Show flying sans parachute

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Thursday, May 24, 2012
— In the air show industry, two things almost always guarantee success—good weather and a popular jet team.

Tom Morgan, the ABC Supply Co. Southern Wisconsin AirFest executive director and founder, admits he can't control the weather, but he bends over backward to secure a top- flight jet team each year.

When the average air show spectator hears the term "jet team," the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds come to mind. They are, by far, the most popular teams in the United States.

"If you can secure one of those two teams for your air show, it's the same as an insurance policy," Morgan said last week while taking a break from the hundreds of show preparation details. "You are pretty much guaranteed to break even, and everything else is above and beyond your costs."

For Morgan, he's now able to add a third team to the "insurance" group.

"When we first brought in the Canadian Snowbirds, there was an understandable uncertainty out there," he said. "But after folks saw their incredible performance, we had no problem bringing them back, and our fans love them."

So what is the mood of the AirFest staff without the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds or Snowbirds on this year's performers list?

"Naturally, there's some uncertainty again, the same as there was when we first brought in the Snowbirds," Morgan said. "This year, we have the Black Diamond Jet Team, a relatively new team that most of the AirFest fans have not seen."

Morgan is betting on a warm reception for the Black Diamonds.

"I've seen plenty of film of this team, and I can assure everyone it's a top-flight air show jet team," he said. "It's not the same as the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, and it's not the same as the Snowbirds.

"The Black Diamond team is very unique," Morgan said. "It has some of the more aggressive moves the military teams have, especially with the MiG-17 opposing solos. It also has some of the grace and flowing precision we see with the Snowbirds."

In a sense, Morgan, his staff and hundreds of volunteers are in a rebuilding year. Last year was, if not a disaster, a low point in the event's 11-year history.

"The problem last year was a verbal agreement with the Brazilian Air Force team," Morgan said. "We originally set the show for May, but the team backed out and said they could only perform in July.

"After we decided on that, we realized the weekend conflicted with the Rock County 4-H Fair, so we were left with trying to get things together for a September show the weekend after Labor Day."

As a result, attendance was down, partly the result of other performers canceling when the date was changed.

While there are several reasons for problems with past shows, especially last year, one problem is not management, Morgan said.

Morgan took over direct event management in 2009. Until last year, the show enjoyed large crowds with appearances by the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Snowbirds.

"We decided on a change, but we continued to have success until last year," Morgan said. "What problems we have had are in no way related to our decisions regarding who is running the show."

Morgan decided to double down this year without one of the traditional top-flight teams. In addition to the Black Diamonds, he brought in Art Nalls and his Sea Harrier, the only privately owned hover jet in the world.

"We will have incredible performances this year," Morgan said. "I'm not worried at all about the quality of our show. It's a great value and reasonably priced."

So what's keeping Morgan up at night?

"We don't have that ‘insurance policy' I talked about, so the weather this year is critical," he said. "In the past, I followed all the weather forecasts weeks in advance and worried a lot. I still worry, but it's out of our control, so we have to just wait it out."

Morgan is already working on the 2013 show.

"We set the date for the same Memorial Day weekend, and we have confirmed the Snowbirds," he said. "We have received a definite ‘no' from the Blue Angels, and we're still waiting to hear from the Thunderbirds."

That means Morgan has one "insurance" policy in hand for 2013, but what about the weather next year?

"Don't ask," he said. "I'm still looking at the seven-day forecast for this year."

Last updated: 8:17 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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