Before the Show
Do a little research. What day(s) is the show, and where? When do gates open and close? How much will it cost? Some shows are free to attend with preferred seating available at a cost; others charge for admission and even parking. Understanding the expenses up front allows you to manage expectations and your budget, while avoiding surprises upon arriving at the show.
Sure, we all love FREE but preferred seating can be worth the cost for many shows. At the MCAS Miramar show every fall in Southern California, for example, the grandstands offer an elevated view of the flight line where all the action happens—particularly the dynamic MAGTF Demo, showcasing the resident US Marines. And those same grandstands create a barrier for everyone else, relegating them to the peripheries far from show center.
For those who want to go all out, some shows offer corporate chalets. These venues typically afford shaded tables and chairs, catered food and beverages, souvenir programs, and higher quality restroom facilities, among other amenities. This level of comfort and convenience comes at a price of course, but can be a real value for those who appreciate and can afford the luxury.
It is important to understand what items are permissible to bring into the show and which are prohibited. In this heightened security, post-9/11 era, bag checks and metal detectors are the norm at large spectator events, so leave weapons at home—including pocket knives.
Many shows go a step further; however, requiring see-through bags for anything attendees wish to carry into the show and may prohibit pets, lawn chairs, coolers, and other items of convenience or comfort—even food. A glance at the show’s website typically reveals these restrictions and should be reviewed in advance so you know what to bring. Sunglasses, ear plugs, and appropriate clothing for the expected weather, at a minimum, are typically acceptable.
Getting to the Show
It goes without saying that a certain amount of patience is required on the morning of the show—traffic is sure to be heavy and parking is likely to be a long walk from the actual show. Top off your fuel tank (or battery charge) the day before and leave well before that first act you don’t want to miss. The show’s website may specify preferred routing but traffic signs and road guards will normally be present to direct drivers to the show parking.
Non-traditional transportation options often exist for those who think outside the box. Some shows offer bus service, for example, and motorcycles frequently enjoy preferred parking near the front gates. Cyclists may wish to drive most of the way to the show, then park their cars remotely and ride the rest of the way to the front gate (they’ll want to bring a bicycle lock, naturally).
Finally, some airshow enthusiasts avoid the crowds altogether by taking in the show from outside the airfield boundaries where performance aircraft routinely fly overhead. However, the tradeoff of this practice is not being able to hear the announcers or visit the static display aircraft. Either way, a little creative thinking can go a long way towards ensuring an enjoyable experience.
At the Show
Arriving at an airshow is always an exciting time of anticipation but it’s a good idea to slow down and consider a few key fundamentals: First, lather everyone up in sunscreen 30 minutes prior to exposure (which may mean before arriving). Sun hats and long-sleeve shirts are also useful in minimizing the sun’s damaging effects, but any exposed skin should be protected with a quality sunscreen that is reapplied regularly per the manufacturer’s recommendation. Nothing is worse than a painful sunburn after an otherwise glorious day.
Make a note of where you parked. If you’re like me, you think you’ll remember because, hey, the show already started and you don’t want to miss another act! But trust me, at the end of a long day with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people all trying to find their cars—it can be a real challenge. Wearable technology and cell phones offer convenient location services; drop a “pin” (or equivalent) when you park to remove the guesswork later.
Once through security and inside the show, find the largest aircraft or other easily recognizable airshow feature viewable from a distance and establish a specific location—ideally under a wing in the shade—as your “rally point.” If the group gets split up and the cell network is overwhelmed (which is not uncommon with large numbers of people all using the network in a relatively small area), it will be reassuring to have an understood location to meet up and regroup. Take a picture of your young children so you can later identify what they are wearing in the event someone gets lost.
If you do not have reserved seats, consider claiming a good spot and deploying chairs and/or blankets right away because it will only get more crowded as the day wears on. Depending on the local culture, it may be possible to set up chairs that can be left unattended for short periods of time to “hold” your spot and you can always make friends with your new “neighbors” to help each other out. If you have reserved seats, consider dropping some of your personal items and picking up your souvenir program and swag early in case they run out.
Once established, review the schedule to determine which acts you wish to observe and those you don’t mind missing—that way you’ll know when you have time to take in the many aircraft arranged in the static display area, which is typically arrayed near the flight line and seating areas.
Many shows feature military equipment besides aircraft—such as vehicles, weapons, and heavy equipment. At the Miramar show, the Marines roll out tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and a wide array of combat arms (all temporarily demilitarized, of course) that can be handled by attendees. The uniformed men and women displaying their hardware are normally there voluntarily and enjoy sharing what they do with the taxpaying public who make it possible (ie. you). Talk to them. Ask probing questions. And thank them for what they do.
And then there are the many booths offering memorabilia available for purchase. If you are the kind of person who enjoys a t-shirt or some other memento as a reminder of a particular event—by all means, go for it! Just realize the prices are not what you’d typically expect to find at Walmart or on Amazon. Chalk it up to part of the experience.
The merchandise situation can be a bit more challenging with young ones in your party, however. If your child is like most other children, he may be amazed at everything available for sale at an airshow and want one of everything, thank-you-very-much. One way to combat this, if you’re cheap like me, is to plan ahead and surreptitiously bring a new aviation-themed toy purchased previously at non-marked-way-up-airshow prices and offer it to your child as a memento from the show. Another tactic is to offer your child an allotted budget, of say, $20, and allow her to decide how and when to spend it (or, conversely, to keep it for later—their choice).
A day at an airshow can be long. The most important thing to do throughout the day is to remember to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Watch for signs of overexposure to the elements. Drink plenty of water and ensure others do too. Eat the food you brought (if applicable) or else purchase food. Yes, food will be overpriced but justify it as part of the cost of enjoying the show. Skipping a meal can lead to low blood sugar and fatigue and is generally not advised—especially in the midst of a long day of walking, standing, and exposure.
Leaving the Show
They say all good things come to an end and a sausage has two. …okay, it’s a strange expression but the point is the show will naturally conclude and when it does, there is generally a mass exodus for the parking lot creating a traffic jam of biblical proportions. If you can, don’t leave right away; instead, stick around for the many ‘after hours’ benefits.
If the show is headlined by the US Navy Blue Angels or Air Force Thunderbirds, the pilots and some support personnel will typically approach the audience line following their performance to sign autographs, answer questions, and take pictures. This is a great opportunity to meet these amazing professionals and thank them for a great performance. And if you have young children with you, meeting one of these pilots can be a formative life experience for them.
After the show can be a fantastic time to photograph the many aircraft and other equipment on static display with far fewer people obstructing the shot. If you’re lucky, the sinking afternoon sun may offer amazing light angles and colors to afford truly remarkable shots of aircraft you may not otherwise have an opportunity to photograph so closely.
And finally, some vendors may be willing to offer cut rate prices on certain merchandise or food in lieu of packing them up—especially if it is the last day of the show. The savvy shopper can get the most value at the end of the show; however, certain items could be sold out. So, if you’re banking on that TOPGUN hat going on sale at the end of the day, don’t be surprised if they’re all gone by the time the vendor packs up for the day.