Edmonton Airshow, being held from Aug. 17 to 18.

Massive pylons outline the course in Portugal. In Edmonton, this year’s demonstration event will be a match race that will see two aircraft compete alongside each other in heats. Portugal Air Summit Photo

“This year it will be a demonstration,” said Bancarz. “Rather than an oval-type race we’re doing a match race, so two aircraft will race alongside each other in heats. We’ll have a line of pylons abreast and two planes will run simultaneously through the pylons; when one pair is finished, the next will go. If you win your heat, you go on to the next heat.”

To keep things simple, this summer’s event will feature a single type of aircraft–the Van’s RV6–flying one type of course. In 2020, the group plans to hold a full-scale air race.

“We’re looking at 16 participants this year,” said Skermer. “Right now, we need to make this demonstration air race as successful as it can be, and use it as the leverage point to kick off the actual races that will occur next year. The final design will be very similar to Portugal’s Air Summit.”

Ultimately, the vision calls for multiple classes of aircraft competing over a weekend, similar to a Nascar race. In between heats, crowds will be entertained by airshow-style acts. In addition to fixed-wing aircraft, plans call for future helicopter participation.

“That would be our value-add, because Reno doesn’t do anything with rotary-wing at all,” said Skermer.

Edmonton show organizers said they are fully supported by RARA, which is providing subject matter expertise and development advice.

Interestingly, Alberta signed a memorandum of understanding with RARA’s home state of Nevada in 2013, in which both parties agreed to “identify suitable industry and government initiatives, that can facilitate trade and investment opportunities for the growth, economic development and diversification of each jurisdiction.”

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Each year, the Calgary Stampede contributes an estimated $400 million to the local economy. The ultimate vision for an air race in Edmonton is for it to become a catalyst that will spur on the same type of economic benefits. Portugal Air Summit Photo

Skermer said Transport Canada has also been closely involved in the planning and has been “more than helpful” in clarifying regulations and requirements for a type of event that is unprecedented in Canada.

While the air race component has yet to be christened with an official name–its working title is the “Canadian Air Race Championships”–airshow weekend will also offer an educational component in the form of an aviation and aerospace career fair aimed at local youth.

National partners are currently being sought to become official founders of the event. Skermer said this support is critical to building the air race into an economic driver.

In addition to the air race demonstration, several flying acts have been confirmed for the 2019 Edmonton Airshow, including the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Demo team, an A-10C Thunderbolt II demo, and a de Havilland DH-115 Vampire, among others.

Skermer reiterated the benefits of developing an “air rodeo” at Villeneuve Airport.

“We’re pretty much the only place in Canada where you can host an event like this on a yearly basis. On top of that we have 1,500-plus acres of land available for development, with an eager workforce and a smart city.

“Right now, the province is extremely hungry for economic diversification.”

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