Oh, boy, have I opened a can of worms here. In 14 years of airshow flying, I worked with a poopload of airshow announcers. Some sucked. Some were great. Most will not be mentioned in this article and they will think I’m a shmuck. Hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t even write this article!
As you may know, I can be a “glutton for punishment”, so here goes: The reason I thought of this article is because I was working with a guy from Reading, PA on a Maule checkout. Thinking about Reading, I remembered all the announcers I’d worked with during my fourteen years in the airshow business but one stood out because of Reading. That announcer is my old pal, Kirby Mills. Kirby is the subject
of one of my stories on “Nuts from a Blind Squirrel”, and the similar video, “Bill’s Wake” (about 6 min in) on the Tailwheeler’s Journal. Kirby stands out primarily for his imagination and enthusiasm. He was the only announcer who thought it would be cool to try to stop my character, Krashbern T. Throttlebottom, from taking off during the show. So ol’ Kirby would grab one of the struts of my 100HP Cub and I’d drag him a while before he finally dropped off, then got bonked by the horizontal stabilizer as he tried to sit up.
But what Kirby did to liven up a show is, in my opinion, what set him apart from so many others. Kirby would take a look at the schedule. He’d look for gaps, then design pre-recorded “bits” to fill those gaps. One such bit was at the Cross-Florida Barge Canal show. It was a boat race and Kirby knew that there would be gaps while boats were being lined up for a start. I was there as a between-the-races act, performing my “Cap’n Splash” over-water show. The night before the show, Kirby sat in his motel room and recorded what in my opinion is a classic bit. Because manatees abounded in that waterway and there was such importance placed on their protection, Kirby recorded an interview with the head of Manatee Security. Kirby’s imagination being what it was, the head of Manatee Security was, of course, A MANATEE. And he was a Manatee named Merle (after Kirby’s father). It was a brilliant stroke and entertained thousands between races.
But perhaps Kirby’s greatest bit was the one he thought up for the Redding, California Airshow. At Redding, there were airline arrivals and departures. Kirby knew that he’d have to fill while United was coming in, so he decided to create a bit based on “the wonders of technology”. He told the audience that United was coming in and that through those wonders, he’d been able to patch into the cockpit intercom and that he’d share that audio with the audience. He pushed “play” and the audience was treated to the following conversation:
(Pilots, running through checklist) “Flaps, seatbelt light, cockpit announcement, uh, hang on a second (then, on the P.A. System) “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are beginning our approach into Redding, so please make sure your seatbelts are fastened, tray tables are in their upright position. Flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
(Pilot to First Officer) “Gee, the airport looks a bit different than the last time I was here. Oh well, things change, don’t they? Yup”.
(Captain) “Airport in sight, speed 120. Flaps 20, landing gear, down and locked. Hey, what’s that approach plate you’ve got?”
(First Officer) “ It’s the approach plate for Redding, California…”
(Captain) “ Oh, no.. well, too late now. Let’s get this piece o’ crap on the ground…”
Kirby paused the tape as the 737 touched down. Then, as it taxied in, he pressed the play button again.
(Captain on the P.A.) “Uh, Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Redding, California. For those of you who were under the impression that we were landing in Reading, Pennsylvania, there will be a Greyhound Bus waiting outside baggage claim…”
Yep, ol’ Kirby stands out as one of the best I ever worked with. George Feick was
another, a guy whose timing and delivery were superb. He later teamed up with Mack Lochrie. Mack had come from the worlds of Radio and Rodeo. He didn’t know an Extra from a flying saucer, but had a great voice and delivery… and George could keep the planes straight!
Sandy Sanders was for years “the Voice of The Reno Air Races”. I loved working with Sandy and even featured him in my demo reel. Sonny Everett should be dead now, as long as he’s been doing airshows, but he’s still kicking and is one of the greats. Hal Biestek had a great sense of humor and was also one of my favorites. A former C5 pilot, he’d figured how many ping-pong balls a C5 could carry and shared that fact with the audience. Steve Stavrakakiswas one of the few announcers who was also a flying performer. Mike Berriochoa is a multi-talented guy who produced shows and now mostly announces. The list goes on. Some guys were locals… and some of those were great. My act was a “scripted” act and depended on a good announcer. Most aerobatic performers didn’t hear a thing the announcer said until they finished their act and opened their canopy in time to hear the guy say, “Let’s hear it for this great pilot!!!” They’d never know if he’d done a good job or not. But I sure did. And for every great announcer there was a dud. I always felt that if an announcer thought it necessary to make sure that the audience knew that he, too, was a pilot, he’d failed at his job, which was to simply enrich the airshow experience and provide accompaniment for the performer. That doesn’t even mention how well they handle an emergency. Some great announcers have been left out. Remember, I said “the list goes on” and indeed it does. I guess those who haven’t been mentioned will hate me now!
The announcers and performers have changed, but certain things about the airshow business have stayed the same: Airshows are still the place where a few people in that audience make a decision. They silently say to themselves, “I think I’d like to do that”. And they become pilots. They never consider how much that announcer contributed to their airshow experience. Perhaps they should.
The late Bill Warren once commented that Kirby Mills was a mess by the time an airshow was over. All that physical comedy and all those pratfalls in the dirt had made a filthy wreck of him. And I never saw another announcer come close to that kind of dedication.