One Giant Step Towards Professionalism

By Hugh Oldham


Re-Printed from World Airshow News January/February 1991


After more than 10 years, it’s finally done; the airshow industry has implemented its own AIRSHOW CERTIFICATION EVALUATOR (ACE) program.


The first suggestion of an airshow industry ACE program was broached by Bernie Geier during his tenure at FAA headquarters some 14 years ago [circa 1977].  The program was reevaluated several times during the intervening years, but, as so often happens within our industry, the program languished due to a combination of lethargy and obstruction.


This year [1990] we were allowed to come to grips with the dreaded “peer review” question.  This says a lot about both our industry’s relationship with the current FAA management and our own maturity.  The ACE program is a story of mutual respect, hard work, compromise, and acceptance.


By mid June, the 1990 airshow season had already had string of accidents unprecedented in resent memory.  These accidents had not gone unnoticed in the halls of government.  As one highly placed FAA manager said, “Seems like every Monday morning CNN brings news of another airshow fatality.”


As every airshow professional knows, the majority of “airshow” accidents in 1990 were actually not airshow related.  But facts and reality have never been known to interfere with Washington’s perceptions and political expediencies.  By mid June, the FAA was under media and Congressional pressure to “do something” about the “airshow situation.”


Each year, the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) Board of Directors authorizes a sum of money for use by ICAS Executive Director, Rick Nadeau, to travel to Washington, DC, in a monthly basis, to meet with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) management, DoD personnel, and Congressional Aviation Sub-Committee members and staff people.  In 1990, that investment paid large dividends.


Mike Sacrey, FAA Manager, General Aviation Staff (AFS-20), offered ICAS and our industry the opportunity to implement an industry solution to the “airshow situation.”  This opportunity represents a major shift in FAA policy towards our industry, and is an indication of the FAA’s trust in our industry’s maturity and judgment.


The airshow industry represents a very small, but highly visible, part of aviation.  The actions by FAA, in allowing the industry to develop this program, will be closely scrutinized by the media and Congress.  The most politically expedient course of action for the General Aviation Staff would have been to place several very restrictive regulations on airshows, and then have claimed that the problem was solved.  Mike Sacrey said the FAA is taking a chance that the airshow industry was capable of self-regulation and self-control.


ICAS was given until October 13, 1990, to have a proposal on Sacrey’s desk.


During an October 15th World Airshow News interview, Roger Baker, Acting National Airshow Coordinator said, “It’s a serious situation and we have to deal with it seriously.  Unfortunately, if the industry is not able to deal with it, we (the FAA) are going to put in some kind of “fix” that will not be very popular.  Use your imagination about the kind of tools we would have available, the regulatory kind that would probably not do anybody any good.  If WE (the FAA) have to fix it, and it’s an FAA fix, it’s not going to be a popular fix.  I’m almost sure, because we are going to be talking about altitude restrictions, speed restrictions and that kind of thing.”


The General Aviation Staff wanted us, as an industry, to establish a set of “standards” by which the airshow performer could be judged.  The requirement for the “standards” were that they be directly “germane”  to the airshow environment, that there be a “united front” from all people involved, and that they be as “apolitical” as possible.


The FAA policy staff recognized that everyone will not be able to meet these standards.


Again, Roger Baker stated, “Those who can not meet the standards, if they are reasonable standards, and I don’t think any one group should have the final say over what those standards are, but those who can’t meet those standards are probably the people we don’t want in the airshow industry.  We don’t want them performing because they are going to do more harm to themselves, and to the industry and to aviation in general, than they will ever do good.”  The ICAS Performer Safety Committee began its work.


By late summer, additional fatal accidents had been blamed on the airshow industry.  The media and Congressional pressure on the FAA had increased.  Tabloid TV programs, like “Inside Edition,” smeared the airshow industry with reports of “death from the SKY,” and pictures ranging from Ramstein to Oshkosh all showed falling, burning aircraft.  It was becoming apparent that, if the industry standards effort failed, the 1991 airshow season would be flown under a new restrictive set of rules.


The ICAS Performer Safety Committee became an industry-wide committee with the addition of representatives and/or input from the Professional Airshow Performers Association (PAPA), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), International Aerobatic Club (IAC), and other interested parties.


On October 22, 1990, the Safety Committee presented the ACE program to the General Aviation Staff at FAA headquarters.  Present at this meeting were: T.J. Brown and Rick Nadeau, representing ICAS and the Industry Performer Safety Committee; Jerry Walburn, representing EAA and the warbird community; Mike Sacrey, Roger Baker, and Ed Robinson, representing the FAA; and this reporter.


It quickly became apparent that the FAA felt that its personnel did not have the necessary expertise to properly evaluate airshow performers.  Further, that due to budgetary realities, there was little chance that an FAA training program could be established to train Operations Inspectors in evaluating the airshow performer.  It was also apparent that the FAA felt that the industry’s 1990 safety record would not be tolerated.


It was made very clear, that if the airshow industry expected to continue as a viable entity, the industry would have to clean-up its own act.  We, the industry, would have to enter into a partnership with the FAA to ensure that airshow performers were properly qualified to perform before the public.


The FAA personnel present at this meeting were amiable and supportive, but the unspoken implication was simple: Develop an effective performer evaluation program, or face what would be the end of a viable entertaining airshow industry in the United States.  


A review of the proposed program resulted in several changes and revisions.  The major revision, during the October 22nd meeting, was that the FAA would continue to issue the Aerobatic Competency Card (FAA Form 8710), through its district offices.  This was done to ensure that the FAA could monitor the program and to limit the potential liability to ICAS and the individual Aerobatic Competency Evaluator.


Another item of discussion was that the program must not be limited to ICAS members, either in the granting of Aerobatic Competency Card or the appointment of the Aerobatic Competency Evaluators.  This “Fairness Issue” was addressed by all participants at the October 22nd meeting.


During the October 15th World Airshow News interview, Acting National Airshow Coordinator Baker stated, “We (the FAA) are sensitive to the fact that there are some political considerations here.  The pilot that says, I’m not a member of any of those organizations; I just want to fly one or two airshows a year, and I feel I might be discriminated against because I’m not a member of those organizations  And there are various and sundry economic reasons to keep the numbers (of performers) down.  We are sensitive to that.  We are trying to think of some ways to head off that kind of criticism and be fair across the industry.”


EAA’s representative, Jerry Walburn, directly addressed the issue when he stated, “There is concern that those members (of EAA, Warbirds, etc.) who are not ICAS members, will be discriminated against by the ICAS designee, i.e. experience with DABI program in Canada.”


As a partial solution to any perception of discrimination, the FAA agreed to identify Field Operations Inspectors who met the necessary ACE qualifications and the Performer Safety Committee Chairman T.J. Brown offered assurances that these Inspectors would be appointed ACE’s under the industry program.


Another solution, agreed on by the FAA, was that any other organization that felt the need could set-up a similar program to certify its members for public performance flying.


The consensus of participants in the October 22nd (1990) meeting was that the proposed ACE program was to be safety, training and certification program and that industry, FAA and Congressional oversight would prevent any such program from becoming an instrument to establish a “closed shop” of airshow performers.


The three hour meeting concluded with the FAA’s representatives conditionally accepting the ACE program subject to both FAA top management review and, most importantly, industry acceptance.


As the members of the Industry Performer Safety Committee were to find out, the presentations to the FAA was a cakewalk when compared to “industry acceptance.”


T.J. Brown is a highly decorated former Air Force fighter pilot.  His flights through the unfriendly skies of Southeast Asia were excellent preparation for his presentation of the ACE program to the airshow performers at the ICAS Convention in Las Vegas.  Starting on the afternoon of November 28th (1990), during the closing session of the airshow industry’s first “Performer Operations & Safety Seminar,” T.J. entered into some of the heaviest ground fire of his career.


It took over 48 minutes just to cover the “Introductory” paragraph of the ACE program.  For four days, intense discussions of the ACE Program were conducted, in formal meetings, hallway confrontations, and bar-side arguments.  There was a lot of give and take, compromise and acceptance.


It was not pretty.  In fact, it got “down right personnel” and dirty at times.  But everyone persevered.  No one walked out.  History was being made as it was the first time the members of the airshow performer community openly addressed the problems of aerobatic competency, necessary experience levels, the certification process, peer review, and all the other points necessary to implement a standards and evaluation program.


The entire process was observed by FAA’s Mike Sacrey, Ron Myers and many Regional FAA Airshow Coordinators.  They were impressed, not by the infighting, but by the true concern shown by the airshow professional for the industry.


At Saturday’s business meeting, the entire membership of ICAS UNANIMOUSLY adopted the ACE program.  A major first step in the true professionalization of the airshow industry has been made.  For the first time, performers and sponsors (now called producers) alike have addressed a pressing industry problem in a mature, professional manner.


Progress can be painful.  During the last year, ICAS and the entire airshow industry has suffered, grown and matured.  It’s not been easy, but the ACE Program, along with the ICAS Strategic Plan, places our industry in the position to reach our full potential.


We are becoming a legitimate player in the entertainment industry.





The following are highlights of the Airshow Industry Certification Program as approved by the ICAS membership during the 1990 ICAS Convention, December 1.


The new ACE program is the first time that an airshow industry organization has taken on the responsibility of training and certifying performers for public display flying.


The program is similar to the one established by the United Sates parachute Association certifying parachutists with the “Pro Rating.”


Main Points:  The ACE program will be administrated by the Performer Safety Committee, established by the ICAS Board of Directors.  The committee will have five members drawn from five areas of aerobatic expertise:


1)      Aerobatic & Specialty Area (all performers not covered by another area): One representative from PAPA; one representative from ICAS.

2)      Prop Warbird (heavy iron): One representative from the warbird community (EAA, CAF, or etc.).

3)      Jet Warbird: One representative from the Classic Jet Association.

4)      Formation: One representative from a civilian formation team appointed by ICAS.


Members of the committee may hold memberships in more than one association.  They will be appointed for two-year terms with a 3-2 alternation.


ICAS will maintain all records pertaining to the ACE program.  This includes meeting and proceedings of the Performer Safety Committee; designation and listing of ACE’s; ACE reports and grievances; and performer historical data.


ICAS will fund the program.  The estimated cost will be $28,000 per year.


To be designated as an ACE, a performer will have to have been a performing airshow pilot for five non-consecutive years; have to have performed no less then 25 airshows and does not have to be an active performer.


ACE’s will face a bi-annual re-qualification by the Performer Safety Committee based on the ACE’s request for re-designation, the safety record of the performers certified by the ACE and grievances concerning the ACE.


Performer Qualifications:  Existing holders of FAA Form 8710 will be grandfathered.  Initial applicants (new airshow pilots0 will be required to demonstrate to an ACE his/her knowledge of high-performance flying by training and oral test.  In addition, the applicant will be required to fly an evaluation flight in-person for the ACE.


Re-qualification of current performers will consist of flying at eight show sites during the previous year, or flying four show sites and flying four low-level practice sessions during the last year.


Current performers will be able to re-qualify over the telephone.  It will not be necessary to appear in-person before an ACE.




Photo #1:

ICAS Safety Committee Chairman T.J. Brown fields questions during open performer meetings on the development of the criteria for the ACE program.  Seated are fellow committee members: Dave Hover of Microjet Airshow, John Ellis of Kalamazoo Air Museum, Rick Brickert of Red Knight Air Shows, and Gene Littlefield of Gene Littlefield Air-Shows.  Little is also president of the Professional Airshow Performers Association (PAPA).  PAPA joined wit ICAS in a solidifying effort to create criteria the entire airshow entertainment industry could live with.


Photo #2:

FAA General Aviation Manager Mike Sacrey kept a low profile during the performer discussions to develop Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) standards.  Sacrey spoke briefly here to clarify FAA’s position on the performer safety requirements.