This special-edition issue by Skies Magazine highlights what the Covid-19 pandemic has been like for pilots, operations personnel and even passengers with a collection of human interest and first-person stories.
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In a virtual airshow, parking, shade and seating aren’t a problem. Heck, the announcers don’t have to wear pants! Weather shouldn’t be an issue either but surprisingly it was!
Skies has asked me to take you behind the scenes of the Socially Distant Airshow that reached over a million airshow fans and raised significant financial aid for airshow professionals. Here we go…
Consider that our small team was far more than “socially distant” from each other. LiveAirShowTV director Jeff Lee lives in Dallas while technical director Bryan E. Lee is stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala., with the U.S. Army. Steph Stricklen is on the West Coast, isolated with her daughter and husband near Portland, Ore. My co-host Matt Jolley is on his farm in Carrollton, Ga., while co-host Rob Reider works from his Loveland, Ohio home studio.
I’m in Odessa, Ont., with incredibly slow rural internet access. I decided it was best to move into Kingston for the event to utilize a faster connection at a friend’s empty deli, closed because of COVID-19.
Bryan, in Alabama, had the unenviable task of making this work technically. The challenge was to bring all of our feeds together. To do it, he chose the popular Zoom software, pro version. He had to confiscate his family’s smartphones and use them for our individual feeds, plugged into his two computers. And, to be sure he didn’t blow a fuse, figuratively and literally, Bryan borrowed electricity from his neighbour via an extension cord!
The high definition video sent to us by over 100 airshow professionals and military teams from around the world was on Jeff’s computer in Texas, which was relayed to Bryan. From Alabama the signal was then sent to CTN Studios in Minnesota where it was fed to LiveAirshowTV’s Facebook and YouTube channels. What could possibly go wrong?
Surprisingly, little did, but there were some “moments.” With two days under our belt a wall of severe thunderstorms was building over lower Alabama.
We almost had to postpone our third day due to weather! As these storms slowly moved through, Bryan not only had to make sure his family was safe but with just hours before we were to broadcast, he had to unplug everything, especially the connection to his neighbour’s house for extra power. Setting everything back up again needed time and then everything would have to be tested again, but in the end it managed to clear with time to spare.
The virtual schedule
Building the schedule had its challenges as well. We realized we had far more video than we could use. But like any airshow, we needed jets and jet teams to make it work. The Canadian Forces Snowbirds said yes almost immediately but we were waiting on confirmations from U.S. military teams. Working up and down the ladders of the U.S. Navy and Air Force chain of command understandably takes time.
We reached out to Squadron Leader Adam Collins of the RAF Red Arrows and to Gilbert Buekenberghs, the former head of the European Airshow Council in Belgium. The Europeans were impressively quick to support their colleagues in North America. Then, just hours before we were to broadcast, things got sorted out with the U.S. Air Force. All of their single jet demo teams and the Thunderbirds were cleared to join us as well.
I believe the broadcast even created some fun rivalry between the military teams. After the Belgian F-16 demo team signed on we got a request from the Czech Air Force Saab Gripen Display Team. Then, on the eve of Day 2, the RAF Typhoon Display Team wanted in as well. The Patrouille de France issued an entirely new video after watching what the RAF Red Arrows had submitted. All the military teams did well, but it was Italy’s Frecce Tricolori that captured the most fan appreciation according to real time comments and spikes in viewers, followed by the F-35 and F-22 solo displays.
Bootin’ out the bots and trashin’ the trolls
A big part of any airshow is connecting fans with the performers.
Steph Stricklen, a major aviation online influencer, brought her expertise on social media to our event to allow viewers to do just that.
She invited military and civilian team members to join the chat rooms to answer questions in real time. Those conversations were a hit. Allowing pilots and technicians to comment as it happened was a big asset to the broadcast. Stricklen has just launched AviationAtHome.com, a site to bring together content creators and produce a fun aviation series geared towards 9 to 12-year-olds.
For our show she enlisted two Ontario influencers, Dennis Benett and Nick Chute of Threshold Images. The duo managed the conversations and comments. They were very good at taking down the bots (internet robots) that attach to anything with big numbers and are used by fraudsters – in this case, they tried to persuade viewers to pay to watch our free event. By the second day they were gone. Sadly, social media also brings with it the “I’m not happy until you’re unhappy” trolls. There were very few which speaks to how well received the airshow was by fans. Benett and Chute managed the few trolls well, keeping the conversation upbeat and friendly.
Viewers generously donated more than $25,000 during this difficult time. The money goes to the ICAS Foundation ‘Friendship Fund’ to help airshow professionals impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
Mike Kaufman, president of the ICAS Foundation, said, “There have been nine airshow professionals make grant applicants. If we were to finish at 10, that would be $2,500 per grant and I think that’s enough to have a significant impact.”
“It is a testament to the camaraderie and cohesiveness of the airshow community that the event came together as well and as quickly as it did,” said ICAS president John Cudahy. “But that kind of passion and enthusiasm is the foundation on which our business is built.”
Cudahy, who represents the council’s nearly 1,000 airshow professionals added, “My takeaway from the event is that airshows are inspiring, patriotic and exciting, even when they’re conducted virtually. We’re all eager to restart the 2020 air show season, but — until then — the Socially Distant Airshow taught us a lot about the universal appeal of aviation events.”
According to Phillip Hurst, general manager for LiveAirShowTV, “The Socially Distant Airshow reached over a million airshow fans the week of the broadcast on all platforms and that number will continue to grow as more people view the archived shows.”
On behalf of Rob Reider and Matt Jolley, I’d like to thank everyone who made a donation, participated by watching or contributed content and related services. We’d also like to thank Lucas Oil, Lockheed Martin, GEICO and Skies Magazine for their generous gifts.
Please note that you can continue to give via the website www.icasfoundation.org.
Did you miss the airshow? Check it out here: