The Impact of Air Shows, Fly-overs, Open Houses, and Guest Days 
on Public Opinion
Jon Connor, Patricia Huizinga, Peter Kerr
  • Introduction
  • Demonstration Teams
  • Air Show Cost & Popularity
  • Theoretical Basis
  • Costs of Military-Sponsored Public Events
  • Study Design, Method & Results
  • Pilot Study
  • Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Appendix A
  • Appendix B
  • Appendix C
  • Appendix D
  • References
  • About the authors
  • That air shows attract large audiences is undisputed. In 1992 air shows were the second largest attended sporting event in the U.S., drawing 24 million people, second only to baseball. National League Football was third at 14 million, followed by automobile races at 13 million attendees (Kate, 1993).

    Kate (1993) also finds 63% of air show fans have some college education; 47% have incomes exceeding $35,000; 66% are married; 57% are men; 42% buy beer every seven to 10 days; 80% buy soft drinks; and 64% buy fruit juices.

    Though many people clearly attend air shows, some opposition to the military's involvement in air shows has arisen. In 1999, Congressman Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) proposed an amendment to the annual defense spending bill to force defense contractors to pay for all foreign air shows involving active-duty U.S. personnel (Crawley, 1999).

    While Stark's amendment did not succeed, it raised some important concerns. For example, Stark argues that since contractors make sales and thus profits due to military aircraft performances, taxpayers should not have to pay the bill for advertising air shows. Furthermore, Stark claims the Pentagon spends $34 million annually flying aircraft and crews to such places as Paris and Singapore (Crawley, 1999).

    The Pentagon, however, states the costs are no more than $2 million annually. The difference in figures, Stark believes, is that the Pentagon does not count the transportation costs of bringing aircraft to long-distance locations, because the aircrew count the flight time as normally scheduled training (Crawley, 1999).

    Overseas air shows evolved from leased aircraft in the 1980s to presidential approval for military personnel to fly their aircraft at air shows free of charge starting in 1991. In the aftermath of a Marine Corps aircraft crash at a Singapore air show, Congress passed a law requiring a 45-day notification prior to any U.S. involvement in overseas air shows (Crawley, 1999).

    The law also demands that participation be in the "interest of national security" and that the Pentagon submits an annual cost estimate. Overseas air shows cost $1.75 million in 1996; $918,000 in 1997; and, $1.19 million in 1998, stated Pentagon reports to Congress. Stark's $34 million figure was estimated by the World Policy Institute, an organization opposed to international arms sales (Crawley, 1999).

    In 1994, Defense Secretary William Perry scrambled to find $95,000 so the U.S. could participate in the following year's "Air Show Downunder" in Australia. Perry first determined that the air show was "…in the national security interest of the United States" reasoned by "cooperative engagement." (Defense & Aerospace Electronics, 1994).

    Perry also stated that the costs would be reduced by using theater assets already deployed in the region, and by timing the air show with joint training exercises with the Australians (Defense & Aerospace Electronics, 1994).

    With the United States heading into the 21st century, the military is now focusing on Generation Y, those youngsters born after 1978. With an overall personnel downsizing of 30% compared to 10 years ago, scandals related to gay-bashing and sexual harassment, with unemployment the lowest in 30 years, and college aid readily available, military recruiters are not meeting their annual goals (Business Week, 2000).

    To counter these trends, the four military branches increased their advertising spending to $286 million for 2000, a 33% increase over 1999's budget. In 1999, the Army was 6,300 recruits shy, the Air Force was 5% percent short, and the Navy in 1998 was nearly 7,000 recruits less than their target of 55,321 (Business Week, 2000).

    In fact, Maj. Brad Bartels, a Thunderbirds pilot, stated the Air Force was about 900 pilots short and that the shortfall was predicted to continue for another six years (Purpura, 1999). 

    Air shows and other public/community events are expensive. For example, the Navy's Blue Angels spend $13 million annually on maintenance and expenses other than salaries, while the Air Force's Thunderbirds spend almost $10 million. 

    The cost of an F/A-18 is about $28 million, and just one jet plane uses 1,300 gallons of JP-5 jet fuel at an air show, at a cost of about $1,378 (U.S. Navy, 2000). The cost of an F-16 is $23 million (Purpura, 1999).

    A look at one Army public event held at Fort Eustis, Virginia, the home of Army transportation, is Super Day held every August. The 1999 event had the Golden Knights and a fly over. The attendance was around 25,000. To put on the event, the cost to the installation was about $40,000 without sponsors; with sponsors the cost was lowered to $10,000 (Fort Eustis Public Affairs Office, 2000).

    Part of the demonstrations teams' allure is also the fact that VIPs and the media get to fly with them. Several of the jets are two-seat models offered for this very purpose.

    For the Navy, individuals are selected to generate national media coverage and convey a positive message of the Navy and Marine Corps. Three media members are selected for each show site and a small number of VIPs from television, sports, music and the movie industry are offered orientation flights (U.S. Navy, 2000).

    Lt. Col. Brian Bishop, Thunderbirds commander in 1998, stated the Air Force received a great return on its investment when golfer Tiger Woods rode with them. "When you have ESPN, ESPN 2, The Golf Channel, TNN, TNT, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, all cover it, I've touched 50 million people for a very small amount of money" (Kaczor, 1998).

    Military-sponsored events occasionally incur a collateral cost that is beyond a price tag, as many lives have been lost during these aerial maneuvers. In 1999, for the first time ever, figures were made available by the branch services through a federal Freedom of Information Act request during an 18-month safety examination of military special events by the Dayton Daily newspaper through each of the services safety centers (Carollo, 1999). 

    Some of the major findings include: Since 1972, 42 major accidents occurred killing at least 100 people; between April 1989 and March 1998, the Blue Angels were involved in 36 aviation incidents resulting in two deaths, eight injuries and $51.5 million dollars in damages; since 1972, 16 major accidents involving the Blue Angels resulted in eight deaths; the Army has the highest number of dead at 68, with 16 others killed in accidents described as "demonstrations;" the Thunderbirds have accounted for 10 deaths since 1972; the Air Force has the largest monetary loss at $134.5 million with much of that attributed to the 1997 tragedy of an F-117 Stealth Fighter ($51 million) crashing into a Maryland apartment complex; during a practice flight of the newly formed air demonstration team called the Thunderhawks, a KC-135 tanker crashed killing seven people causing the Air Force to disband the team following the 1987 accident (Carollo, 1999).

    All totaled, 105 aviation incidents were discovered that were linked to air shows, rehearsals, or demonstration teams costing at least $284 million in physical damage (Carollo, 1999). 

    The worst air show disaster in history occurred in August 1988 at the Air Force's Ramstein Air Base in Germany when 70 people, most spectators, were killed along with 400 others injured when a Italian Air Force jets collided near the grandstands (Fromme, 1989).

    The loss of lives could have been considerably reduced if Germany had rules similar to the Federal Aviation Agency's which states the minimum distance between the flight line and the crowd is 1,500 feet. The FAA regulates all Department of Defense aerial teams and limits the maneuvers they may perform (Nelson, 1988).

    Interestingly, little if any meaningful research has been done to show what effects air shows have on recruiting. "No study has been conducted to determine how effective the teams are as recruiting gimmicks," stated retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, deputy director of the Defense Information Center, a private research center in Washington, D.C. (Kaczor, 1998).

    Are these events worthwhile? The purpose of this study is to determine whether air shows, open houses, fly-overs, and guest days are valuable tools to improve the publics' attitude and perception of the military, and to gain demographic and recruitment potential data. These events are hypothesized to increase the public's opinion of the military, because they inform and familiarize the public with the military. The link between familiarization and the hypothesized elevation in public opinion is best described by the uncertainty reduction theory (Berger, 1979; Berger & Calabrese, 1975).

    This website was constructed as part of a research project under the auspices of the University of Oklahoma and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Defense.