Southern Wisconsin AirFest sets its sights on 2013

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Thursday, May 31, 2012
— The Canadian Snowbirds are confirmed for the 2013 Southern Wisconsin AirFest, giving the show an instant leg up on the recently completed 2012 show.

Inclement weather in the form of severe thunderstorms, high winds, heavy rain and oppressive heat held down attendance at this year's event, said founder and Executive Director Tom Morgan.

Friday night's performance was shortened because of rain, and a thunderstorm roared through the area Saturday morning. Sunday's temperatures soared into the mid-90s.

Morgan said between 12,000 and 14,000 spectators attended this year's program.

"Saturday was our best day for attendance after the thunderstorm ended," he said. "Sunday's attendance was held down because of the heat."

Looking forward, the AirFest staff is not deterred.

"This was one of our low years, similar to last year," Morgan said. "It was a down year, but the weather is, of course, beyond our control. We are now going to get back at it to make 2013 a success."

There is good news to report out of the 2012 AirFest, Morgan said.

"Our title sponsor, ABC Supply, is behind the event, as well as our other sponsors," he said. "The board is behind our continuing effort as well."

The 2013 show already is a step head of 2012 with a top-name jet team confirmed.

"The Canadian Snowbirds are confirmed for 2013," Morgan said. "We will not be able to bring in the Blue Angels, but we are still in the running for the Thunderbirds."

Morgan will find out if the Thunderbirds will sign on next year when schedules are announced Tuesday, Dec. 11 at the International Council of Airshows' convention in Las Vegas.

The 2013 AirFest will retain its traditional dates on Memorial Day weekend, May 24-26.

AirFest spectators were deprived of a full jet team performance this year by the Black Diamonds. One of the four L-39 Albatross jets did not arrive, and neither of the two scheduled MiG-17s performed.

"Like the weather, some things we can't control," Morgan said. "Planes are machines, and sometimes you have mechanical problems with machines. That's what happened."

Safety is a primary concern at air shows, Morgan said.

"We want all our performers to be 100-percent comfortable with the aircraft in terms of safety," he said. "We respect the Black Diamond team's decision in light of the mechanical issues."

The same held true of the pyro jet truck. On the way to AirFest, the transporter swerved to avoid a deer damaging the jet truck.

"They called and said they would try to make emergency repairs, but we told them it was better to miss the show than to take any chances," Morgan said. "Some of these disappointments are simply out of our control."

One aspect of the air show that Morgan can and does control is the connection with the Wisconsin Aviation Academy.

"I think it's significant to point out that our performers are as dedicated to the academy as we are," he said. "Despite the weather and other problems, our performers said they believe in AirFest and what it stands for.

"A great example of that is Art Nalls, who came here with his Sea Harrier," Morgan said. "He devotes his performances to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and he appreciates that we dedicate proceeds from AirFest to help area youth through the academy.

"That's a driving force for us and a reason why many of our performers choose to return year after year," Morgan added. "I'm delighted that Art shares our goals, and I'm very pleased that he told us he was planning to return to AirFest next year."


With all the attention on jet teams, the weather and a variety of aircraft, it's understandable how the real reason behind the Southern Wisconsin AirFest can get lost.

"I think it's important to revisit why we do all this," said Tom Morgan, AirFest founder and executive director. "At one time, AirFest was all about the Wisconsin Aviation Academy."

The academy was the AirFest coordinator the first two years the air show was held, 2002 and 2003. AirFest incorporated in 2004 and has run the show since.

Morgan came to aviation naturally. He grew up in Virginia Beach where his father worked at the Oceana Naval Air Station.

"I grew up watching all kinds of aircraft," he said. "I got my license when I was 27 and ended up with a master's degree in education."

Morgan taught aviation from 1998 to 2000 at the University of North Dakota and the University of Dubuque, two highly rated aviation schools.

"The academy was formed in 2000, and we had our first class graduate in 2001," Morgan said.

Out of the academy grew AirFest, an annual air show intended to help support the academy itself.

"Over the years I think some of us lost sight of our roots," Morgan said. "That's easy to do when you are working on all the details that go into putting on an air show, but we need to remember why we do this."

In six of the show's eight years there has been some contribution to the academy after expenses were paid, Morgan said.

A fair question to ask is why create a special school for kids to learn how to fly?

"We have never said we'll teach these kids to be commercial pilots, although some of them have gone on to do that," he said. "Through aviation, we teach life skills such as planning, preparation, discipline and responding to emergencies."

Students must be 16 when they begin classes and have a 2.5 grade-point-average in school.

"We are flexible depending on the student," Morgan said. "In one case we accepted a student with family issues who had a 1.4 GPA. He improved to a 4.0 two semesters in a row and eventually went on to become an aircraft mechanic.

"These are skills we hear are lacking today in teenagers," Morgan said. "Through aviation, we help instill these skills that transfer to almost any career."

Last updated: 8:14 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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