ICAS 2010: Sam Johnson’s Keynote

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I just got out of the ICAS morning keynote and announcement of the jet team schedules for upcoming shows. Although I don’t very often run stuff in the show that’s mostly or entirely other people’s comments, I couldn’t help but think that you guys would enjoy this.

They keynoter was Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas. A retired Air Force colonel, Johnson flew the F-86 Sabre in the Korean War, the F-4 Phantom in the Vietnam War, and the F-100 Super Sabre as a member of the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds.

While flying a mission over North Vietnam, he was shot down and taken prisoner. He spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war facility, three and half years in solitary confinement.

I love the fact that they used to start Thunderbirds demos with a sonic boom. I never knew that. I wish they’d do it again. And a lot of the other material that I heard in this presentation and otherwise made me pine for a simpler and more energetic time in aviation. I know that the current environment (regulatory, practical, and otherwise) is a lot safer and perhaps presented better in some respects. But a big part of me wonders what it would have been like covering these guys in their airshow heydays.

Bob Hoover introduced Mr. Johnson and I had the brief opportunity to meet them before things got going. Gracious and engaging, both. Genuine aviation royalty. Just another indication of how surreal it can be here at ICAS walking among legends.

ICAS 2010: Airshows 101

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I spent most of the day today in Airshows 101, a seminar that acquaints new airshow staff with many of the issues and processes associated with putting on a great airshow. Basically a day in a room with five of the nation’s best air bosses: Ralph Royce, George Cline, Larry Strain, Bill Snelgrove, and Dick Hanusa. These guys have been doing this for decades and they have something like 150 years of experience among them.

I’m chuckling at myself as I write this Sunday evening in the hotel room. I figured that a whole day would be enough to write an episode on the fly based on the information in the seminar. Yeah. Right.

The seminar is kind of like one of those highlight reels that they show Navy pilots of botched carrier landings. Lots and lots of talk about what can go wrong at an airshow. From weather to parking problems to slips and falls to raging drunks to midair collisions. It might just make you think twice about putting on an airshow. But the underlying message is that this is a doable thing with a lot of work and a lot of advance planning.

The printed materials are something like 50 pages of PowerPoint slides. And many of them are pretty dense with content. I do want to do an episode on this, but it’s not something I’m going to get done here in the hotel room. Even with more time, the best I’ll be likely to do will be to give a sense of how much stuff there is to do. But maybe that’s enough. In any case, I have a renewed respect for the people who put these things on year after year.

I also got a chance to meet up again with Jay “Face Shot” (and, more recently, “MJ”) Consalvi, one of the two Navy pilots featured in the 2008 Peyton Wilson documentary, Speed & Angels. I met Jay at Le Central last year, but I didn’t really know who he was and I hadn’t seen the film. I picked up the DVD after getting home and have since become a fan.

I tracked Jay down at the reception this evening and played fanboy for a few minutes, during which I got him to sign my DVD.

I’ll probably go orbit around the bar a few times and then hit the hay. I’m not going to be flying my desk tomorrow or Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be straining at its tie-downs. I’ll try to keep my body on Eastern Time and get a couple of things done in the morning before the sessions start. But then it’s back into the world of ICAS.

ICAS 2010: Le Central

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There’s a garden bistro in Paris called Le Central. It’s at the foot of a cobblestone street. A wrought-iron fence surrounds it and creates an eddy in the flow of strolling sight-seers. Not unlike a cross-section of a symmetrical wing placed in the middle of a busy thoroughfare.

If you walk by Le Central, pay attention. Listen to the bits of conversation that drift into the street. Look at the faces as they appear and disappear behind the climbing vines that embrace the place.

If you stroll into the bistro, you find that the bar is round and that the patrons circle it gradually in either direction with a kind of unpredictable Brownian motion. They greet each other loudly or softly. With embraces, with insults, with shouts. Drinks are spilled and wiped up. More are poured.

As you make your way through the milling patrons, it becomes dreamlike. You tap a man on the shoulder to ask if you can squeeze by. As he turns to let you through, he smiles and says hello. And you see that he’s CAPT Greg McWherter, Boss of the Blue Angels.

You’re embraced unexpectedly from behind and you turn to see that it’s Haley Werth, who has just lunged out from a knot of people that includes Billy and David Werth.

The gathering around the bar is a couple of people deep and the guy who hands you your beer over their heads is Randy Henderson. Mike Goulian walks by. On another occasion, you might see Scooter Yoak or Julie Clark or Aaron Tippin.

You happen to be standing next to a guy as you order another beer and you discover that he paid for it even though he doesn’t know you from a stack of hay. And even though he’s Jay, better known as “Face Shot” from Speed and Angels.

The dreamstate continues for hours. You walk among your heroes. You talk to them. They talk to you. You’re uncomfortable because you try to keep your fanboy nature contained. And you fail. But it’s okay. You’re all speaking a common language.

Time becomes fluid. It’s always early evening at Le Central. It’s as though the sky has been painted that way.

And, in fact, the sky is painted that way. Le Central, and Paris for that matter, is in Las Vegas, Nevada, the site of the annual convention of the International Council of Air Shows, or “ICAS.”

For a few days each December, everyone who is anyone in airshows gathers in Las Vegas to train, book acts, be booked, debrief the recently-completed season, and plan for the next season. The jet teams announce their schedules for the upcoming year or years. And – my favorite part – everyone touches home again.

During the season, airshow professionals are spread out across the country every weekend. They’re flying, talking, separating traffic, rigging systems, and parking cars. But, in early December, they get the chance to come together in one place. And, when a community that’s as tight-knit as the airshow community comes together after a year of being spread out across a continent, it’s a homecoming of both epic and intimate proportions.

This is my second year at the ICAS convention. I really enjoy the exhibit floor and the breakout sessions. But my favorite part, bar none, happens every evening at Le Central. I get to move in that waking dream several evenings a year. I’ve flown with a small but growing number of these people. I’ll fly with more of them as time goes on. I admire each of them mightily. And, though I’m by no means the shooter that any one of them is, I’m beginning to earn their respect as a mediator of their performances to you, the airshow faithful.

I purposely don’t record audio there. I don’t take pictures other than the distant shot that accompanies the show notes of this episode. Performers and others can relax among others of their kind and leave their public personae elsewhere. Everybody’s a fan of everybody else. There’s an unspoken declaration that you can say what’s on your mind. It’s a very special place.
I’m all about capturing these experiences and sharing them with you guys and audio, images, and video of the experience are frequently the best way to do that. But Le Central is different. I look at it like a quantum mechanical phenomenon. If you try to measure or capture it too precisely, it’ll fall out of quantum superposition and become ordinary. Erwin Schrödinger and Douglas Adams would understand ICAS.

The sky over Le Central in this version of Paris is just painted on. But that’s okay. I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I’ve stood under that sky for hours in a perpetual spring evening and stood at the elbows of my heroes. It’s one of my favorite places to be. And I’m going back there tonight.

ICAS Convention – Day 3

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Another installment from Firebase Airspeed – ICAS 2009 style. Rico and I talk about yesterday’s events before backing up and heading out.

ICAS Convention – Day 2 – Part 2

Day 2 of ICAS successfully completed!

This is the first day upon which the exhibit hall was open and I spent most of the day making my way around the hall with Rico Sharqawi of Wilco Films. It can get to the point where it takes an hour to go 50 feet. In a good way. It’s running into people you know and people you’re meeting for the first time. And really connecting about their particular take on aviation and how to convey the excitement to audiences.

Rico and I are planning to do another debrief tomorrow morning. We’re finding that it’s a great idea to just empty our pockets of business cards from the day before and go over the people we met and talk about some of the synergies that we have with these folks. Or just the amazing stuff that they do. Looking forward to that.

Aaron Tippin gave a performance after the exhibit hall closed down for the day. Good performance with footage of him flying his Stearman on the big screen. Even though it was in the big ballroom, that makes for a cozy venue here at ICAS. Probably 200 people gathered around the stage in front with others hanging ou tat the tables in back.

I guess that’s just another thing about ICAS. I wandered right up to the stage several times after changing cameras and never had a problem getting there. Nobody throwing elbows. Nobody being a jerk. Everyone giving room to the guy shooting video for the big screens. Jut a great crowd.

The sessions kept going today when the exhibit hall was closed. I pretty much hung out in the halls to soak in more of the vibe of the event and to meet additional people. I’m actually in danger of running out of business cards if you can believe that.

I find that, in talking to people, they want to know about the show and about what I do as much as I want to know about them. ICAS seems to level out the interactions. Outside of ICAS, it’s the hero-fanboy relationship at the airshow fence. Here, I get the feeling that if you’ve come to the effort to come to ICAS, you must be serious. No posers here. Or at least not many. And you can stand around and have a beer with Greg Koontz or Gene Soucy or Theresa Stokes or the Misty Blues (all-woman skydiving team), or Scott Lane and the list goes on.

Jay, one of the pilots from Speed and Angels bought be a Leinie’s. Just out of the blue. It’s that kind of community. If you’re there, you’re serious about aviation and airshows. It’s just assumed.

I’m still finding that I have to explain what a podcast is, but people are interested and actually want to know. It’s really had the effect of refining my elevator pitch, if nothing else. I need to get across what I do and the audience for whom I do it. All in about 60 seconds in a crowded and exceedingly noisy room. It’s a challenge, but I think the message gets across. And it’ll ultimately benefit the whole new media community if we get the word out about the depth of the coverage that we can do.

I neglected yesterday to go over the presentation that came immediately after the new media panel. Announcer extraordinaire Rob Reider moderated and Roger Bishop served on the panel. They covered how to leverage video for the airshow experience, both for big screens on site and for distribution to remote audiences. These guys can wire and aircraft for video and sound in about an hour and set up the ground stations and production trucks to assemble the programking in a really immediate way.

It might seem simple, right? Sure, if the aircraft is only going to fly straight and level. But straight and level isn’t very exciting. If the aircraft is going to yank and bank, you need to have antennas with a line of sight to the ground systems at all times and that means antennas that aren’t blocked by the airframe itself. Suddenly, you’re talking whole new levels of complexity.

I saw the video production for the on-site presentation at the Indy Airshow this summer and it was great. You really have to involve the performers, the announcer, and everyone else to bring it off. It adds a whole new level of complexity because everyone’s now thinking about not just the pure acro visible along the crowd line, but the added elements of the video. Now the audience gets to see inside the cockpit and outside from the perspective of the performer and the aircraft. And you have to think about how to make that compelling – not just to an aviation fanboy like me, but to the average airshow attendee.

The mixing and getting to know people continued after the Aaron Tippin show. Mainly down at the bar near the elevators in the lobby, but in other places as well.

The above shot is not intended to be great art. It’s not. It’s just to give you an idea of how crowded and great things get.

I spent an hour or so up in the Air Show Aces hospitality suite. The Air Show Aces are Kent Pietsch, Gene Soucy, and Warren Pietsch with announcer Danny Clisham and wingwalker Theresa Stokes. These folks can put on a almost two hours’ worth of airshow all by themselves by combining their skills and resources to form 12 discreet acts. Unreal. You guys know how much I love Gene’s Show Cat and the noises it makes. And the rest of the acts are great, too.

The picture above gives you a good indication of what it’s like. Wall-to-wall people, most of them pilots to one extent or another, and everyone talking or shouting across the room. I saw that John Mohr had brought up two guitars (my kind of scene!) but the party was too thick to really break them out and I didn’t have enough energy left to wait until things dissipated. So I retreated to the room to edit some audio and get stuff ready for recording the show tomorrow.

Hard to believe that I have to leave at noon tomorrow to head home. Wednesday is going to be ugly. I’ll review a few deals tomorrow on the plane and try to be ready to return to normalcy, but it’s not going to be easy.

More soon from ICAS 2009!