High Desert Hangar Stories: The story of a successful air show and what it means for future shows

A couple weekends ago I had the pleasure of being a team member again to help with operations at the California Capital Airshow at Mather Field in Rancho Cordova.

Going into the second year of a pandemic, it was nice to once again be a part of a three-day show and spend the week helping to make it all come together with an amazing team of professionals who know the air show business very well.

Air show attendees attend the tailgate, twilight air show Friday evening at the Capital City Airshow. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

Prior to leaving for the week, about a month before, the obstacles that shutdown our air shows here in the Southland began to become an issue again and I wondered how the state as a whole would deal with a reissuing of mandates that makes these events hard to deliver to the public. As I was driving up 99 to Sacramento, I was hoping all the while I would not get the call that the show had been canceled. Being in the backyard of our state capital it is no easy task for show organizers to convince leadership that a safe and entertaining show could be had with little effect on public safety.

New ideas were in the works early on and a couple of phone calls with air show management let it be known that planes would fly, and people would have a good time and be entertained. And that’s just what happened, even though the feel of a traditional air show crowd en masse was not present and some of the static displays had to be reduced. Still, all in all, it delivered in a way that left the thousands that attended happy and content to once again be part of an air show family.

So what changed to make it work so well?

As many of you know on the Friday before an air show weekend, they have what they call a rehearsal day for all the teams and aviators to practice in a show format so they can work out their routines before going on stage for the community on the weekends. As the Friday event began to take shape, it became apparent there was an opportunity for more of the viewing public to find a place at the air show as limited ticket sales were the order of the day for Saturday and Sunday’s shows. What ended up happening was a genius idea. On the Friday, a twilight air show was presented as a giant tailgate party and the parking lots were turned into the viewing area as families and friends put out their lawn chairs and kids spread out blankets in the back of trucks and, to quote a famous line from a song, “A splendid time was had by all!” I can’t really give this part of the shows its justice with words, but I will say the U-2 demo and the F-35/P-38 heritage flights with the setting sun lighting up the birds with a golden glow were beyond awesome. The tailgate air show program filled the sky with about four hours of top-notch aerobatics, including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

A U-2 Dragon Lady takes off at the Capital City Airshow. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

On Saturday and Sunday, I found myself at my regular spot on the hot ramp, sending birds off to entertain. But looking over at the air show crowd I could not see that a limited ticket sales program really took anything away from the experience, as food vendors and a limited number of merchandise vendors stayed pretty busy all day long. Many of the non-profits and military displays were also present to fill in the gaps. Sunday it was the same thing, and even though the show did not have the massive crowds looking for shade under the wing of a C-5A or other large military aircraft along with the FED EX and UPS cargo planes, it was still an impressive show of people, who were well behaved and abiding by public health requirements.

After it was all said and done, and thousands went home with the memories of a first-class air show, I cannot see why a return to shows that reflect the qualities of what they put on up here in Rancho Cordova cannot be duplicated at other venues in our part of the state.

One thing that does stand out is how the mandates and restrictions put on by the state greatly reduced the footprint of the volunteers and guests requesting to be a part of the show. The costs of the show would still be about the same, but with reduced crowd sizes and limited ticket sales it would affect the bottom line, so the air show went on a diet. Many of the extras we have come to know over the years became just the fact that we expected nothing but a pat on the back and a job well done by show organizers and for many of us just to be a part of an air show and see success is the only thing we really strive for. For many of us reaching into our own pockets and paying our way is just a part of the honor of bringing an air show to a community and seeing happy people with families find a chance to smile and forget about a rough patch we have experienced here in our country over the last couple years.

So where does this leave us now as we look to the future? Talking with my friends at the Planes of Fame about the cancellation of their event this month it all came down to an economics issue. A non-profit museum program doesn’t want to end up in the red, with skyrocketing costs and the possibility of a last minute cancellation of the program can doom any future air shows.

The military shows are suffering also and with the cancellation of the March Air Reserve Base air show in the spring, and other military shows shutting down around our region, it’s obvious that the military is finding it hard in current conditions with new and changing mission statements along with reduced budgets so it may be a while before we roll on to a military base to be entertained.

Visitors to the Capital City Airshow view a static display. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

The tragedy of the Huntington Beach Air Show was another hard one to swallow as the Saturday program was well received and was a hit with the spectators but, in a world where we come to expect the unexpected, the Sunday show fell victim to conditions out of their control. That still didn’t easy the pain of the thousands that were looking forward to a Sunday on the beach with entertainment over the water and all the businesses that lost out of all that desperately needed revenue to make up for hard times.

So, what do the air shows of the future look like? Will they look the same as we have grown accustomed to over the past decades? Or will they look like what an enterprising group of air show professionals that, when faced with a challenge, knew how to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it took to put a product in the skies for all to see and to be entertained? That’s just what happened this year at the California Capital Airshow and let’s hope and pray that somehow our own air shows in our region can rise like a Phoenix from a pandemic and find the local support it will truly need, along with forward thinking people who put the community first and are willing to forgo the gloss while just being happy to give the citizens an escape from their everyday lives with some quality entertainment that only America can produce.

Until next time, Bob out!

Oh, and a short P.S. from aviation legend Bob Hoover. “Don’t ask me to put on an air show, I just fly in them, leave the show up to people that know how to get me up in the air over a crowd and a safe place to land afterwards!”

I couldn’t agree more Mr. Hoover.

F-35 Lightning IIs from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, were on hand for the Capital City Airshow. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)
Also on hand for the Capital City Airshow were heritage aircraft. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)
F-35 Lightning IIs from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, were on hand for the Capital City Airshow. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

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