Airshows are typically held at airports, drawing crowds who are for the most part knowledgeable and already well-acquainted with aviation. Gate receipts typically help cover the bills. Most airshows have been around for years, giving time to develop tried-and-true procedures and routines.
The Scheyden Catalina Air Show, which marked its third year on Oct. 4, has none of those advantages. The resort island offers as scenic a location as any airshow could want: Performers zip over Avalon Bay, through a show box guarded by personnel on personal watercraft. With that unique scenery comes some uniquely demanding logistics and potential conflict with boaters, divers, and others who flock to Catalina.
Running the show for the first time this year, Scheyden, which more typically sells eye wear, watches, and luggage to aviators (and others), navigated the unique challenges of Catalina and expanded the show. Based in nearby Huntington Beach, California, Scheyden became the title sponsor in 2013 to save the island airshow from being a one-time event. Company founder and CEO Jeff Herold wants to make Catalina a world-class aviation event on par with Austria’s Scalaria Air Challenge which has its own aquatic setting.
The neighbors will have much to say about whether it becomes a tradition, or a short but colorful chapter in the island’s long aviation history.
“It’s hardly practical, but stunningly gorgeous,” said Herold, who also founded Scheyden parent company West Coast Trends and put his staff to work on this unusual assignment.
Herold said that despite logistical challenges to overcome that required a fleet of aircraft and marine vessels of various descriptions (not to mention golf carts—you can never have too many, it turns out), “We pulled off. On a scale of one to ten, I have to give it a ten.”
Herold, a pilot, AOPA member, and AOPA sponsor, has a series of meetings planned in coming weeks with Catalina residents (about 4,000 people live on the island, which draws many more tourists for water sports, golf, hiking, zip lines, and other attractions), local officials, and other stakeholders. He hopes the three-year-old show will return in 2015, but there are “a few hurdles” that need to be cleared.
Jon Melby, who performed over Avalon Bay in his black and yellow Pitts S-1-11B for the second straight year, said the 2014 crowd was noticeably larger, and different from other airshows in another important respect: There were many more first-timers who had never seen an aerobatic performance, and many of them were enthusiastic to learn about aviation.
“I went through all my autograph cards, every single one of them,” Melby said. “I take a boatload.”
Melby and other performers signed autographs and mingled with would-be pilots who have dreamed of flying but had to date been deterred by misconceptions. Melby encouraged them to pursue the dream. He said Catalina is nearly unique in that respect, drawing in people not already involved in aviation and putting them in close contact with accomplished pilots.
“That’s why I think it needs to continue,” Melby said.
Herold said municipal officials, leaders of the Catalina Island Conservancy (which benefitted from proceeds of VIP packages and operates the famous "Airport in the Sky" perched 1,600 feet above the ocean) and the Catalina Island Co. (the island’s largest landowner, which operates two hotels and the famous Casino in Avalon, among other attractions) all “worked well with us.” Others in the community were not so pleased. A few people accustomed to unfettered access to the beaches (including where the VIP viewing area was set up) and the bay (where a dive team stood by and boats were routed around the aerobatic box) voiced displeasure at the day of disruption, Herold said. Others were put out by the racket. “We did have noise complaints.”
Herold said he hopes to work with all concerned to ensure the event has a warm (and cooperative) welcome. There will need to be agreements on limits and locations, logistics and boundaries.
“We’ll kind of figure out everything,” Herold said of the coming meetings.
Even with the island’s full support, it will never be an easy job to run an airshow on Catalina. Nearly everything needed must be delivered by aircraft or boat. Fuel, equipment for the musicians (added to the program and headlined in 2014 by guitarist Robby Krieger, a founding member of The Doors), and even the aforementioned dive team must all make the trip across the channel.
On land, Herold noted, a 40-foot motor home can be rented and delivered with comparative ease. On Catalina, getting a rock star like Krieger the required level of creature comfort requires driving that motor home to Long Beach, waiting for the sea conditions to be right, making the six-hour journey on the slow moving barge, and then hiring somebody else to drive it off the barge.
“It’s not over, yet,” Herold said. There are local permits to secure so the bus-sized vehicle can be driven to the venue over Avalon’s tiny streets. Then there is the matter of returning it after the show.
Pilots and aircraft also require some special handling at Catalina. Avgas must be flown in for the smaller aircraft, while the P-51 Mustang and CF-18 Hornet that joined Melby and “Super Dave” Mathieson in the aerial lineup were both based at Long Beach. The Mustang and Hornet pilots had to be flown by helicopter to the island for the morning briefing, then back to their aircraft. These were among several trips back and forth for show-related appearances and events. Most airshow organizers at least have the luxury of parking their performers a bit more conveniently.
“Island Express did a great job,” Herold said of the helicopter company, noting that helicopter flights for VIP guests also required some special arrangements. “Timing on everything was incredible.”
While the pilots were performing, a marine staff riding personal watercraft kept a close eye on the restricted area and radio contact with the harbormaster, another example of the logistic requirements not needed at most other airshows. “You can’t just have a sailboat come cruising through the show box,” Herold said.
Herold, who flies his own TBM 700, said it was not as big a stretch as one might think for a company built to sell fine watches and luggage (including golf luggage and accessories sold under the Club Glove brand) to run an airshow.
“I’ve got some really talented people here,” Herold said, noting that Scheyden has been a fixture at aviation shows including AOPA and other industry events for years. “We know how to pack gear and set up exhibit booths and things like that.”
Still, Herold allowed he might hire some outside help if the show continues, and continues to grow.