The Air Show’s Ringmaster

For an Air Boss, most of the work happens before the show even opens.

thunderbirds wings and waves.jpg
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform at this year's Wings and Waves Air Show in Daytona Beach, Florida.

More than 100,000 people turned their eyes skyward last month to watch performers executing gravity-defying stunts at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Wings and Waves Airshow in Daytona Beach, Florida. If it was the pilots, skydivers and other acts who grabbed the spotlight, it was people like Wayne Boggs, Evan Blass and Scott Forrest who worked behind the scenes to make sure the weekend came off smoothly.

Boggs, a retired Air Traffic Controller, ran the show in the coveted position of Air Boss—the person most responsible for keeping the skies, and fans on the ground, free of danger. John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, likens the Air Boss to the show’s “ringmaster,” in charge of operations on taxiways, runways, and the show’s demonstration area.

“They’re responsible for setting the tone,” says Blass, Embry-Riddle’s Wings and Waves Coordinator. The Air Boss runs the pilot briefing before every performance, and during the show is in close communication with the Air Traffic Control tower as well as the performers. “It’s important [that] he sets the tone of no funny business [and] no pushing the limits,” says Blass.

Most of the work happens before the show even begins. “The days leading up to the airshow are more challenging than the actual airshow day,” says Forrest, a Daytona Beach Tower Controller.  The Daytona Beach airspace was blocked during the airshow via a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR), giving Boggs control of the airspace and aerobatic performance area. “The TFR during the airshow pretty much allows us to sit back and watch the airshow from the tower [at Daytona Beach International Airport], says Forrest.

Although the airspace was closed, normally scheduled passenger aircraft were still allowed to arrive and depart at Daytona Beach. Forrest, working from the control tower, communicated directly with Boggs to create windows for the aircraft coming into and out of the airport.

“Wings & Waves is kind of a unique show because it’s not on an airport, it’s on the water,” says Eric Doten, former airshow producer and a former president of ICAS. “The ground rules for that are different because it involves the Coast Guard, Fish & Game, and the Beach Patrol. A lot of agencies are involved to ensure the show goes as advertised.”

According to Doten, an essential part of a safe airshow is developing a defined buffer zone between where the performers are going to perform and the spectator zones. “[They] establish a line not just on the beach side but also on the water side,” he says. “The Coast Guard will patrol the area and make sure no boats go into the area where they will be performing.”

The FAA has a handbook of rules for setting up an airshow, called Advisory Circular 91-45C.  Show producers are required to submit a detailed safety plan well in advance of the event.

The FAA prescribes the minimum safe distance to the crowd that performers can fly—no less than 500 feet horizontally and 100 feet above the ground.  Aircraft that fly faster than 245 knots or 282 MPH are required to keep more distance—1,500 feet from the crowd. The crowd line must be at least 500 feet from an active runway at airshows taking place at airports.

Performers also are not allowed to bank their aircraft more than 75 degrees, or to fly faster than 300 knots.  Formation flights cannot fly lower than 200 feet above the ground or faster than 250 knots. Specific markers are placed to help pilots know the boundaries. And during aerobatic maneuvers, an airplane’s momentum can never be directed toward the crowd.

Wings and Waves is just one of nearly 350 airshows that take place in the United States each year, in front of more than 10 million spectators.

“[The] airshow industry has worked very hard to develop safety procedures for performers that minimize risk,” says Doten. “You really can’t make anything 100 percent safe. But you can make it where the risk is so small that you’re willing to take it.”

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