contributor perspectives

Watching the Skies: The Lucrative World of the Air Show

Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READApr 6, 2018 | 09:15 GMT
Military aviation demonstration teams like the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels are a staple at air shows around the world, acting as ambassadors for their countries while promoting their military branches.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels soar over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, as part of a practice run for Fleet Week on Oct. 6, 2016.

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I spent a good deal of my childhood contemplating the wonders of flight. Like many American youths who grew up during the Cold War, I loved to build model airplanes. But it was a 1986 trip to the movies with my mom that truly catalyzed my interest. I remember crying in disappointment when she told me that we were going to see "Top Gun" rather than my preference – "Flight of the Navigator." (I knew from the title that the latter had to do with flying while I assumed that the former was just another boring Western.)

My distress ended about three seconds into "Top Gun's" iconic opening scene (which I believe remains among the best in film history), in which the crowded flight deck of a steam-swept USS Enterprise is rendered in full backlit splendor. The spectacle reaches its zenith when one of the ship’s complement of F-14A Tomcat fighters catapults into the air with engines in Stage 5 afterburner. The scene so thrilled me that I resolved to one day become a pilot. Many subsequent weekends were spent daydreaming or reading books on the latest developments in aviation technology.

A rare opportunity presented itself not long after when I was given the chance to attend an air show in Waco, Texas. The event included performances by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team as well as an appearance by the Concorde supersonic airliner. I even had the chance to see aircraft up close and to visit with pilots and maintenance crews. These memories popped up a few days ago when I saw that Waco will hold its 2018 air show over the first weekend of April. In contemplating a family trip to the show (our 9-year-old twin boys seem to me to be just about the right age for such things), I began to wonder about the economic and political dimensions of air shows. What I found stunned me.

A Lucrative Opportunity

Readers may find themselves wondering why I chose to write about air shows in a space devoted to the geopolitics of sports. And I must admit that aside from aircraft races, air shows, whether commercially oriented ones or spectator-driven events, don’t generally feature the type of competitions that people usually reference when thinking about sports. But air shows do share many of the traits of a major sporting event – fan interest, kinetic movement and physical skill, among others — that make them a worthy subject for this space. For its part, the International Council of Air Shows asserts, "The air show industry represents one of the very largest, if not the largest, outdoor professional sports in North America." In terms of audience numbers, it is perhaps noteworthy that the 350 or so air show events held across the United States and Canada every year attract 10 million to 12 million spectators.

At last year’s Paris Air Show, some 2,400 companies exhibited their wares, and buyers signed some $150 billion worth of contracts.

Moreover, the commercial and political dynamics at play in air shows gives them a scale of geopolitical importance that differs from other sporting contexts. In a 2013 doctoral dissertation on the industry, historian and museum curator Robert Verbsky argued that since World War II, air shows have served four main purposes: 1) to demonstrate advances in military technology; 2) to build brand awareness for aviation companies; 3) to promote tourism and a sense of community; and 4) to connect spectators with the history of flight. From a commercial perspective, air shows have proved to be a crucial place of business for aviation firms. At last year’s Paris Air Show, some 2,400 companies exhibited their wares, and buyers signed some $150 billion worth of contracts with them. Five months later, another $113.8 billion worth of orders followed at the Dubai Airshow.

The Political Dimension

Besides the commercial opportunities, air shows also possess considerable diplomatic value. The United States uses the events as a platform to express its resolve abroad as well as to court international partners. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, for instance, the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels traveled to Russia and several other former Soviet-bloc countries. The team became the first Western military aviation unit to be invited to the region in the wake of the Cold War, so it went to considerable lengths to forge a connection with America’s erstwhile enemies. The American pilots were given the chance to fly in Russian aircraft, and the United States offered a reciprocal opportunity to their Russian counterparts. The visit culminated in a mixed formation of Russian and American aircraft during an air show held in Moscow on the anniversary of the city’s founding. The episode represented an example of air diplomacy, the collective forms of which are defined (according to U.S. Air Force analyst Adam B. Lowther) as "a proactive approach to preventing conflict by employing airpower in nonkinetic operations as an instrument of national power. It can be critical in supporting U.S. foreign policy."

Air shows have continued to serve in this capacity. This past February, the U.S. government sent Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, the senior diplomat responsible for foreign military sales, to Singapore for the largest air show in Asia. From a narrow perspective, her presence was intended to encourage regional attendees to buy U.S. military equipment. As Kaidanow put it, "This is a great opportunity here in Singapore to make the case ... that our products are not only the highest in quality. ... I think it's also the case that they come with an array of efforts that we can provide that nobody else can. ... And it is my job, obviously, to make that case as effectively as I can to all of our interlocutors." This, however, served a broader goal of demonstrating the United States' dedication to the Indo-Pacific region. "It would be hard for me to stress enough how committed we are to the regional security of the Southeast Asia area," Kaidanow said. "I can tell you, this is a deep, deep, deep commitment on the part of the United States' government."

Time will tell whether America will be successful in its Indo-Pacific endeavors. Soft power will play a role in determining the matter, and air shows will continue to serve as key sites in the exercise of that soft power.

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