Jack Pelton Debriefs the Cancellation of AirVenture 2020

Pelton said his leadership team experienced many sleepless nights before the decision was made to cancel this year’s show. EAA

When aviation aficionados around the world learned in May that AirVenture 2020 was cancelled, it sent an anxiety-fueled shock wave through the industry that confirmed the COVID-19 virus was going to be with us at least through the summer months. What would the tens of thousands of people who normally trek to Oshkosh do with that 10-day hole in their schedules?

AirVenture put Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on the map back in 1970 when the giant show outgrew its previous home in Rockford, Illinois. Over the past 50 years, AirVenture became the icon for a summer break time mixed with all things aviation, from ultralights to C-17s and all kinds of aerial vehicles in between. The nation’s largest airshow is also ripe with educational forums, workshops and of course the renewal of personal relationships often formed decades earlier.

The Flying staff wondered what the discussions about the pandemic and the cancellation of the show might have entailed, so we rang up the EAA’s chief executive officer Jack Pelton to fill in some of the blanks. We asked him what happened as the initial possibility of cancelling the show began to set in. Pelton said he convened a number of virtual, Pentagon-like, war room meetings with the other six members of the EAA leadership team to deal with the obvious questions: “What’s going on with COVID today? What are the new restrictions and where are we [as an organization] going?” They also tried to assess the potential issues for the city of Oshkosh and the surrounding communities, the volunteers, the vendors and the members themselves. “We needed an understanding of those groups because [for starters] we’d knew we’d need 5000 volunteers to run the show,” said Pelton. “We needed to know more about the state of Wisconsin’s orders on group sizes, sanitation and of course whether exhibitors would even come to the show. We knew that by May we would start having to make major cash expenditures for the exhibitors that represented a huge financial problem. If you start spending money but wait too long [to make a decision] you can’t turn it off and we’d really become a financial train wreck.”

Pelton said by late April “it started becoming clear that a good portion of the major exhibitors would not be coming.” Many volunteers also began begging off, especially those with underlying health issues. “The virus wasn’t slowing down and the local restrictions about the size of groups that could gather made it clear that the only fact-based decision the organization had was that “we could just could not have the event, and we made that call May 1.”

Shortly after the announcement, he said the phone lines and his e-mail box began to fill up with messages from people who supported the decision to cancel, often saying, “If you had the show, I would not have been able to come anyway.” Many told him they were thinking about the potential liability for their companies and employees who managed the exhibits. He received only a handful of communications complaining he’d acted too soon. “Now in July, I would love to hear if they still have that same feeling,” Pelton wondered.

While the cancellation decision was fact-based, the answer never seemed all that black and white. “We all had some long tense days and sleepless nights with plenty of hand wringing, trying to get the decision right. We knew we needed to protect our members, our guests and the exhibitors. I kept saying that if [we] got this one wrong, we’d become the Legionnaire’s event,” a reference to the original Philadelphia convention of the American Legion that gave the disease its name—and the state of Illinois veteran’s home that was forced to close after a nasty outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in 2015. “Get this one wrong and nobody will ever come back again.”

Close behind the decision to cancel AirVenture, EAA’s leadership team began thinking they needed to do to fill the void. “We felt we owed it to the aviation community. But we didn’t want to try and imply that we could virtually recreate AirVenture, because the show is all about sights, sounds, friendships and the gathering. It’s really a happening,” Pelton said. They decided to create a week-long event to be called Spirit of Aviation Week (SOAW) and engage members with topics that are part of the EAA mission. The leadership team began organizing online workshops, forums, webinars, speakers and all-around interesting topics. “Then we added the vendor component so our exhibitors could showcase their products making certain they knew there was a lot of revenue potential there even without an audience right in front of them.”

EAA officially reported the results on August 3, and Pelton said, “We’re very proud of how the SOAW came off.” EAA says more than 266,000 connections of some kind were made throughout the week, with nearly 800,000 individual webpage views and more than 827,000 video views. More than 86,000 people watched in excess of 1 million minutes of video content.” That worked out to about 762 continuous days of watching the EAA.org and EAAtogether.org websites. When it came to social media, EAA reported 4.5 million virtual visitors watched 51 forums running on two streaming channels during the week. More than 6,300 FAA Wings credits were issued from 20 of those forums. Nearly 11,000 people attended online workshops during the five days, with sessions in sheet metal, welding, fabric covering, and wood construction for aircraft. The popular Pilot Proficiency Center saw 8,200 attendees for 25 separate tech talk sessions, with 4,500 FAA WINGS credits issued. Finally there was SimVenture 2020, which allowed anyone using a PC loaded with X-Plane an opportunity to fly into the show, virtually. One thousand seventy six pilots accepted the challenge presented by PilotEdge, all guided by NATCA air traffic controllers.

How does all that fresh content look to the leadership team a few weeks after the show? “It actually falls in line with a strategic initiative we already had in place for delivering content,” Pelton said. “It validates that we can do this kind of thing. From here on out, we will probably capture content and make it available post AirVenture, to people who don’t make it to Oshkosh personally.”

What about AirVenture 2021? “We are actively planning for next year,” Pelton said while admitting there will be probably be some differences in the way the campgrounds or the flight line seating are laid out. “We just need to be cognizant that if this virus thing doesn’t completely get behind us, next year will look somewhat different. But we do believe we’ll be able to have the event.”

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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