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Show Biz — Behind the Curtain

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By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Editor

“The highest art form of all is a human being in control of himself and his airplane in flight, urging the spirit of a machine to match his own.”

— Richard Bach, A Gift of Wings, 1974.

Air shows have been around — and popular — since the earliest days of aviation. What’s not to like?

One thing not to like, at least in connection with the air shows in the first few decades after Kitty Hawk, was the danger. It wasn’t unusual for pilots to perish in the course of death-defying stunts gone wrong. Before the introduction of aerobatic boxes and other such crowd-safety measures, there was also significant danger to those who came to watch.

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As we have endeavored to explain in this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, today’s air shows are far safer for both participating pilots and the audience. However magical and danger-free the aerial action might seem, you now know more about what it takes to match reality with the perception. In collaboration with the sponsoring organization(s), aviation groups, local officials, and air show pilots, the FAA does a significant amount of behind-the-scenes — and thus largely unseen — work to ensure safety for everyone involved.

Also unsung are some of the people who keep things going smoothly (and safely) for the actual air show. You may already be familiar with the concept of the air boss, a term borrowed from U.S. Navy air carrier operations. In air show parlance, the air boss is like the director of a show biz event. The exact requirements and duties of the job vary according to the size, scope, and location of the event, but certainly a key responsibility is to plan and coordinate the aerobatic demonstration. That means consulting with the organizers, working with the FAA on waivers and ATC coordination, and conducting the mandatory preflight briefings for all participating pilots. As I learned in the process of preparing this issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, the “Balloonmeister” serves as air boss for lighter-than-air events.

Keep a lookout for these folks at the next air show you attend. They will likely be too busy to chat, but you might find it interesting to watch them work if the opportunity arises. Since a simple internet search for “air boss” will take you to digital reams of interesting information, you might also enjoy learning more about some of the companies that specialize in providing air boss services to event organizers. Many employ former air traffic controllers for some of the functions they provide.

The various unsung heroes in both government and the aviation community do all they can to assure everyone’s safety at air shows, including those flying in to enjoy the event. But safety ultimately depends on the willingness and ability of aircraft operators to do their part. Did you study the NOTAM before arriving? Are you current and proficient (not necessarily the same thing)? Can you consistently fly your aircraft according to the speeds and other specifications (e.g., landing distance) required for this event? If you have any doubt, hire an instructor to help polish your skills. You’ll be glad you did.

Susan K. Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.
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This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-safety-briefing-magazine
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FAA Safety Briefing

FAA Safety Briefing

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. Part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).