UK Air Displays - Looking Forward to Recovery

Tuesday 12th May 2020

The British Air Displays Association (BADA) are obviously keen to see the resumption to flying displays as soon as possible, and with the recent announcement from Duxford that they intend to go ahead with a three-day Battle of Britain airshow in September 2020, there may be some cause for optimism. On Tuesday 12th May 2020, BADA facilitated a webinar entitled "UK Air Displays - Looking Forward to Recovery" to discuss how this may happen. Attended by a wide variety of names from throughout the sector, they set to work trying to put together what would be needed to form a roadmap for the return of the Great British Airshow.

UK Airshow Review were invited to attend the recent BADA event on the future of airshows. Andrew Evans reports on what was discussed with supporting photography by the UKAR Staff Team.

Air displays have been just one of many industries to have been adversely affected by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, however, at some point there will be a chance to recover and that will require careful consideration in order for it to be a success. Hosted by BADA and watched by some 80 individuals on Zoom, a panel of well-known names including, Ben Dunnell, George Bacon (the webinar's chairman/mediator and organiser), Richard Goodwin, Paull Sall, Ben Hardy, Sir Gerald Howarth, John Turner, and Squadron Leader Adam Collins (Red Ten) provided their expert opinion on three key areas - the venue, display flying and what can be done right now.

Kicking off the webinar, discussions began with a review of what is causing venues to cancel and what needs to happen to allow shows to once again be part of our summer lives. Of all the cogs that make up an airshow, none can go ahead without the support of the authorities and in particular the emergency services. During this emergency, the services have quite rightly rescinded all support for large events and it was hoped that once the emergency subsided this decision would be reversed. Whilst shows such as Duxford may still be hoping to go ahead in September, current indications from the experience of event organisers on the panel was that emergency services support would not return whilst they prepared to respond to an inevitable second spike, casting serious doubt on the entire 2020 season. There was some good news however, with confirmation that the emergency services had already begun committing to support some of the major shows for 2021.

This is of course a difficult time financially for airshow organisers and, as was explained, it is a situation being made worse for many thanks to a number of event cancellation insurance providers refusing to pay out on policies involving a pandemic related cancellation. This is particularly difficult for charitable shows that don't have reserves to fall back on. The panel were also clearly of the opinion that the measures that they will have to bring in to allow for some shows to possibly take place later this year, or even next year may also cause some to no longer be financially viable due to increased costs and lower ticket sales.

In order to keep crowds safe, venues will have no choice but to implement social distancing measures and any that can't will simply not go ahead. The consensus was that this also included events scheduled for the 2021 season. As Sir Gerald Howarth (Senior Conservative Party member and ex-MP) pointed out, the Government will not provide a solution to this conundrum and that it would be for the industry itself to think outside the box and propose solutions to show they can safely run, particularly for the older members of society, who are now distinctly aware of their increased vulnerability to this virus and the risks crowds pose for infection. This was following comments by the BADA Chairman, Barry Neale, who believed there was too much negativity surrounding the situation and that people should remain positive that they can overcome the challenge through innovative ideas. To that end two ideas already under review were tabled and expanded upon. Firstly, some venues - for example OId Warden - may be able to implement a "drive in" style event similar to the successful recent Danish music festival where visitors are encouraged not to leave their car parking space. Whether many avid photographers that camp out at a crowd line would comply however, would remain to be seen. Secondly, controlling spectators' access to static displays was an important area of concern and it was suggested that these areas may be cordoned off with a controlled access point, similar in practice to waiting to enter your local supermarket during the lockdown. Again, whether people would be prepared to queue is another matter. One thing the panellists were certain on however was that until a vaccine or an effective viral treatment is discovered, airshows will not being going back to normal and that we may have to accept significant changes for the time being.

As discussions moved on to display flying the panel received a briefing from Paul Sall from the CAA Airshow Regulation Unit (previously Airshow Director for the events held at RAF Waddington and RAF Scampton) on new guidance they had published that morning. In response to concerns regarding lapsed Display Authorisations (DA), the CAA were automatically extending any DA that expired between March and the end of October to the end of November. In addition, to allay any safety concerns about display currency the current requirement of once every thirty days would be increased up to thrice every thirty days. The CAA have certainly come in for some criticism over recent years for their perceived attitude towards the airshow community from enthusiasts, however, in this instance, they should be applauded.

Taking account of the wider situation, civilian display flying in the UK forms part of the general aviation sector and this was mainly represented on the panel by Richard Goodwin, Wally Epton from the Historic Aircraft Association (HAA) and Steve Slater from the Light Aircraft Association (LAA). As part of the lockdown, Government (not CAA) guidance precluded recreational flying from continuing, effectively grounding most display pilots. With the Government's stance on the lockdown altering a few days prior to the webinar, together with golf and tennis announcing a return in response, it was felt that there is likely going to be an opportunity to begin cautiously flying again shortly; recognising concerns that the public and media may not consider recreational flying as being essential still. However, following the meeting, on 15th May the Government guidance on recreational flying was updated allowing it to resume from English airfields only and strictly in accordance with social distancing.

The relaxation of this regulation is not the only factor preventing display flying. Many Air Traffic Controllers have been furloughed resulting in a limited control capacity within UK airspace, there was therefore a concern among the panel that this capacity will prevent significant numbers of pilots from being able to fly for some time to come. However, a more pressing issue is that many airfields themselves are closed and will remain so for the foreseeable future preventing the use of based display aircraft. Without the income from resident flying schools, many airfields cannot currently afford to remain open to allow other movements, and of course, flying schools will not be able to re-open until there is no longer a requirement to socially distance. This led to a consensus that in order for the civilian display circuit to return to anything like normality, the entire general aviation sector must first recover.

Joining Squadron Leader Collins were personnel from the RAF Air Events team, who were happy to discuss the RAF position on 2020 air displays. As the Red Arrows attract significant crowds it was pleasing to hear that the team have recently been cleared to recommence aerobatic flying, with the intention of possibly being able to perform displays later in the season, this may take the form of a simplified display but nevertheless welcome news. RAF Air Events were also able to advise that many of the 2020 display assets still had a desire to perform this season and would be able to, given sufficient notice to achieve PDA beforehand. Whilst those present from the RAF were being tight lipped about plans for 2021, Squadron Leader Collins was able to advise that whilst there are currently none planned, should the Government instruct the team to undertake an international tour they would try their best to limit it to dates outside of the UK airshow season as much as possible.

Whilst planning for later in the season and for the future is important, there was also some limited discussion regarding how airshows could survive the lull and engage with the public now. It was abundantly clear that social media and digital platforms would be key to this and BADA were able to advise that they have discussed with Planes TV whether they would be able to assist, on commercial terms of course, events with past footage to be streamed as a virtual airshow on their original display date in return for a small fee. A similar idea has already been trialled independently by Shuttleworth earlier this month and by all reports it was a great success. In addition, the Red Arrows advised that they would be happy to support virtual airshows with some bespoke footage together with a personal introduction from either Red One or Red Ten, provided it did not impact on their own flight training schedules.

It was clear from the discussion that the Great British Airshow faces a challenge to survive, but those challenges are by no means insurmountable and there is a passion within the industry to develop new ways of working and to recover from the effects of this pandemic. It goes without saying however that no matter how hard they work on this issue, unless you - the airshow visitor - once again attend airshows upon their return, then they will not survive. We are all in this together and it will take a team effort.