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Thinking Outside and Inside the Box

How Coordination and Teamwork are Critical to the Flow of an Air Show

By James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Associate Editor

Photo of air traffic controllers.
A Mobile Operating and Communications Workstation (MOOCOW) is a mobile tower setup that allows controllers to get closer to the action at AirVenture.

Air shows were a staple of my childhood. Our local U.S. Air Force base would put on its open house complete with a major air show every May. It was an air show all-star game, with many of the most renowned civilian performers and demonstrations of all the latest military aircraft capped off with a stunning display by either the U.S Air Force Thunderbirds or U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

The scale of the event was because the base (Joint Base Andrews), home of Air Force One, is located beside the national capital. But as I grew up, I visited other air shows and eventually made it to Sun ’n Fun as a volunteer and pilot. Later, I joined the FAA and began attending these events professionally. From this angle, you can see that these gatherings are not just an incredible show, but an impressive fête of logistics, teamwork, and careful risk mitigation.

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Getting into the Box

Not all air shows are the same, but fly-in conventions like Sun ’n Fun and AirVenture have added marquee acts like the aforementioned U.S. military display teams to attract a broader audience. These large fly-ins have a significant challenge: how do you get thousands of GA aircraft into an airport that may only handle a dozen or so at a time in everyday operations?

At aviation events, teamwork is critical to allow for a safe, fun experience for everyone involved.

It starts with teamwork. “The greatest challenge is the logistics required to ensure all the necessary coordination has taken place between all parties involved,” explains Jay McKinty, an Air Traffic Controller joining the team headed to AirVenture this summer. During this year’s Sun ’n Fun, the FAA temporarily assigned 62 controllers from more than 39 different facilities. This additional workforce allows for not just controllers in the tower as usual but also controllers staged near the active runways and in outposts along the approaches to help sequence the additional traffic. This tactic is used at events like AirVenture and Sun ’n Fun, where they take advantage of NOTAMs for special arrival procedures.

Remotely positioned air traffic controllers help guide the flow of aircraft into the show.

For Sun ’n Fun, a fire tower located several miles northeast of the field gives controllers excellent visibility of the approaches. But in most cases, no such happy coincidences of geography exist, and the remote locations don’t enjoy such an advantageous perch. It requires a lot of coordination and communication.

Aiding in that effort is an additional set of FAA employees required to provide the proper support to controllers both on the field and in remote locations. The Air Traffic Organization’s (ATO) Technical Operations (Tech Ops) group is tasked with ensuring all the proper equipment is in place and working properly to handle the massive increase in traffic. This includes everything from radios to lighted signage and even generator capacity to support all those systems where power isn’t readily available. The technicians’ focus then turns to keeping all those systems running properly throughout the event.

Defining the Boundary

The FAA’s first priority at any air show is audience protection. We’ll cover more on this and the waiver process in the article “There’s No Business Like Air Show Business” in this issue. In general, audience safety is accomplished by restricting access to portions of the airspace around the airport to ensure there is a sufficient safety margin. This area is usually referred to as the aerobatic box.

The area directly within and adjacent to the box should be clear of non-participants. Meeting this requirement can include actually evacuating homes and businesses near the airport. Of course, things can change during an event.

“In my experience, last-minute changes usually revolve around weather and the need to balance the desire to have the performance while ensuring the safety of all involved (spectators, performers, employees, etc.),” McKinty says. “The best part of any air show is seeing all the people excited by aviation. The impact that airshows have on our industry can’t be quantified. Whether it’s a young person dreaming about learning to fly a fighter jet, an ’old-timer’ rehashing glory days as a crop duster, and everything in-between, air shows spark something in all of us.

“I think one thing the public doesn’t understand is what takes place during the air show demonstrations,” says McKinty. “I don’t think the public differentiates between what air traffic control does pre-and post-demonstration and what the Air Boss does during the actual demonstration. The two are separate entities but equally dependent upon each other.”

Meet the Boss

Once it’s showtime, the regular air traffic controllers hand off immediate responsibility for the box to the air boss. “The easiest way to describe the air boss is that he/she is similar to the conductor of a large orchestra,” explains Jim Tucciarone, an experienced air boss. He is the Chairman of the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) Air Boss Recognition Program Review Committee and an instructor for air boss training. “Just as a musician has their music, every pilot has their routine. Everyone has practiced and memorized the program. The air boss pulls together all of the pieces of the airshow like the conductor does with an orchestra.”

The communication between airshow organizers, air bosses, IICs, ATC, and performers is constant throughout an event and critical to a safe experience.

Tucciarone elaborated, “The air boss usually writes and choreographs the schedule for the show … that is their sheet music. When the Boss is ready for the B-25, he/she clears him into the aerobatic box.” He notes that the B-25 is ready and has taxied because he has read the schedule and knows when they will be queued. The air boss uses a headset and mic like a conductor uses a baton.

“I was fortunate enough to work as a guest controller at Oshkosh for the fly-in for ten years. I met some amazing people and performers,” Tucciarone explains when asked how he got into working as an air boss. “After moving to a staff support position at Oshkosh, coordinating between the control tower and the rooftop controller (air boss) on the field, I found it fascinating, and I wanted in,” says Tucciarone. After one of his fellow controllers asked him to form an air boss company, Tucciarone did his first show in Gary, Ind., in the late 80s. “After a while, I became dormant until another Boss called and got me back in during 2002. I have been around the country (and Costa Rica and the Bahamas) doing shows ever since.

Photo of people.
A meeting with an air boss, IIC, and military display team to work through potential issues with the show.

“Most spectators are under the impression that the planes are given a sequence and just take off when it’s their turn. There is so much more that goes into show prep,” Tucciarone explains. “We have jets followed by quiet acts, parachute jumpers taking off during other acts, air starts, ground starts, no jumpers with any props turning, over water coordination, acts departing a remote airport, pilots flying more than once during the day, weather forecast and weather/wind minimums.” He added that the “the daily air boss briefing covers all safety information concerning the show, followed by a review of the entire day’s act by act, minute by minute, including sequences and on the spot changes.” All these tasks aim to provide a smooth, well-run, safe, and entertaining air show.

Find and Fix

An old proverb credited to Prussian commander Helmuth von Moltke says: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” As we’ve seen, this applies to both the air show itself and the air traffic flow into and out of it. The best-laid plans sometimes need adjustments.

The FAA’s first priority at any air show is audience protection.

I once had the opportunity to watch this adjustment process at the Reno Air Races. Upon arrival, one of the military jet teams was slightly outside the approved boundary of the aerobatic box for one maneuver. To resolve this issue, representatives from the team, the organizers, and the FAA all sat down to look at options to protect the public and allow the show to go on. After some discussion, a few slight adjustments were made, and things were back on track.

While this meeting was meant to deal with a specific issue, there are standard briefings each day where all participants can work through any problems they may have encountered on the previous day. No matter how perfect a plan may seem, reality often finds a flaw. So having a process to adapt to and overcome challenges is key to a successful and safe event.

Air show performer briefing.

Oops Happens

No human endeavor is perfect. So it stands to reason that when bringing potentially thousands of aircraft into a small airport, something might go wrong. I’ve been on hand for a few of those situations. You can read one of those stories about the time when a tornado hit a fly-in in the article “Teamwork at Its Best” in our July/August 2011 issue.

On another occasion, we shadowed some air traffic controllers working a Sun ’n Fun show. During an arrival period one morning, we spotted a light twin airplane on approach with its gear not completely down. Moments later, the plane touched down, settled onto the two extended wheels and a wingtip, and slid down the runway, eventually exiting off the side of the runway. Within seconds the EMS crews arrived, followed by members of the ATC and aviation safety inspector (ASI) teams. Luckily the occupants were largely unscathed. Attention quickly turned from the initial response to aid the pilot to documentation and recovery of the airport. The aviation safety inspectors (ASI) handled the situation in very short order. Meanwhile, controllers were working to reopen the runway.

Photo of aircraft accident.
Photo of the Sun ‘n Fun accident mentioned below.

For sure, aviation events (both fly-in and general air shows) are team efforts between performers, organizers, ATC, ASIs, local communities, and all those attending. Teamwork is critical to allow for a safe, fun experience for everyone involved.

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.
Magazine.
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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Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. Part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).