2010 UK Airshows

AUG 17 2010
Airshows >> UK: TSA Consulting - Quantity and Quality.

The Cotswold Airport, AV8 to be precise, and I’m sitting outside the ever inviting airfield bar and restaurant putting the world to rights with three of the most important people in the UK airshow industry.

Ray Thilthorpe, Ian Sheeley and Dave Walton are TSA Consulting Limited and they are the men behind more UK airshows than any other single organisation. 2010 alone will see them clocking up an impressive list of events encompassing Southend’s Festival of the Air, Dunsfold’s Strings and Wings and Wings and Wheels, the Rolls Royce Centenary Celebration in Dover, Margate’s Big Event, East Fortune’s Festival of Flight, the Sunderland International Airshow, Airbourne in Eastbourne, Bournemouth’s Air Festival, the Clacton Airshow, Southport Airshow and the Malta International Airshow.

That’s a busy season by anyone’s standards and, on the basis of the events they looked after in 2009, a schedule which will see more than two million visitors to their shows; a lot of people and a huge responsibility to deliver programmes that meet the demands of their clients and the general public alike.

So, what about the three men themselves? Well, Ray spent 27 years as an RAF pilot flying the Canberra, Gnat and Hawk, which included a tour as the Manager of the Red Arrows from 1979 – 1982, during which time he oversaw the team change from flying the Gnat to the Hawk.

As we’ll see a little later he then became involved in organising a new concept in flying displays - that of the seafront airshow. By the time he left the RAF that involvement had developed into a business and, although he briefly joined an airline and flew Boeing 737s out of Heathrow, the business took over and he ultimately stopped flying professionally to focus on airshows.

Ian's love of air displays meanwhile began at an early age, growing up as he did near Biggin Hill, but it was during his 24 year career in the RAF specialising in Air Traffic Control that his involvement in airshow organisation really took off.

His last command tour at RAF Brize Norton not only saw him shouldering the responsibility for the Approach Radar facility of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) but also led to his appointment as the Flying Display Manager for the event.

On retirement from the RAF Ian joined the full-time RIAT staff where his responsibilities encompassed the Emergency Services, Security and Contingency planning for the event.

After four years he left the permanent staff and became a freelance Display Director and Aviation Consultant. In his new guise, business grew and led to Ian forming a partnership with Ray (Thilthorpe - Sheeley Associates), and TSA Consulting Ltd was formed. He did continue his association with RIAT for several more years as one of the volunteer group managers. However, after 14 years, he has now left the RIAT team to focus on his other activities.

Finally, Dave, son of an RAF pilot, has been around aviation and air displays all of his life, and even volunteered for IAT at Greenham Common. He started his own aviation career in recruitment where he was an account manager for the UK's largest crew leasing company, responsible for several overseas contracts including a major simulator training project and a VVIP Royal Flight.

Following a brief period travelling the world, he joined the full-time staff at the Royal International Air Tattoo, as the Aircraft Participation Manager responsible for attracting and supporting the hundreds of visiting aircraft and crew that attend the annual event.

During this time he was involved in staging five RIATs where his responsibility included flying and static participation, movements planning and charter flights, as well as developing an aircraft participation and movements database with a software company. Leaving in 2007, Dave joined Ray and Ian at TSA Consulting Ltd.

“We’ve got ten proper shows,” says Ian, “along with some private ones, and we do get requests to organise flypasts as well, so we’re pretty sure that we do organise more events than any other group.”

Dominating the list of course are the UK’s massively popular seaside shows. TSA’s Bournemouth event was 2009’s biggest airshow of all with a staggering 1,2300,000 attendees and the events hold a special place in the UK calendar, attracting enthusiasts and the general public alike.

Ray himself was instrumental in defining the original concept, as he explains.

“I did my four years as Red 10 here (at Kemble!) and then went to Valley. I got a phone call from someone at Southend while I was based at Valley and they asked me to go and visit them. The town had a poor reputation at that time and they wanted to put on an event to help change the town’s image and an airshow had been suggested.

“We all trooped up to the airport and they asked me where the crowd would go. I answered ‘down on the seafront’ and they replied ‘but they won’t be able to see the aircraft!’ I explained the idea to them as I had I seen it at countless seaside venues, of course where the only display was the Red Arrows. After thatose displays everyone got in their cars and sat in a traffic jam as there was nothing else to see!”

Ray saw the opportunity to expand upon the display at these sitesghts, benefitting not just the local council and community but also providing a public relations opportunity for the armed forces.

“Several of the events developed from the old RAF town show that used to go out in the summer holidays,” adds Ian, “that was the basis for the Reds to display and they grew from there.”

And things have come a long way, with Dave pointing out that for Southend, Bournemouth, Eastbourne and Sunderland – the airshow is now their Council’s flagship summer event. All of course are TSA organised displays / events.Organising so many seaside shows brings its own problems of course – some of them more obvious than others.

“Where and how do you mark the 230m line?” ponders Ian. “At an airfield you can just measure it out and lay markers – you can’t always do that with the sea!”

“If the tide is going out during the show your display line can be getting closer and closer to your crowd,” laughs Dave.

“People comment on the forums and such like that at some of the seaside displays the aircraft seem a long way away, but we have to maintain that minimum separation for the duration of the show.”

“We always try to bring the 230m line as close as possible but it’s never going to be a nice straight stable line like it will be at an airfield – especially at venues where a pier is open as we have to mark the line from the furthest point from which the public can access.”

Looking at the number of people visiting airshows in the UK, along with the large number of events filling the calendar, it would be easy to vainly say that the industry is thriving. TSA wouldn’t necessarily agree however.

“I think surviving rather than thriving might be a better word in some ways,” says Ian.

“Budgets are tight for the kind of events we are putting on, which are largely free for the public to attend but have to be organised at no-cost to the council in many cases. Trying to generate the revenue to put the show on, on that basis, can be very difficult.”

“To put on a three or four day show can cost in the region of £300,000 and with no major sponsorship or council investment then you are relying on small sponsors, traders, park and ride, programme sales and exhibitors to try and help balance the books.”

We are spoiled in this country with the number of shows available to us and I can’t help but wonder whether it might actually be better if we had fewer events. Quantity doesn’t always mean quality after all.

“I agree completely,” says Dave. “If you look at our events we often need to share assets with other shows which is fine, but that does mean that the display crews are working like crazy every weekend and it’s not always easy for people to be where they should be, when they should be.”

“I think we’ve almost reached saturation,” adds Ray, “and I’ve seen the changes take place over the years. The military is being more selective now and while they still support a lot of events it’s difficult to be all things to all people.”

“You used to be able to fill a programme with military participation,” concurs Ian, “and while we appreciate that times change you just can’t do that any more. If you’re going to bring more civilian performers in to provide the necessary variety and to fill out the schedule then you need more money and the only alternative to that is to make your display shorter!”

So, the free shows attract huge crowds but generate with no ticket sale income whilstbut a smaller ticketed show, which maybe attracts an audience of say 20,000, is much smaller but – you can do a lot, ie book numerous acts, with the ticket money from 20,000 punters!

“We often see our shows being criticised for not booking the Sea Vixen,” Dave says, “but people also need to remember that we are catering for what is probably 95% a family audience at somewhere like Southend. To them the Sea Vixen is just another jet and we can’t justify the cost, no matter how much we and the enthusiasts would like to see it.”

The seaside shows use display aircraft as a marketing tool for the area in which they are held and, while TSA strive for as much variety as possible, anything they book must meet that criteria while also delivering value for money. The Sea Vixen is not alone in often failing to fit the bill, and the Vulcan is another item which may sometimes prove to be a financial step too far.

“It’s lovely to see it and Bournemouth last year was fantastic, but I’m not sure how many of those people went to the show just to see it and let’s face it, it remains a relatively high risk booking. It’s a very complex aircraft, having to transit around the UK VFR, coping with the British weather, and is quite expensive to book,” Ian says.

“You don’t want to get to the end of the weekend and have money left in the budget that you could have used to book something else.”

Just to reiterate, this is not a criticism of the Vulcan, or the Sea Vixen, but more a reflection of the market in which TSA finds itself operating. The seaside shows are largely about a “bucket and spade” audience and with concerns over budgets and funding always casting a shadow, it is often more appropriate for the bookings to come from elsewhere.

And we are fortunate to have such a strong line-up of civilian participants from which to book in this country, covering almost every facet of aviation.

“In terms of variety, talent, and regulation the UK leads the way and that says it all really,” comments Ray. “Other countries do look to the way in which our airshows are run and use that as their own blueprint.

“We don’t just stick with the same old faces either, and it’s important to try and give the new kids on the block a leg up too – there is always room for new talent to come through.

“The Blades and the Breitling Wingwalkers are always high up our list and the evolution of the Swift Aerobatic Display Team has been fascinating to watch. They now have the Twister Duo as well and you know what, if you’re that good then you will always get bookings.”

TSA benefits of course in being able to book acts for a number of shows, knowing that certain teams or solos will always be good for crowd numbers and that it’s good for acts to get a block of confirmed dates early on in the season.

One question has been going through my mind throughout the chat we’ve been having outside AV8, and it is more of a chat than an interview as these meetings so often are. I’ve seen enough in the past 12 months or so to know that organising airshows can be a complete pain. Weather dependent, aircraft dependent, hassles with accommodation and so many variables and factors beyond the organiser’s control. Yet Ray, Ian and Dave clearly love it. Are they mad?

“It’s not for the money,” laughs Ray!

“At Eastbourne last year we had four days when the show ran on rails,” says Dave. “You get to know everyone so well and there is so much banter that, on those occasions, it’s quite simply great fun. Hard work, but great fun, and you can’t beat that.”

“You do feed off the crowd too,” admits Ian. “When they burst into spontaneous applause then you know they are enjoying the experience that you have put on for them and that gives you a real buzz.”

TSA’s knowledge of the airshow business must be almost unrivalled in this country. They’ve seen it all and done it all and remain busy organising countless events across the UK and beyond. Above all though they retain their enthusiasm for what they do and that undoubtedly shines through in the air displays they put on and the positive feedback we hear from display crews, quick to praise the way in which the events are organised from that perspective. TSA is a national treasure I reckon and long may they continue to fly the airshow flag and keep the tradition going.

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