Thunder Over Michigan: New Show Format That Combines Two Air Shows Per Day Gets Strong Reviews.
Under the gun, behind the eight ball and facing the resurgence of a 14-month global pandemic along with massive airport reconstruction at Willow Run Airport, Thunder Over Michigan director Kevin Walsh couldn’t focus on the movie he was trying to watch with his daughters at the beginning of a troubled 2021.
Pressures from the global COVID-19 pandemic had devastated the air show industry, cancelling air shows worldwide. At the height of the pandemic in 2020, over 95 separate airshow dates had been cancelled in the U.S. Then, just as air shows began to re-emerge from the crisis in early summer of 2021, a third wave of new cases from the Delta variant was spiking among non-vaccinated across the United States.
But even before the emergence of the Delta variant, a massive $10 million reconstruction program began at Willow Run Airport, where Thunder Over Michigan takes place. The airport renovation involved the decoupling of Runways 23L and 27, reconstruction of Runway 9/27 and the construction of a new Taxiway A parallel to Runway 5R/23L. Every part of the airport was affected.
The construction project lead Kevin Walsh to say that restructuring the format for Thunder Over Michigan was, “Not really related to COVID anymore. If you take a look around here, there’s an immense amount of construction going on.”
“The only thing I could think about was how to get the air show back. How to put on a safe show that everyone would enjoy”, Walsh told TheAviationist.com at Thunder Over Michigan.
But only eight months after his distracted movie night, Walsh walked into spontaneous applause from volunteers, production workers, aircrews and media who gave him a standing ovation at Thunder Over Michigan during the crew dinner inside a giant aircraft hangar at Willow Run Airport. Against a global pandemic and massive construction project, against all odds, Thunder Over Michigan was back, and with a new format that airshow attendees were already giving strong reviews.
Walsh had beaten the odds and not just prevailed, he may have actually advanced the entire air show industry with his new “matinee” two-show-per-day, drive-in air show format. The new format at Thunder Over Michigan featured one show in the morning, and another show with nearly identical schedule in the afternoon.
One airshow attendee at Thunder Over Michigan told The Aviationist: “This [new, shorter format] is way better. I have a barbecue this afternoon and we’re headed out on the boat later. I’ll be home by 2 p.m. and still have the rest of my day”.
While there was some grumbling about prices for Thunder Over Michigan on social media, the overwhelming response to the new two-show per day format with drive-in viewership was strong among the general audience.
“One thing I realized is that airshow audiences have changed,” Walsh said on Saturday night at Thunder Over Michigan. “The way we consume media has changed. People want smaller bites.”
Walsh described the revelation he had about the new format for Thunder Over Michigan, “I went out for a run after trying to watch a movie with my daughters and couldn’t think about anything except how to make the show better, how to make this work. Then it occurred to me, maybe we need to make air shows more like a movie. Much shorter, maybe just 3-4 hours. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put on a show in the morning and another in the afternoon?”
Walsh’s intuition proved insightful. Not only did all four performances at Thunder Over Michigan, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, sell out, but every person TheAviationist spoke to in person over the two-day show told us the new show format was an improvement over traditional all-day airshows.
Thunder Over Michigan 2021 also benefitted from the addition of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels to the schedule only weeks before the show. The show originally had a strong list of attractions that included the USAF Thunderbirds, air show announcer Rob Reider, a mass-flight of B-25 Mitchells, the A-10 Demo Team, the F-35A Demo Team, the U.S. Navy E/F-18 Rhino Demo Team and others. But when the Blue Angels came on board only weeks before the show, ticket sales accelerated until the event eventually sold out all four shows.
At a meet and greet event at The Henry Ford on Saturday night in Dearborn, Michigan, Blue Angel #1, Commanding officer, Commander Brian C. Kesselring told The Aviationist: “We called the Thunderbirds a few weeks ago and told them, hey, we have an open weekend now, can we fly with you guys?” Despite the obstacles of the pandemic and the airport reconstruction, the planets had aligned for Kevin Walsh and Thunder Over Michigan.
Even the one thing that no air show director or air boss can control, the weather, cooperated in the final days before the show. TheAviationist.com asked Kevin Walsh, “Have you seen a weather forecast for this weekend?”
Walsh told us, “I never look at the weather forecast. It’s bad luck”. As it happened, the weather in the days before the show and on Saturday and Sunday when a sold-out crowd packed the airfield, dodged a series of severe storms and left Thunder Over Michigan with only the thunder from jets, but none from severe weather. Walsh had beaten a global pandemic, a massive airport reconstruction, and the weather forecast to host a successful two-day, four-show Thunder Over Michigan Airshow that other air show directors will no doubt be looking at for ideas in the coming months.