Airshow turnout lowest in recent history

Organizers say federal budget cuts and not crash led to drop in attendance.

Attendance at the Vectren Dayton Air Show dropped sharply over the weekend, bringing just 23,000 people through the gates in the lowest turnout in the show’s recent history.

Air Show General Manager Brenda Kerfoot could not say whether the number of spectators was the lowest in the 39 years the show has been in Dayton, but turnout was less than half of last year and less than a third of what it was in 2009 and 2010.

Last year a withering, record-setting heat wave shrank turnout to 47,000 as the Navy’s Blue Angels performed. This year weather wasn’t a big factor, but there was no jet team because of federal budget cuts, and Saturday’s tragic crash may have been a factor in Sunday’s smaller-than-usual crowds.

The show, which often draws 70,000 people or more in a weekend, turned tragic Saturday when stunt performer Jane Wicker, 44, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, were killed after the 1941 Stearman biplane they were in crashed while Wicker was performing her signature aerial wing-walking act near show center at Dayton International Airport.

Kerfoot attributed the sharp attendance decline to the scrubbed appearance of the Air Force Thunderbirds and no other active military aircraft on the grounds or in the sky because of federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The air show had filled the line-up with well-known civilian acrobatic aerial acts.

“We really think the low numbers are an effect of sequestration (and) that it had nothing to do with the crash,” she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into the biplane accident that could take six months to a year. A preliminary report on the crash is expected this week.

John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows based in Leesburg, Va., said air shows nationwide have had fewer spectators this season because of the no-show of popular military jet teams and solo aircraft demonstrations.

“I think that the lack of military assets at air shows around the country have been a drain on attendance, not just in Dayton but at a number of shows this year,” he said.

More than 60 air shows with an estimated $400 million economic impact have cancelled because of sequestration, according to Cudahy. The Dayton/Montgomery County Convention & Visitors Bureau has figured the Dayton Air Show has a $3.5 million economic impact with 70,000 visitors.

“The air show is very iconic for our region,” said Jacquelyn Powell, president and CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Many people when they think of Dayton, they think of the Dayton Air Show.”

Like Kerfoot, Cudahy does not think the fiery crash before thousands of people contributed to the fall in attendance.

“Historically, that has not been the case,” he said 0f air show crashes impacting attendance. “Crashes that have happened in the past, when there was still a day left in the air show,” were not a big factor in attendance.

Kerfoot said Dayton Air Show leaders haven’t reached a decision on the size or scope of the June 28-29, 2014, show with the Blue Angels as the headline act.

The Pentagon has not decided whether military jet teams and planes will be allowed to fly at air shows next year, but the Blue Angels have booked appearances in 35 places in 2014.

“I think that’s a number one factor we need to determine before we determine what kind of show to do,” Kerfoot said. “I think the (Dayton Air Show) Board (of Trustees) and the community support for an air show is very strong. We have a fund balance to weather bad years, but obviously you can’t keep doing that.”

She did not release how much money the air show has on hand to cover potential losses.

Navy spokesman Lt. John Supple said the Blue Angels are eager to fly in 2014. “We’re hoping the show stays on,” he said. “The Blue Angels are itching to get out there and perform.”

Cudahy said his organization has pushed Congress to let military planes return to air shows. “I think the military recognizes they cannot suspend their interaction with the American public indefinitely,” he said.

Air show officials do not know yet if last weekend’s show made or lost money while accounts continue to be tallied, Kerfoot said. The show spent about $1 million this year, or around a third less than normally budgeted in anticipation of fewer spectators.

Vectren, an Evansville, Ind.-based energy company that has sponsored the show since 2001, and Cincinnati headquartered supermarket giant Kroger, signed three-year deals last year to sponsor the air show through 2015.

“We wanted to be a part of what was at that time was a premier event for the Miami Valley and we believe that’s still the case,” Vectren spokeswoman Chase Kelley said Monday. The air show crash and jet team no shows have not affected the sponsorship, she said.

“Those are the exceptions rather than the rule and we still want to be a partner,” Kelley said.

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