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Air show attendance, impact fluctuates depending on performers, weather

The annual Vectren Dayton Air Show has a multi-million dollar economic impact in the community, but its attendance and overall success is always more up in the air than its leaders would like.

The show’s outcome hinges in part on the weather and is higly dependent on the planes and performers that participate every year. This year the Air Force’s Thunderbirds will perform at the show, which starts Saturday.

Last year’s show was estimated to have generated around a $3.7 million impact in the local economy, said Scott Buchanan, board chairman of the show. The Dayton air show is often ranked one of the country’s best and it’s a rating that is well deserved, said John Cudahy, president of the Virginia-based International Council of Air Shows.

“Dayton’s is clearly among the top in the country,” Cudahy said. “There are not five air shows in the country that are better than Dayton’s.”

Despite the air show’s prestigious reputation, fewer visitors typically turnout in years when military jet teams don’t perform, a Dayton Daily News examination of more than 10 years of data found.

In 2018, around 62,000 people attended the air show when the Navy’s Blue Angels performed. That’s up from 44,000 visitors in 2017 when the Thunderbirds canceled and from 51,000 when no military jets performed.

“Last year was good because everything aligned. We had good weather, we had the Blue Angels” Buchanan said. “We had a couple years where we didn’t have jet teams because they had an incident here or a mishap there.”

The air show’s attendance has fluctuated dramatically over the last 10 years, data shows.

At its peak in the last decade, nearly 80,000 people visited the air show in 2009 when the Thunderbirds performed. At its low point, around 23,000 guests attended the event in 2013.That was the same year the federal government’s budget sequestration canceled most Thunderbirds shows and a pilot and wing walker were killed in a crash at the Dayton show.

“You know, we’ve had two years (recently) without jet teams,” Buchanan said. “We still had solid shows and solid attendance. It dipped some but not a whole lot.”

‘A balance’

Military jet teams and demonstrations are usually the largest draw for air show spectators, said Cudahy.

The International Council conducts a survey of shows every year and they showed that military teams are usually the most sought-after attraction at shows. Viewers also like to see performances by acrobatic pilots and vintage World War II “birds,” said Cudahy, who plans to attend the Dayton show.

“The best air show is one that has a balance of those things,” Cudahy said. “Those that have a strong mix do well and Dayton is certainly one of those.”

Along with the Thunderbirds, this year’s air show will feature demonstrations of a C-17 Globemaster III and KC-135 Stratotanker for the first time. An F/A-18 super hornet — the aircraft that has served the Navy for two decades — will also fly during the show, as will the U.S. Army Golden Knights, a British Sea Harrier, the GEICO Skytypers and the aerobatic Team Oracle pilots led by Sean Tucker.

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“Every other year we’re very fortunate to either get the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels so that stays pretty steady,” Buchanan said. “But, the show changes every year.”

The Vectren Dayton Air show is “well managed” and always “well received” by the community, a factor that Cuday said has generated interest and high regard.

On top of the show’s offerings, Dayton has its own year-round aviation offerings that can make the event special. As the home of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Dayton is home to the National Aviation Heritage Area, a designation that attracts tourism and more than $300,000 a year in federal dollars.

The air show, which is now 45 years old, is a “critical” piece of the heritage area’s distinction, said Mackensie Wittmer, executive director of the NAHA.

“The show is a symbol of Southwest Ohio’s past, current, and future leadership in aviation and aerospace,” Wittmer said.

‘More impact’

Like attendance, the air show’s financial impact fluctuates depending on the weather, performers and more, said Jacquelyn Powell, president of the Dayton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The show has for decades been one of the area’s top events in terms of economic impact, Powell said. The hotels that are booked, the restaurants that visitors eat at and the stores they shop at while they’re in town contribute millions to the local economy, she said.

“That’s money that they’re leaving behind in our community and that helps from the standpoint of jobs in our community,” Powell said.

The air show’s economic strength in the Dayton region has only grown in recent years.

Five years ago, the air show added around $3.2 million to the local economy and since then it increased by half-a-million dollars to $3.7 million, Buchanan said.

“When we have good weather and everything lines up, you get more people out and have a little more impact,” Buchanan said of last years figures.

Aside from the direct financial effects, Powell said the air show provides exposure to Dayton in a way that few other events do. One way the show does that is by drawing attention to the airport, which Cudahy said is a valuable community resource that people often forget about if they’re not using regularly.

Preparations were already underway last week at the Dayton International Airport, said Terry Slaybaugh, the airport’s director of aviation.

To host the show, Slaybaugh said the airport has to occasionally shut down its air space as performers fly in and out and practice.

Closing off the air space while avoiding disruptions to commercial flights can “get complicated,” Slaybaugh said. But, its just one of the many preparations the airport’s staff members have to check off their list to make sure they meet the show’s needs and are in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

The airport has to qualify for a waiver from the FAA to host aerobatic aircraft and staff have to train for emergency situations to keep the performers and visitors safe, Slaybaugh said. Despite the months of planning and precautions, air show leaders said its worth it to bring the event back for its 45th year.

“You sometimes don’t know just how strong of an asset you have when its right in your own backyard,” Cudahy said. “Dayton’s is that kind of thing.”

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