features Airshow extraordinaire: Airshow London SkyDrive 2020

How Airshow London organizers pulled off an unforgettable drive-in airshow amid the pandemic.
Avatar By Eric Dumigan | October 5, 2020

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 30 seconds.

SOLD OUT! That’s one way to describe Canada’s first physically distant, drive-in airshow — Airshow London SkyDrive — that took place in London, Ont., on Sept. 12 and 13. The airshow, which saw roughly 30,000 people in attendance, was the largest outdoor event held in Canada so far this year. The incredible lineup of acts that performed at this year’s show — which sold out three days before the gates opened — was sure to draw in crowds.

During this year’s Airshow London drive-in event, a USAF C-17 from McChord AFB made several visits each day to load and unload equipment and essential personnel. It also flew an impressive airshow routine to demonstrate the C-17s capabilities. Patrick Cardinal Photo

With perfect flying weather, the show kicked off with the takeoff of two RCAF CF-18 Hornet fighter jets. A CC-150 Polaris transport/tanker, dispatched from CFB Trenton, met the fighters for an air-to-air refuelling demonstration. The two Hornets then made several single and two-ship passes before recovering at London International Airport (CYXU). The CF-18s were the only aircraft to operate out of London during the weekend, but a USAF C-17 made several visits to load and unload equipment and essential personnel for the show.

Headlining Airshow London SkyDrive were the famed USAF Thunderbirds. Jeff Wilson Photo

Due to airshow cancellations in the U.S., Airshow London SkyDrive had the privilege of hosting six U.S. Air Force (USAF) demonstration teams. On Sept. 11, the USAF A-10, F-16, F-22 and F-35 demonstration teams performed a four-ship Heritage Flight for the first time at an airshow. Headlining the show were the famed USAF Thunderbirds. And, last but not least, was the USAF West Coast C-17 Demonstration Team that flew each day and also provided transportation for ground support equipment and personnel.

Missing from this year’s show were the beloved Canadian Forces Snowbirds, who cancelled their 2020 airshow season after a May crash that took the life of Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer Capt Jennifer Casey. In a show of support, all USAF tac demo teams showcased the Snowbirds’ decal in a prominent position on their aircraft to honour Casey’s memory.

Adapting on the fly

The re-organization of the airshow in the midst of the global pandemic was no easy feat; although the drive-in concept was a first for Airshow London, and other pandemic-related obstacles were in play, the execution went off without a hitch.

For the first time at an airshow, the USAF A-10, F-16, F-22 and F-35 demonstration teams performed a four-ship Heritage Flight together. John Chung Photo

The Airshow London crew adapted fast and changed plans on the fly to create an unprecedented airshow in Canada. “Our volunteer team [started] from the ground up to create an entirely new model for our airshow in 90 days,” said Jim Graham, chair of the Airshow London board. “This format required a react-and-adapt approach to keep things safe on the ground and in the air for our crews, volunteers and patrons.”

Tickets were sold by the carload, with a total of 2,250 cars per day allowed onsite. Using ramp space, taxiways and part of a runway, 20 by 25-foot (six by eight-metre) cubicles were marked off for each car, allowing for plenty of physical distancing. Toilet facilities were provided for blocks of cars, with pathways and rules of use to adhere to current health protocols. And, a large food franchise provided pizza and beverage deliveries right to each vehicle through an app.

A CF-18 from 433 Sqn joins formation with CC-150T Polaris to demonstrate the RCAF’s air-air refuelling capability. RCAF participation at Canada’s largest outdoor event was over-shadowed by the USAF that pull out all of the stops to support the show. Eric Dumigan Photo

Behind the scenes

“From the beginning, we had the Thunderbirds for the first time since ’96,” said Airshow London’s director of Air Operations, Gerry Vanderhoek. “And not knowing what they’re going to do in two years… we really didn’t want to waste the opportunity. So we just kept thinking of concepts. That three o’clock in the morning-type idea hit me in June — what if we did a drive-in? What if we did camping spots? And as we flipped that on, that’s where that contingency came — what if the U.S. teams couldn’t come to Canada?

“I pitched the idea to the folks at Air Combat Command (ACC). . . . Once I had the green light that [hosting U.S. teams] was a positive option, I started making calls to get the ball rolling,” he added. “I have a really great friend, CMSgt Mike Gay, who has flown into many of my airshows in both London and Halifax with C-130 and KC-135s, who is now the airfield manager for Selfridge ANGB [Air National Guard Base]. He jumped onboard immediately to do what he could to help out, and what a job he did ensuring we had base approvals, ramp space, ground support equipment, security — anything you can think of.”

A group photo in front of the C-17 ramp with the U.S. demo teams, RCAF personnel and key show organizers who participated in Airshow London SkyDrive 2020. Mack Smith Photo

For Airshow London’s air bosses Lyle Holbrook and Josh Pegg, the last few months before the show proved to be very challenging. Canada decided the show could not have U.S. aircraft and all their support teams on the ground at London, which brought on logistical challenges and negotiations and planning — all of which were sorted in just a three-week time period.

For most of the U.S. military aircraft, KC-10 and KC-135 refuelling tankers were positioned in Canadian airspace during the show to provide fuel. Selfridge ANGB is 78 nautical miles (150 kilometres) from London, so the USAF demo teams needed extra fuel in order to fly the distance and perform a full show — plus a Heritage Flight. The exception was the USAF Thunderbirds. Having six aircraft to refuel proved to be challenging, so the decision was made for them to fly a shorter show over London and avoid air-to-air refuelling unless needed.

The F-22 Raptor Demo Team aircraft putting on a display. Eric Dumigan Photo

Vanderhoek said Airshow London SkyDrive was the first time any of the U.S. demo teams supported a remote show as far away as it was. “Their maximum is 50 nautical miles, and we were 78 nm [from Selfridge to London]. I was talking to ACC through the whole process, and I said, ‘What if we put in a tanker route?’ And they thought that was awesome.”

As aircraft crossed into Canadian airspace, they communicated with Nav Canada controllers who gave them vectors to London Airport; at 10 miles (19 km) out, Nav Canada handed off the aircraft to the air boss. Departing the airspace, the pilots were sent back to Nav Canada for IFR plans back to Selfridge or to rendezvous with the tanker.

A USAF B-52 Stratofortress bomber from Barksdale AFB also made an appearance at this year’s show. Eric Dumigan Photo

From an air operations perspective, Vanderhoek said “it was one of the most complex shows I have put together. Organizing tankers to work in an air-to-air refuelling area to help with the aircraft transiting was a new challenge for sure.

“That, and trying to get aircraft to be approved to do flybys and demos is a lot more difficult than static displays, so the pre-work was fairly complicated and time consuming,” he added. “But once the show time came and we passed off the work to the air boss, it was a little easier.”

An airshow to remember

The rollercoaster that has been 2020 is hard to put into words. But it was the major driving force behind finding a way for Airshow London to go on this year — pandemic or not.

“Everybody was really motivated, because of the year we’re having, to make something happen for the public… to make everyone happy and give people hope,” said Vanderhoek.

USAF F-35 Lightening II demo pilot, Captain Kristin ‘Boe’ Wolfe put on a spirited demonstration of the F-35 each day. Here, she flies the 5th generation fighter in a high-speed pass that is just under the sound barrier. Patrick Cardinal Photo

While there were periods of uncertainty in the early planning stages, Airshow London SkyDrive 2020 will be known as one of the most exciting airshows the country has seen. It was the first airshow, outside of the Heritage Flight Conference, to ever host all four ACC demo teams. Not to mention it brought the Thunderbirds and F-16 Demo Team together — another first, according to Vanderhoek.

And the response from the fans on the entire show experience was extremely positive, Vanderhoek added. “What a trailblazing event it was. It was amazing. People stood by their cars; they really didn’t deviate.”

Airshow London organizers are extremely appreciative of the support and enthusiasm shown for the event. “It has been incredible to have the support of Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, as well as numerous community sponsors: London International Airport, the City of London and the RCAF,” said board chair Graham. “It has been a collaborative approach from the initial decision. There has been a sense that we are building something historic in the air, for the airshow industry and for the community.”

Although attendees didn’t experience the same interaction they typically would with other showgoers and performers, or the chance to tour the static aircraft display, “you still get the same great airshow and excitement,” said Airshow London PR/media volunteer, Diana Spremo.

“The photo pit where dedicated photographers and enthusiasts shoot from had designated cubicles giving ample space between people — [a model that] could be used during normal times to reduce crowding at the flightline,” she added. “Guests didn’t have to battle with the crowds; everyone had their own personal space to watch the show. From what was seen and heard, many families loved the idea of sitting with their car and having all the comforts they brought along.”

Who wouldn’t love to watch an extraordinary airshow from the comfort of their own car? Without a doubt, Airshow London SkyDrive 2020 is one for the books.

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