Because of my job, I tend to go to a lot of air shows and fly-ins. I love the preparation and usually spend days planning the flight there and the flight home.
I generally enjoy the flight there and back, as well. Going somewhere new is always fun.
But I have to admit that when I finally arrive at a fly- in or air show, I’m often at a loss as to what to do.
Once I park my aircraft, I wander along the flight line to see who else is there. There are a lot of pilots who go to every single event and you get to know their aircraft. There are usually one or two new or exotic types parked on the line for me to stop and stare at. I run through my usual examination of them. Would I swap my Zephyr for this aircraft? The answer is always no.
But to be honest, a tied down and pilotless aircraft doesn’t really give me enough information to make a value judgement, especially if I don’t know the model. If the pilot happens to be nearby, I will pepper him with questions and then my answer (which is still always ‘no’) is at least based on better information.
Then I head towards the nearest food stall for a sausage on a slice of bread and a can of drink. I might catch up with one or two blokes from my own airfield if I see them.
But an hour later, I am bored and thinking of the flight home.
This same pattern emerged while I was wandering around an air show in Queensland recently.
The show was very well organised, the weather perfect and there were a lot of non-aviation things to keep the crowds happy.
But as I sat in the public area eating my sausage sandwich, I noticed a lot of people pressed against the fence looking at the aircraft lined up on the hard stand. There were dozens of planes of all shapes and sizes beyond the fence, including the dramatic looking warbirds, some frail looking ultralights and some exotic plastic fantastics.
Near me a boy of about eight turned to his dad, pointed at an aircraft and asked “what sort of aeroplane is that daddy?”
The father replied “I don’t really know, son”.
I thought I should be the good neighbour and volunteer an answer. But I realised I didn’t know what the aircraft was either. No matter, I thought. I can wander out there later and ask.
But they can’t.
Then it struck me. Our fly-ins and air shows are not really about promoting aviation to the general public at all. They are an excuse for us aviators to show off and make ourselves appear important to our nonflying friends and neighbours. It must be. Otherwise we would make greater efforts to involve the public in what we are doing.
We go to great lengths to promote our fly-ins and air shows to get the general public to come along. But when they do turn up in their hundreds or thousands, we all but ignore them, except to take their money at the gate and when they buy a bucket of chips and a drink.
We stand on the airside of the field, with our chests puffed out, saying to them “Look at us you mere mortals. We are special. We are allowed to walk around these dangerous looking devices, while you ordinary peasants must stay behind the fence.
“We speak in a language you don’t understand in order to make ourselves appear more mysterious and important. Admire us!”
At best, there might be someone on a dodgy PA system blabbing on about a pilot no one has heard of, or discussing modifications to an aircraft in such technical terms that even pilots bleed from the ears with boredom.
So my opinion is this.
There needs to be more recognition that the public is there and must be entertained so they come back next time and tell their friends what a good time they had.
If we really want to show off, we need to get them more involved. Here are a few ideas I came up with.
Why not nominate one or more members of the organising committee to run free guided tours of the flight line? To us it is nothing special, but to the public is like being allowed in with the lions -exciting and scary. Every half hour or so, small groups of people, maybe eight or 10 to a group, can be escorted around under the supervision of someone nominated as being responsible. It wouldn’t take much to organise. And there are usually ground marshals monitoring foot traffic around the aircraft anyway.
Pilots usually register when they fly in, so why not have them fill out a small technical details form at the same time so, during the tour, the guide can tell people about their aircraft.
Perhaps a pilot can also nominate whether or not he will allow people (children especially) to sit in his aircraft during the tour for a photograph. Under supervision of the responsible tour guide, it shouldn’t be a problem. Even I would go on that tour. Maybe we could get a set of safety guidelines put together by RA-Aus for such events.
Back at the display area, why not have the pilots show off their own aircraft? Every 15 minutes, wheel a new one into place in front of the public and have the MC interview the pilot about the aircraft, its good and bad points. To us, it might be a common model we’ve seen 100 times. But to the public, it will be a rare panda every time. Perhaps the pilot can be convinced to allow a few children to come forward, sit in it and get their photograph taken by mum or dad.
Obviously there would be insurance issues to work out, but would it be out of the question to ask the fly-in pilots if they would be prepared to take people for small joyrides during the day.
My point is that rather than keep the general behind the fence and give them nothing but soggy chips and a long-distance view of the action, we should be encouraging them to want to come to our side of the fence.
Not only would they go home happier, but they will get a better understanding about what we do. And will be more likely to support us when we need their help to fight our battles.
And I guarantee that one or two of those eight year olds will also find that the aviation bug has bitten them during the day and, in a few years’ time, they will end up on our side of the fence.