BizLondon cover story on Airshow London

Published in Business London, April, 2016

           As cool as it would have been, it simply wasn’t possible to wedge an aircraft carrier onto Fanshawe Lake to mark the return of a major airshow to London after a dozen years. Organizers, however, might have the next best thing.

            To accommodate some of the fighter jets coming to the new Airshow London – Canada’s CF18s in particular – a team from CFB Trenton will be on hand to deploy the whiz bang part of any aircraft carrier: the arrestor gear. Better known as the hook and cable system that snags jets as they drop onto the compact carrier surface, the gear is needed as a safety precaution whenever CF18s and comparable jets land on a runway less than 10,000 feet long.

            The longest runway at London International Airport is 9,000 feet, which means the mobile arrestor gear will be in effect, ready to catch jets if the need arises. It shouldn’t be needed, but the system will have to be tested…

            “It’s really quite amazing. There are two turbines to absorb the force of the jet being stopped,” says Gerry Vanderhoek, whose official title is manager, commercial services & passenger experience at the airport. Unofficially, he is the chief cheerleader and go-to expert of the rejuvenated airshow, the loss of which he has mourned for 12 long years. You better believe he’ll be there when the arrestor gear is tested.

            Gerry is pronounced ‘Gary’, but everyone calls him Hook. “I can still remember the feeling in 2005 when the airshow was cancelled. We had booked airplanes; it was ready to go. It was going to be a great show.”

            Vanderhoek’s disappointment was shared by thousands of fans across the region when the London International Air Fest died after running almost every year from 1930 on, the last 33 consecutively.

At the time, its demise was explained with vague statements about rising insurance costs in the post 9-11 world. That, of course, didn’t explain how the show could have continued for three years immediately after the terror attacks.

            “The old airshow was a for-profit event, and I think it just had trouble getting the sponsors it needed,” says Jim Graham, CEO of Try Recycling and chair of the new airshow board. His enthusiasm for the event matches Vanderhoek’s. Indeed, as they sit together discussing the rebirth of the show in London, it’s like listening to a couple of teenagers planning their first road trip to see their first rock concert in a van with all their buddies, right after getting their driver’s licenses.

            For a few years, Graham and Vanderhoek scratched their airshow itch by helping create the smaller Great Lakes International Airshow in St. Thomas. It runs every two years and is a go for this June. But their first love was the much larger London show. Almost from the moment they left the St. Thomas show in 2013, they began working to revive the London extravaganza.

So it is that Airshow London is happening Sept. 17 and 18 – a newly structured, not-for-profit show designed to showcase as much power and speed as organizers can round up from across North America.

            And it turns out Vanderhoek in particular has been able to round up an awful lot of power and speed, ensuring the new incarnation will kick off with the kind of roar needed to reintroduce the show to London with a bang.

            “Hook is a rock star in the airshow world,” Graham says, admiringly. “When we go to trade shows and other airshows, everyone knows him. It’s quite amazing.”

            It takes a rock star to lure Canada’s CF18s and Snowbirds, along with the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, perhaps the world’s most advanced fighter jet. Its appearance in London is one of only two in Canada and six worldwide this year. Competition for premium aircraft is intense. There are a whopping 500 airshows planned in North America this year, many of which are large enough to compete with London.

            In all, the show will feature as many as 50 aircraft and up to 200 air crew, including more than 100 pilots. It’s an impressive debut for the revamped show, which organizers are determined to build as an annual event.

            “We see this as a legacy event that will support local charities every year,” says Dave De Kelver, Airshow coordinator and veteran organizer of numerous local events. His job will be to coordinate the expected 400 to 500 volunteers and to make sure everyone who buys a ticket is able to get into the show with relative ease and walk out with plans to attend next year.

            The business plan calls for attendance of 25,000 or more. That compares to the final year of the old show, which drew 100,000 fans and more than 75 aircraft. It ran in June, a more traditional date for airshows.

            Moving the new show to September increased the odds of attracting marquee aircraft. It also avoided the crushing calendar of weekend events typical in London starting in June and going into the summer. “You’ve got people back in town, kids back in school, and we also looked at weather patterns,” Vanderhoek says. “You have the best chance of good weather in September.” Perhaps most importantly, “the Snowbirds were going to be in the area in September.”

            If 25,000 people buy tickets, the show will generate revenue of roughly $750,000. Costs will bump up against the $500,000 mark, leaving funds to support local charities and also to prime the pump for next year’s show.

            The Airshow will donate to Children’s Hospital and Veterans organizations. It will also fund bursaries for aviation technology students at Fanshawe College. The tie-in with Fanshawe is a key element of the show. Students in the aviation technology and public safety programs will serve as volunteers and be eligible for co-curricular credits.

            All of that is crucial to making the not-for-profit model work. So too are sponsors. A handful have signed up already and fall into two broad categories. There are industry-related companies like General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada and Executive Aviation.

            And there are others like Billy Bee, Pacific & Western Bank of Canada and Callon Dietz that are supporting the event as a way of rewarding clients and employees. “You can offer them something different than going to a golf tournament,” Graham says. “There will be chalets for guests of the sponsors, and we can customize their behind-the-scenes experience.”

            Translation: If you bring enough sponsorship dollars to the table, you and your guests will get to see behind the curtain and won’t have to ride a bus into the airport Saturday morning.

            With 25,000 or more people expected, parking will be an issue. Guests of sponsors and those who buy premium tickets will get parking passes for the grounds. Others who opt to pay about $100 for a family of four will park nearby and be bussed in. “We can’t shut down the airport for the weekend,” Vanderhoek says with a slightly regretful grin. “It has to operate, people have to get to their regular flights, but we also want to make sure the customer experience at the Airshow is top notch. That’s Dave’s responsibility.”

            Tickets will go on sale next month at a variety of price points. One-day and two-day passes will be available, as well as VIP packages that include perks like a “runway experience,” a “chalet experience,” and a reception on the Friday evening before the official start Saturday morning. Anyone who signs up at the Airshow website will receive a notification of ticket sale dates and details.

            Organizers are doing whatever they can to deliver a great experience for everyone who attends the show. “We want to make it comparable or better than any other large event in the city,” says De Kelver, who has worked at many of them. “Whether that’s a one-off like the Memorial Cup or one the music festivals that happen every year. We want this to be a permanent event on the city calendar that builds from this year.”

            You can have all the clowns, trapeze artists and jugglers you want, but if your circus doesn’t have an entertaining ringmaster, you might as well pack up and go home. That’s why Vanderhoek booked legendary airshow announcer Ric Peterson to host the weekend. It’s like bringing in Vin Scully to call London Majors games.

            Peterson has been announcing airshows since 1985 and is an honourary member of the Snowbirds. “He’s great,” Vanderhoek says. “People will love what he does.”

            Airshows are not like car shows. No one is going to walk in a buy a jet that weekend. When you strip away the bunting and VIP chalets, the military pride and even the arrestor gear, what is an airshow really all about?

            “Power and speed,” Graham says without hesitation. “You’ve got pilots operating these incredible machines, pushing the edges of their capabilities. The raw power, the sights and sounds, are amazing to witness. That’s what an airshow is, and that’s what we’re doing in September. We’ve got an amazing lineup of aircraft and pilots, and it’s something you have to see and feel to really appreciate.”

            Organizers are counting on that intangible thrill to draw fans from across Southwestern Ontario and beyond. They know there was a dedicated fan base more than a decade ago, and they know people flock to shows across North America all summer. They’re confident they will attract tens of thousands in September, establishing Airshow London as an annual event, poised to grow in succeeding years.