It’s Time to Widen the Celebration of Aviation and Expand the Air Show!

Towards the end of the summer holiday, I had the chance to head to Toronto’s air show, closing off the Canadian National Exhibition and ushering in the dreaded school year for thousands of Torontonian students. A lineup of interesting acts flew on center stage including a MiG-17, a Red Tail P-51C Mustang, a group of Harvards doing formation flying and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds. Not too long after the conclusion of the show, a photographer friend of mine forwarded me an editorial from the Toronto Star, confused and saddened by the attitude and theme of the piece. After reading it myself, I came to a similarly sad realization:

The Canadian International Air Show isn’t anywhere near as big as it should be. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to the CIAS, and it likely won’t be the last. Over the years, dedicated aviation fans from the city might have noticed a steady decline in performers and performances. Far away from the days where the sleek Concorde or the mighty F-14 Tomcat made appearances. Crowd interaction is at an all-time low, and while announcers like Ric Peterson make the show thrilling, informative and exciting for the audience, most would agree that there’s a lot more that could be done to make the air show better than it is right now.

Photograph by BriYYZ.
Photograph by BriYYZ.



I’ll get to the celebration of death part a little later.

The noise: A combined total of 13 hours of sporadic bits of noise over the city of Toronto and its suburbs isn’t the end of the world, nor is it even unbearable. Fine, let’s generously factor in another hour to accommodate arriving and departing aircraft at the beginning and end of the show. 14 hours. As a west-end resident of Toronto who lives under the CYYZ-to-stage flight paths of the performing aircraft, and a declared “aviation nerd” by my at-the-time girlfriend, I actually find myself disappointed by the fact that year after year, we’re constantly unable to see most of the performers flying above. Sure, we can hear them, but the noise is fleeting (a matter of seconds, really) and kind of vague. Yes, it more than likely does get louder for a number of people who live down on the Lakeshore in condominium and apartment buildings, but their silence is really very deafening. Complaints about the airshow are far more sparse than some would have you believe, and a good deal of these residents can actually be seen out on their balconies or roof-top patios watching the show unfold in the skies over Lake Ontario!

The danger: Yes, air shows can be dangerous. I won’t bombard you with numbers and statistics but here’s a very light overview: the CIAS has experienced 15 fatal accidents in its 68-year history, the last of which occurred in 1995 when a Hawker Siddeley Nimrod of the Royal Air Force stalled during a turn and crashed into Lake Ontario with all 7 crew aboard lost. Tragic, I do agree. But these incidents are very rare at most, minimized mostly due to the training and experience of airshow demonstration pilots. Take for example Blue Angels pilots. The Blues fly some of the craziest routines in the world of aerial demonstrations, sometimes coming as close as 18 inches to each other in-flight. These pilots aren’t ones who’ve waltzed their way into the cockpits of the F/A-18 C/D Hornets that they fly. They’re experienced naval aviators from the US Navy and Marine Corps with time in the fleet aboard aircraft carriers. They’re often the best pilots in their squadrons and the most highly-recommended. Additionally, the Blues only accept applications from pilots with a minimum of 1250 hours on their strike fighters (that’s a lot of flight time and experience, in  case you didn’t know), and have their pilots fly 120 closely-monitored multi-hour training flights to qualify to perform a public demonstration. Needless to say, they’re highly trained, very focused and keep both the safety of the pilots and the spectators on the ground as their highest priority. The Blues aren’t the only air demonstration team in the world who have such rigorous standards. Similar to them in pilot and training standards are the United States Air Force’s Thunderbirds, the RAF’s Red Arrows and the RCAF’s Snowbirds.

The US Navy's Blue Angels at the 2009 CIAS. Photograph by Matt Sergeant.
The US Navy’s Blue Angels at the 2009 CIAS. Photograph by Matt Sergeant.

What about civilian performances, you ask? Well, as it turns out, an overwhelming majority of those civilian performers have just as much, if not more, experience as military performers. Many of these pilots have thousands of hours in their logbooks, and a good number of them have actual military experience in similar or more advanced airframes. If you take away one thing from this entire paragraph, aside from my ability to overwrite, it’s that these performers aren’t run-of-the mill barely-finished-their-check rides pilots. They’re performers who train constantly, fly under safe conditions and ensure that the safety of the spectators on the ground in addition to fellow performers in the air remains unchallenged. If that doesn’t quell fears, I don’t know what will.

Then again, if you really don’t like something enough, you could just ignore the facts and make up more reasons as to why you don’t like it, right?

Why should the air show expand?

I’m glad you asked!

Aviation and Toronto are two things that go hand in hand, especially in the context of Canada’s involvement in the aircraft design and manufacturing industry. In the early 1900s, Amelia Earhart, the world-famous aviatrix, pointed out that her interest in taking to the skies stemmed from a visit to the Canadian National Exposition (precursor to the Canadian National Exhibition), where she witnessed a biplane piloted by a WWI veteran pilot perform daring acrobatic feats. Earhart would go on to set records, becoming a pioneer in aviation. Just as important was the fact that she served (and still serves) as a role model for young girls and women who wish(ed) to soar with eagles and earn their wings as pilots. How about the de Havilland plant that produced the DH.98 Mosquito, an aircraft vital to the Allied war effort in the Second World War? What of the CF-105 Arrow, one of the most advanced aircraft of its time (the first to be designed with an integrated fly-by-wire system), tested at and flown from what we now call Lester B. Pearson Intl. Airport? Let’s not forget the Canadarm, used in both NASA’s Space Shuttle flights and on the International Space Station, absolutely necessary to the exploration of space. There’s also the former McDonnell Douglas/Boeing plant which provided a number of jobs for Torontonians, boosting the city’s economy with contributions toward important passenger aircraft like the highly-successful Boeing 737. And today, we have a Bombardier plant in the northern parts of the city where the also-successful Dash 8 and Global aircraft are built and test-flown. As I said, Toronto and aviation… they just go together so well. Like pancakes and maple syrup! The CIAS celebrates the aviation heritage of Canada and the city of Toronto, and to forget such a wonderful history would be a disservice to so many who were a part of it, building up a part of the world of aviation we often take for granted today.

With the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing plant gone, the two biggest landmarks of aviation in Toronto, aside from the sprawling Pearson International (CYYZ) and the smaller Billy Bishop island airport (CYTZ) became the Canadian Air and Space Museum at the former Downsview Airport, and the Bombardier Plant adjacent to the museum. In recent years, the museum sadly shut down due to the expansion of a sports facility at Downsview. The museum was the last part of the city that could afford visitors and aviation lovers actual access to static display aircraft and exhibits about Canada’s aviation history. Right now, plans are up in the air about getting the museum set up in a different location, but more on that at a later date. Now, Torontonians are forced to make the trip to Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (not a very easy drive to make, navigation-wise; even worse if you’re using public transit to get there) to get their aviation fix. Either that, or wait for those three days a year when the air show comes back to town. Kind of a sad story, isn’t it?

Now, the CIAS is most definitely not a celebration of death and violence. Neither, for that matter, is any other air show around the world. It’s a celebration of human ingenuity, scientific, industrial, national and even physical achievement. People who attend the air show are more than likely not sufferers of arrested development. Heck, in past years, I’ve actually managed to bump into professors from school who are there to enjoy the event with their families. Learned, sophisticated, highly-educated and renowned individuals who rake in an enviable yearly salary before taxes. Are they afflicted with emotional and mental stunting?

I highly doubt it.

A British Airways Concorde at the 1988 CIAS. Photograph by Robert Taylor.
A British Airways Concorde at the 1988 CIAS. Photograph by Robert Taylor.

The CIAS, like other air shows, attracts fans of flight. People who admire the complexity of the airframes they see zipping about in front of their eyes. They appreciate the stunts that these pilots pull in aircraft that aren’t specifically designed for those maneuvers but can do them anyways because their pilots have managed to perfect those moves over hundreds of practice attempts before displaying it for the public to see. Believe it or not, there are people who look at those F/A-18s and Pitts Specials with respect because a part of them realizes the physical and mental capabilities their pilots need to possess to command such vehicles, and another part of them realizes that each of these airplanes are really marvels of engineering and human scientific achievement. They love the history behind some of these planes, and goshdarnit if they don’t get inspired to enter the world of aviation in some capacity or the other, just like Amelia Earhart all those years ago, and thousands of Torontonians who also caught the flying bug from seeing those magnificent men (and women) and their flying machines.

Of course, I’m taking a very deep approach to air show attendance here. A good number of people don’t appreciate the finer details, through no fault of their own, but still come to the air show to have a great time and enjoy the sights with their loved ones. So why ruin their fun? Every year, thousands of people from the city, surrounding towns and suburbs and even other cities off in the distance, like Hamilton, journey to the Canadian National Exhibition and the Lakeshore to watch the air show. Not hundreds, but thousands. If you’ve been consistent in attending the CIAS annually, you’ll more than likely agree that those numbers aren’t dwindling at all. In fact, 2013 and 2014 seemed to be even more crowded to me than the three previous years. The numbers prove that the air show remains relevant to this day, and is definitely not something that should go away, but rather be cemented as part of the city’s tradition.

But the CIAS hasn’t really given fans the air show experience they deserve. Other air shows around the country and continent give their fans an authentic, up-close and uninhibited experience. Static displays of high-performance aircraft, staffed by the pilots who fly them and the crew who keep ’em flying. Fun interactive experiences for kids, many of whom will get their first taste of aviation at those very air shows. Simulators, presentations and forums. Aerospace companies like Bombardier get their chance at displaying some of their current endeavors for people to see and take note of, and show off (or at least hint at) ideas and visions for the future. Who knows, business deals between carriers and manufacturers could even be made at events like these! And on that topic, airlines like Porter, WestJet and Air Canada get to attract potential passengers. Let me get back to the subject of inspiration. Air shows can inspire people to enter the aviation industry, be it as pilots or mechanics. But that’s not all they can do. There are jobs always availalbe as researchers, scientists and engineers in the field; all jobs that contribute to the leaps and bounds in aviation technology that we’ve made over the past 111 years since Orville took off from the beaches at Kitty Hawk. The air show needs to grow, if not for the fans and the people then also because of the bigger positive implications it can have on the city.

It’s time for the city of Toronto to renew its love story with aviation, and it’s high time for the Canadian International Air Show to experience a period of expansion and growth.

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