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Thread: Why I'm against bringing the Thunderbirds

  1. #1
    Jeff Point's Avatar
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    Why I'm against bringing the Thunderbirds

    In his editorial in the July Sport Aviation, Jack Pelton makes the case for bringing the Thunderbirds to Oshkosh this year. As a member who has been against the idea since it was just a rumor, I tip my cap to Jack- the argument that he makes is the most convincing one I've yet seen. In essence, his argument is that big, noisy jet air shows are what get kids excited about aviation, and we need to attract more kids to aviation. It's a sound argument. I'd like to use this forum as a "letter to the editor" to tell Jack why I disagree with him.

    I'll get my main point out of the way first, since it borders on heresy. The purpose of Oshkosh is not to attract kids (or adults for that matter) to aviation. The purpose of Oshkosh is to be a gathering (convention to use the old term) of members who are already involved in aviation. We core EAA members spend the other 51 weeks of the year running local chapters, flying Young Eagles, supporting local air shows, sponsoring B-17 and Trimotor tour stops, flying more Young Eagles, doing school programs and hosting ground schools, flying still more Young Eagles, and volunteering in a hundred other ways. In other words, doing the evangelical work of EAA. These are the activities that grown participation in aviation, much more so than a week airshow in an out-of-the-way upper midwest town. These activities are local and reach a far broader audience. We do all this because we love and and are passionate about our brand of aviation.

    Oshkosh, in it's correct form, is for us, the core EAA members. It's a gathering of members who spend the other 51 weeks growing aviation and need a week for ourselves, to recharge our batteries for the next 51 weeks. It needs to be focused inwardly towards the core members, and that philosophy should guide the planning for the event. It used to be that way.

    Of course, some will think this is selfish and that we need to focus outwardly to attract others. Here's the funny part- back when EAA was focused more inwardly, we were (almost accidentally) extremely successful in attracting outsiders to come to the event. Let's face it- what we do is just so awesome that regular folks were more than willing to pay the admission price in order to get a ticket to stand with their noses against the flight line fence (remember that?) and watch us do our thing. The show wasn't for them and yet they came, in greater numbers than they do today, I might add.

    Not to get all Dr. Phil on you, but here's an analogy- parents are most successful when they love one another more than they love their kids. That relationship naturally creates a loving family environment conducive to raising good kids. We as EAA need to love ourselves more than we love other people's kids.

    Some time in the mid 90s, we began to lose our way. The focus began to shift from Oshkosh as a convention (a gathering of members) to Oshkosh as a circus (designed to maximize attendance.) From the dismantling of the flight line fence to the renaming of the convention to Airventure to a hundred large and small changes, the focus gradually shifted. As it did, EAAs relationship with it's core members became more and more strained. "I'm leaving and never bringing my airplane here again!" was an all-too common refrain heard after the circus crowds had damaged planes on the flight line where they were suddenly allowed to roam.

    Bringing the Thunderbirds is just the next step in this evolution. As sure as I am sitting here, there are core EAA members who would otherwise have flown to the show who are not going to attend this year because of the T-birds and all the changes to the event they require. Still more will come, only to be sufficiently irked that they are less likely to return in the future. Is their loss worth the small gains made by attracting a slightly larger weekend crowd of locals? I don't know how to calculate this- but I'd bet all the money in my pocket that members who come to Oshkosh tend to be more involved in their home chapters, fly more Young Eagles and do more of that EAA evangelism that is so needed. Granted it can be a chicken and egg argument, that members who do these things are more likely to come to Oshkosh, but the reverse is certainly true. I know I leave Oshkosh every year with a renewed enthusiasm that would be sorely missed if I didn't go. We need to take care of our own and nurture that EAA spirit, and when we drive core members away from Oshkosh, we damage the organization.

    These opinions, while mine, are certainly not only mine. Despite the Thunderbirds, I am still looking forward to the show. I volunteer on the homebuilt parking crew, and one of the great things about my job is that I get to meet and interact with core EAA members (any homebuilder qualifies in my book) in large numbers and get a good cross section of what members are thinking. It's a great way to get the temperature of the membership in a way that you can't get even from just a local chapter. I would invite those members of the EAA management ranks who are worried about the direction and culture of the organization to come out and work with us for a day or two. You'll learn more from these core members than you will in a whole month of executive meetings, I promise you.

    Back at the now infamous 2012 annual meeting, I was one of the long line of members who stood up to address the board. The gentleman who spoke before me told that board that he had built an airplane and flown it to 32 consecutive Oshkosh shows, and was planning to not come back next year. He proceeded to expand on the reasons why. I applaud him for doing so, but for every person who takes the time to air their grievances on a public forum like that one (or this one) many times that number will simply vote with their feet. Any member of management would not have been caught off guard by the sentiments expressed at that meeting had they spent an afternoon with me talking to core members.

    By the way, I spent my time at the mic warning the board that they were in danger of loosing the support of their volunteers and what that could mean to the organization. When the meeting broke, the only board member who came to seek me out to discuss this further was a rookie class 3 director by the name of Jack Pelton. So I know you get it, Jack, you understand the culture and EAA has made great advances under your guidance these last couple of years. But I'm afraid you are just wrong about the Thunderbirds.
    Jeff Point
    RV-6 and RLU-1 built & flying
    Tech Counselor, Flight Advisor & President, EAA Chapter 18
    Milwaukee, WI
    "It All Started Here!"

  2. #2
    FlyingRon's Avatar
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    There's a split purpose to Airventure (and the name even implies what that is). The show is not just the annual convention of EAA members, it is *THE* money making event for both the EAA and the EAA foundation. As a result we are stuck enduring a few commercial opportunities that are, as you note, disharmonious with the actual mission of the association. Frankly, the Blues or Tbirds are a whole lot better than the stupid Shockwave jet truck or even, in my opinion, the stupid-assed acts like the Masters of Destruction.

    We'll have to see what impact the T-Birds actually cause. Frankly, in the past few years the airplane arrival has been mixed to begin with, and a substantial number of people arrive and depart before Friday anyhow. Frankly, I was at Sun-n-Fun this year when the Blue's performed and there were changes there as well. Frankly, I didn't see much of an adverse impact (and that's a field where people day-trip in and out more than camp like Oshkosh) but they did clear out almost half of the Lakeland version of Scholler for the Blue's performance.

    We'll have to see. After this summer's show we can reevaluate. Either gripe how it could have been handled better or you can say "I told you so" and we'll know not to do that again.

  3. #3
    gbrasch's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Point View Post
    I. Let's face it- what we do is just so awesome that regular folks were more than willing to pay the admission price in order to get a ticket to stand with their noses against the flight line fence (remember that?) and watch us do our thing. The show wasn't for them and yet they came, in greater numbers than they do today, I might add.
    That is a nice memory, being a "member" and walking through those gates, leaving the non-aviators behind the fence.
    Glenn Brasch
    KRYN Tucson, Arizona
    2013 RV-9A
    Medevac helicopter pilot (Ret)
    EAA member since 1980
    Owner, "Airport Courtesy Cars" website.
    www.airportcourtesycars.com
    Volunteer Mentor www.SoAZTeenAviation.org

  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by gbrasch View Post
    That is a nice memory, being a "member" and walking through those gates, leaving the non-aviators behind the fence.
    A few of us non-aviators snuck through that fence, because we liked airplanes and couldn't afford to pay the price of memebership to get close to them. My first Oshkosh was in 1991, main reason I went was to see the F-117. Had no idea that one needed to be a member to even get close to the airplanes after paying to get on the grounds, and I think it was like $25 to become a member back then, which I didn't have, so I snuck onto the flightline to see the plane I drove up there to see.

    I am member now and still a non-aviator that loves airplanes, and I am glad the Thunderbirds are going to be here. I love all aircraft, from jets to ultralights, and think all should be included in the greatest aviation event in the US.

  5. #5

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    I was happy to hear they were coming until the details of the intrusion came to light. I usually don't venture too far from my volunteer location on Friday or Saturday because I don't like being in crowds. I suspect departures from homebuilt and vintage parking are going to spike Friday morning. I know I woudn't want my airplane in the middle of the mob that's going to be concentrated west of the new burn line. Since we weren't consulted, I guess we'll see what happens.

  6. #6
    rwanttaja's Avatar
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    Well-written, Jeff.

    I think EAA is suffering from "boiled frog" syndrome. As Jeff says, it started out as, basically, a members-only event. But, over the years, it gradually became more. And, as appealing to a wider attendance base caused more people to come, more investment (both financial and emotional) went into supporting the larger and larger crowds. If the show got pared back to a members-only event again, there's a LOT of infrastructure wasted, and a lot of vendors wouldn't come ("you promised me 400,000 potential customers, there were only 50,000"). Both would cost EAA a ton of money, and that would cripple the organization.

    EAA can't go back, not easily. EAA depends on the Airventure income to keep it at the current level. A downsized Airventure *would* result in a downsized EAA, and controlling such a downsizing would be tricky. One wrong decision, and it's bankrupt. Could EAA, as an organization, give 150,000 homebuilders the current level of technical support and perform the current vital advocacy in Washington DC if it were again run by a couple of volunteers in someone's basement? I don't think so....

    The obvious riposte to this is, "Well, EAA shouldn't be as big as it is. It doesn't need that big headquarters, it doesn't need that big staff, it doesn't need the museum, it doesn't need Pioneer Airport, it doesn't need six huge permanent pavilions, etc."

    And that may be true. The problem is, EAA has all those things. And downsizing isn't as easy as putting an ad on "Barnstormers". Remember the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland": "It takes all the running you can do to remain in the same place."

    I think having the Thunderbirds will be fine if EAA doesn't make a habit of it. I think it'll make the 2014 show special, but they probably don't want to cause the show-grounds and member upsets every year. It'll bring in more of the non-flying public, and what they see might tend to make them want to come back next year, even without the Thunderbirds. Have a military team every ten years or so....

    Ron Wanttaja

  7. #7
    Jeff Point's Avatar
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    Lotta "ifs" in there Ron. Do you really think that if this works and EAA nets an extra mil or so from the larger gate, that they won't be lobbying the AF and Navy to do this every year? If Jack had used his editorial to say "we are bringing in the Thunderbirds because they will draw a lot more people and we need the extra money to keep the organization going," I would have a hard time arguing with it. Granted, I still wouldn't like it, but I'd get it. My issue, and the reason for this post, is that he seems to believe that bringing the T-birds to Oshkosh is good for the organization and the future of aviation. I believe that it is in fact harmful to the organization and therefor a bad idea.

    Those of us who criticize the direction of EAA are often made out to be straw men who want next years event to be nothing but a get-together of homebuilders in Paul's coal bin basement. (That could happen- the house is still there and just a couple miles down the road from mine.) Nobody in their right mind thinks we could or should "go back." You can't unboil the frog, but you don't have to keep turning the heat up either.
    Jeff Point
    RV-6 and RLU-1 built & flying
    Tech Counselor, Flight Advisor & President, EAA Chapter 18
    Milwaukee, WI
    "It All Started Here!"

  8. #8
    L16 Pilot's Avatar
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    Jeff makes some good points and as one who parks in the vintage area I do get concerned about 'non aviation folks' leaning on my tube and fabric airplane. Having said that, it does seem to me that EAA always tries to find something new to bring to Oshkosh in order to keep the folks 'interested'. This year it happens to be the Thunderbirds (by the way I'm an old air force guy :F-102 days). Remember the Concord? A friend of mine had to go just to see the Concord fly and it was impressive to say the least. Or that big old Russian cargo jet that was doing slow flight turns over the field. Where else do you go to see stuff like that? While I can appreciate the skill of aerobatics they get pretty "ho-hum" after the second or third one and I generally head for Friar Tucks for an adult beverage or if I happen to be driving head out before the rush starts. On a personal basis I do like the fly by demonstrations of different aircraft, vintage and war bird fly bys, some forums and being able to talk to vendors. Anyway, as someone mentioned above, the genie is out of the bottle regarding the size of the convention and the money needed to be raised to support various missions of the EAA but I'll keep going as long as my landing gear holds out. I look forward to it every year. L16 pilot

  9. #9
    rwanttaja's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Point View Post
    Those of us who criticize the direction of EAA are often made out to be straw men who want next years event to be nothing but a get-together of homebuilders in Paul's coal bin basement.
    If I implied that regarding your posting, I apologize. You stated your case well, non-emotionally, and with good logic. I'm just a born contrarian. :-)

    Personally, I think the furor regarding needing to chase people out of traditional viewing areas and just the overall hassles will probably aim EAA towards not doing this every year. Guess we'll know in about eleven months.

    Ron Wanttaja

  10. #10

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    Good write-up, Jeff. Your sentiments align with mine pretty well.

    But playing devil's advocate, I wonder how many long term EAA members will actually be impacted by the relocated crowd line? Personally, I don't gravitate towards the airshow anyway. I'll likely be found in a workshop or a forum, or maybe sitting in a shady spot reading a book or talking with a new found friend - can't do that at the showline - between the speakers, the jets, and the aerobatic routines, it is way too loud for me. I think a lot of the dedicated EAA'ers are the same - Airventure isn't about the airshow, it is about everything else. So if the townies want to watch the Thunderbirds while I do what I was going to do anyway, what's the big deal? Especially if it puts another million bucks in the EAA coffers.

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