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King of the airshow

Just before the 2009 Royal International Air Tattoo, spoke to Tim Prince, one of the founding fathers of the Air Tattoo about its troubled 2008 and plans for the future.


Tim Prince OBE. Key - Gary Parsons

Looking back, 2008 could be described as the ‘annus horribilis’ for the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises (RAFCTE) and its Air Tattoo team in particular. For the first time in the event’s thirty- eight year history, complete cancellation was the only option due to severe weather and a waterlogged site – many wondered if the team could bounce back from such a setback, having brought the show back from the brink after difficult times in 2002 and 2003. But many underestimate the resolve to continue the biggest military air show in the world, particularly from its Chief Executive Tim Prince, recently appointed as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to charity through supporting the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust.

Tim, 60, staged the first Air Tattoo in 1971 alongside close friend and colleague Paul Bowen, who passed away in May 2004. That year was a challenging one for Tim – not just in losing Paul, but also because of the challenges the team faced in establishing the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust and a new business model for the Air Tattoo. The birth of the new charity in January 2005 and its trading arm, the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust Enterprises, led to a new way of doing business, working far more closely with the Royal Air Force and its wider family of charities.

First time visitor to RIAT was the Algerian Air Force with a C-130H. Key - Dino Carrara
GP: “The first question I have is the Air Tattoo’s ‘raison d’être’ - when you began nearly 40 years ago it was very much a charity fund raising venture, but now with the RAFCTE it seems more a flagship for the RAF in terms of recruitment. Where do you see the balance these days; is it for charity or is it promoting the RAF?”

TP: “We’ve got to satisfy the requirements of our parent charity, the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust - its objectives are to promote recruitment and efficiency in the Royal Air Force, which we do through air mindedness in youngsters, and to raise money that can then be applied to welfare within the Royal Air Force family. Perhaps in earlier years we’d lost sight of the more charitable aims when we’d been driving to get the airshow to be bigger and better, driving to get the Russian military here, at fairly high cost at times. Those heady days have gone - people are much more conscious now about why we’re doing something, and why they should support us. The charitable aim does come to the fore, because I’ve got to motivate the 3,000 volunteers - as well as having a good time achieving the impossible with us, they’ve got to feel that they’ve made a difference. We make money to help the likes of Combat Stress, the Royal Air Force Association, the Benevolent Fund and numerous others in the RAF through our charity.

This Brazilian Air Force C-105A wore the most colourful of the special paint schemes on display. Key - Dino Carrara
“It’s a fine balance - from an enthusiast’s point of view, I know we’ve still got to procure those gems. Now that we’ve got the remit of promoting recruitment and efficiency for the Royal Air Force, one of the things we can do is the ‘defence diplomacy’ bit, where we get 20 Chiefs of Air Staffs from around the world to the show - that is tremendously valuable to the Royal Air Force and to ‘UK PLC’. For our Chief of Air Staff to visit all these countries would take a lot of time and money, and the fact they can all come here together for up to five days and enjoy the world’s largest military airshow but at the same time have social time together to get to know each other, that’s a real plus. It’s great from the RAF’s point of view, great from the overseas military’s point of view - they like to see their aeroplanes on show.

“Despite last year’s cancellation, we’ve got £300,000 set aside to be given to the Charitable Trust on top of the £1 million already donated between 2005 and 2007, but because of the recession we’re holding onto that to see how this year’s show goes. If for any reason we have a major problem this year, we may need to use that money. Volunteers Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Knight and Air Chief Marshal Sir John Cheshire, as past and present chairmen of the Trust and Mr Fred Crawley, as chairman of Enterprises, have stood by us as we have developed into a valuable member of the Royal Air Force family."

GP: “What’s today’s association with the RAF Benevolent Fund?”

TP: “Well, we started in 1971 with the Royal Air Force Association. By 1976 they thought the event was too large and the risks too great, so we moved to the RAF Benevolent Fund. In 2004, although we’d enjoyed working with them over the years and achieved some great things, the RAFBF Trustees were becoming conscious that there was volatility in our output. Perhaps they were just measuring the financial output and not necessarily valuing other aspects, such as getting youngsters air minded, or in fact showing themselves as a very dynamic charity. They decided, because they had good financial reserves, that they didn’t want to stay involved with the airshow business any more. They handed control of one of their charities called the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund Development Trust to us - we found a new set of Trustees to take it over and we renamed it, given the support from the Chief of the Air Staff, to the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust. So in fact the Charitable Trust, who owns us, provides financial assistance to the Royal Air Force Association, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, Combat Stress, Air Cadets and other charities within the RAF family and to some of its operational units. So, there is still a very strong link to the RAFBF.”

A rare visitor to the UK was this French Air Force EC-725R2 Caracal. Key - Dino Carrara
GP: “Last year was a big blow - a lot of people thought ‘Is this the final nail for the Air Tattoo?’ Can you give us some idea of the pain that you went through?”

TP: “Forgetting the pain financially, personally I’ve never been so frightened in all my life! As you know, it was pretty wet and pretty miserable one way and another. People did travel a long way to be told to turn around, we didn’t reach everybody. We didn’t reach some of our aircrew. That was unforgivable. We learned a lot on communications - if we ever had to cancel again, we’d be better at it!

But knowing that so much money was at stake; the complexity of the arrangement where we take over this military airfield from the Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defence; industry relying on us to fulfil our contracts with them and the expectations of our loyal public attendees. If we were to lose the goodwill of our stakeholders, we’d never be able to start it up again. So I was in fear of losing that forever - for ‘UK PLC’ that is, not for me!

Just one RAF Tornado F3 graced the static park now that the fleet has been reduced to just 12 aircraft. Key - Dino Carrara
“The financial concern was huge - what came to the fore was the strength of our volunteer organisation and permanent staff. They wouldn’t let us be beaten; our motto is ‘It can be done’. I didn’t think we were totally beaten, because our insurance claim could have been as high as £5.6 million, but as we were able to run certain things, such as Her Majesty’s visit on the Friday and the hospitality chalets, we managed to reduce that claim to about £4.3 million. Interestingly, whenever the Queen was outside, it was sunny; when she was inside, it rained. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, but I’m not sure what it is! Our insurers, Willis and the Underwriters, were fantastic - they were very quick to support us, and because of that we were able to keep the ball rolling. We knew on the day we cancelled where we stood, having been communicating closely with them. We knew that we could promise people a refund on their tickets, a refund on their exhibition pitch or a refund of their sponsorship, so we knew where we were going, and we were able to keep the momentum going to keep everybody interested in there being a show in 2009.”

GP: “Has there been any carry-over pain in terms of increased costs for this year?”

Looking ahead to this September's Tiger Meet in Belgium was this Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM. Key - Gary Parsons
TP: “Oh yes, we’ve only just finished administering last year - amazingly people were still claiming for their refund last week (late May)! There has been a lot of work going on to work out how to make sure the event is resilient in the future. The effect of that is going to be probably £200,000 off the bottom line every year for the future now.”

GP: “Is that contingency planning for wet weather, essentially?”

TP: “Yes it is. The US Air Force were fantastic, they realised that the embargo on parking on base gives us a huge problem, so they agreed that we could take certain parts of the base and park vehicles on them, in a very controlled way. Also the adjoining farmer’s fields will be made more resilient with trackway - that, the cost of the extra guarding, extra fencing, comes out at about £200,000 per year. It would be great to concrete over the farmers’ fields and build permanent fences and do it once, but that’s impossible!”

GP: “How will the on base parking be done - will it be a lottery as people turn up, or will it be every tenth car, something like that?”

TP: “We looked at about 30 different models, even down to parking vehicles on the runway, and only having a fly through show! That shows the determination to continue. We’ve been given approval to park vehicles on the east and west loops on the south side of the airfield, which normally would go to aeroplanes. Despite ticket sales being capped, we’ve planned to over provide on car parking – we’ve based ticket sales on the surrounding road capacity. We can’t afford to have any tailbacks this year, it’s got to run smoothly if our reputation is to hold and people are going to carry on supporting us.

This RAF Tucano T1 was due to be the official display aircraft until an unfortunate accident prevented the display pilot from completing training. Hopefully it'll be back in the air at displays in 2010. Key - Dino Carrara
“If the weather’s good, more vehicles will park on the farmer’s fields, as they have done in the past, because that’s the most efficient way to get vehicles off the roads. It may be frustrating for some people to see lots of concrete not being used, but we’re making no promises with parking in selling the tickets - the truth is that the concrete is there if the weather is going to be inclement.”

GP: “Could the show move somewhere else, or has it got to be Fairford – are we at the point where the business model fits Fairford and to move it is a step too far?”

TP: “The business model can always change and adapt - if it was a matter of move somewhere else or stop, then we’d move somewhere else. We made Cottesmore work; it wasn’t ideal, in fact we thought it may not work because we couldn’t park on the airfield. The truth of it was that it showed us how to park off the airfield and for it to work.

‘Landlord’ of Fairford is Colonel Joe ‘Camel’ Dill, Commander of the 420th Air Base Group, part of the 501st Combat Support Wing that oversees operations at Fairford, Menwith Hill, Croughton, Molesworth and Alconbury in the UK, as well as Stavanger in Norway. It’s Dill’s second year and final year liaising with RIAT, but of course he has yet to witness a full show – he’s hoping this year goes without a hitch! “Last year we wore galoshes! There was a lot of mud, a lot of angst – this year the future looks bright, so bring your shades!” is his optimistic lookout. “Think of it as my garden, my back yard; this is what we give over to the RAFCTE to run RIAT every year. Mine is a supporting role – they great and wonderful things, they bring a lot of noise but a great benefit to a lot of people! During the airshow they will be in charge and I will be making sure I support it as best as I can.” As it’s Dill’s back yard, did he make the call on parking cars on-base this year? “I was the one that planted the seed,” he replies, “but people bigger than me made the call – it went up the chain to USAFE and they said ‘let’s make this happen.’ We’ve got to move forward from 9/11 otherwise they win, is what I say. I can’t put all the cars on the airfield but with a controlled secure environment I’ll accept a certain level of risk – it gives others options and flexibility.” The USAFE organisation at Fairford is set to change, with the 420th reverting to squadron status in the near future and Dill moving on to pastures new. The changes won’t affect the operations at Fairford - “RAF Fairford is a great asset,” says Dill. “It’s a Forward Operating Base (FOB) with a 10,000ft runway, munitions area; it’s a capability we need to keep. Look at the history of the base – it has waxed and waned from squadron to group and back again, but we need to be able to move assets across the globe and we do that here. Lt Col Price will be here running the base from next year after I leave with the same manpower as before – except for me, of course!” What is he looking forward to most at RIAT? “The smell of burgers and the smell of JP8 – that’s what I live for!” And why ‘Camel’? He wouldn’t tell, unless beers were involved!
“Being on a NATO standby base is ideal. The current business model fits perfectly here - lots of real estate, lots of flexibility because it’s not a regular operating base, so we can build things in slower time, which saves money. The US Air Force is terrific, because they’ve got hangars full of aircraft equipment ready to be used. But we always have in our back pocket an idea of where we would go if we hadn’t got Fairford.”

GP: “Is there a minimum time in which the show must be moved before you’d just say ‘I’m sorry, there won’t be any show this year’?”

TP: “It relates to engaging and properly planning with the local authorities; it involves ensuring there’s enough hotel accommodation, in the right sort of places from the crews’ point of view through to the sponsors. It’s probably around six months. Back in 1980 we planned to run a show at Bristol, and we’d got a long way down the road on that when it was decided that neither Filton nor Lulsgate could be used for insurance reasons. We went cap in hand to the US Air Force and ran the show back at Greenham Common with just two months notice!

“That’s the measure of us; we’re quite a resilient organisation. If you look back over the years, nearly every year something horrible happened to us - whether it’s been CND issues, travellers, bombs in London, Falklands and other wars, fuel crises - we’ve always found a way through it.”

GP: “Is the ticket-only strategy risky - you must have a certain number of tickets you need to sell by a certain time. What’s the thinking behind the decision?”

TP: “Part of the process is controlling our destiny. In 2007 when the weather was pretty bad on Sunday, everybody turned up on Saturday because their ticket allowed them to come either day. The Police had asked us a long, long time ago to go into specific day ticketing and capping, because you could have a situation where you just overwhelmed the roads. We’d partially adopted it in 2008, but have now decided to go the whole hog. You’re right, what happens if you don’t sell enough tickets? Having accepted the risk, we are going flat out to sell enough tickets beforehand, and it couldn’t be a worse year to be doing it, of course, with the recession, a reduction of sponsorship, and so on.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into marketing. We’re lucky – the RAFCTE has three very good non-executive directors (all volunteers): Fred Crawley (chairman) who was once a senior Lloyds Bank Executive; Alan Smith with great high street commercial experience and Air Commodore David Bywater, ex Boscombe Down and Marshall Aerospace. The three of them are very wise men with ‘High Street’, banking, big business, and aviation knowledge and understanding. When we sat down with them two months into the planning for this show, the recession set in, so we had a very grown up discussion and agreed that the prudent thing this year was to ensure survival. We adjusted our budgets to assume the worst with quite a low crowd base but still allowing the event to break even. We’re not aiming for that, we’re working hard to surpass it, because we want to support our charities properly and actually feel good at the end of it all. As it’s currently working out, our ticket sales are way, way up on last year. It’s looking promising, but it’s going to be a nail biting time - if we have to pump some more money into last minute marketing, we’ll do that.”

GP: “Are you seeing a shift in people coming to the airshow? Are Friends of RIAT still a core part of what it’s all about, or are you seeing a shift to more mainstream spectators?”

Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130H first seen in 2008 returned again this year. Key - Dino Carrara
TP: “The truth is that historically the real aviation enthusiast is under ten percent of the crowd. That being said, we are driven by enthusiasm for aviation, so we’re always going to be looking for very tasty aeroplanes to make sure that that the core FRIAT membership, which is hugely important to us, is happy. Because it’s a membership, they very kindly pay early on, which helps with cash flow. I’m really pleased to say it’s looking like we’re going to be close to exceeding last year’s membership – interesting, because that was happening before we’d actually declared the early participation lists. Whether it’s because when we refunded money people had put it in a jam jar waiting for this year, I don’t know! So, is it more mainstream? We are keen to follow through the promotion of air mindedness to youngsters – under-16s still get in free of charge and when you compare our ticket prices with others, they are still very favourable.

“We’re trying to make the showground a nicer place to be so it appeals to the family. The enthusiast is going to see a slickening up of the site and that should benefit them too.”

GP: “With the downturn in the economy, has there been a reaction from traders to last year? Are they saying they perhaps can’t risk it this year?”

TP: “Since last year some of the traders have gone to the wall, and that was one of the very sad effects of the cancelling of shows. I didn’t see all the traders - I had to go and see all the sponsors and explain to them. Traders were very well behaved about it, even though disappointed. Sales to traders are pretty good at the moment - we lowered our and our budget expectations and we’re going to probably just exceed them. It won’t be quite as good as last year, because some of those that were more allied to the aircraft enthusiast haven’t got the resilience to cope with this recession, but we hope there’ll be others that rise up.

“But what we’re very anxious about are the sponsors. Where we refunded lots of money to them, I think that has carried them forward to this year - the concern I’ve got is what happens in 2010, when we’re going out cold, when perhaps the recession is still biting - that’s going to be the real challenge. We are down a bit on sponsors - if you’re making lots of people redundant in your company, to come and take a chalet here and be seen wining and dining might not be considered wise. Of course, you’ve still got to get out there and drive your company through the recession and sell your products. It’s a fine balance for them.”

A very colourful French Navy Lynx was one of the centrepieces of the static park. Key - Gary Parsons
GP: “Talking about sponsors, one of the age-old concerns from the enthusiast is the disappearing crowd line in favour of the commercial sponsors. How important are they to you to make the airshow viable?”

TP: “Critical! About £2.3 million comes in from industry, whether that’s aerospace or normal commercial industry. About five years ago Paul and I decided that we had to say ‘no more taking of the crowd line’. If we have more and more chalets sold, it dilutes the benefit to the guests; they’re spread thin. At the same time, we were very conscious that the family and the enthusiast have got to be able to take their images of the aircraft in the display. So the taking of the crowd line will not increase; in fact, we’re setting things back from the crowd line. We’ll always retain the display centre as being west of the main chalets - in the past it was directly in front of them, now it’s much more towards the public grandstand. When you look at Fairford’s runway, it’s nearly 10,000 ft long, so there is plenty of room to get a good view.”

GP: “In terms of aircraft participation, last year was so good, but this year doesn’t appear to be quite up to that level - particularly with the RAF downturn, no role demonstration for example, how difficult is it getting to get those unique items that the Air Tattoo sells itself on?”

TP: “Last year, to have the Brazilian team and all the other wonderful aeroplanes was great. I think it took the Brazilians nine days to get here and the same to get back - terribly, terribly saddening. But the interesting point is that when we cancelled all the aircrews said ‘Can we can help?’ They were all for keeping going. Aviators are used to being messed around by the weather, so they were the most resilient about it and they accepted it. I don’t think they went away from Fairford thinking badly of us. Can we get good aeroplanes? Yes, I think we can. This year, if you put the context of the world recession around participation, there is going to have to be some easing back. Some countries are just broke. If you go down the participation list, I think it’s quite tasty - we just got a Greek Air Force Phantom promised and there are a good number of US aircraft on board. Some of the Sea Search aeroplanes are new and interesting, the Vulcan’s got to be good, and the Asas do Portugal are coming back. It’s great that the Royal Navy has agreed to participate with its full flypast, one of only three venues for that. We’re still working other countries hard, but it takes time. When the time is right they’ll know us above everybody else, because we keep in touch very closely. We’re hopeful that we will enjoy participation from China before too long. So this year, I’m pretty pleased with what’s coming.

The weather over the 2009 RIAT week was very much a mixed bag with sun, rain, wind and all three on Sunday. Here is the RAF Nimrod MR2 celebrating 40 years of service under Sunday's grey skies, matching the colour of the aircraft. Key - Gary Parsons
“The last thing we want is more aerobatic teams, because they’re all half an hour slots. We are obviously Royal Air Force in our title, and Royal Air Force is dominant within what we do, but we celebrate aviation, and so armies, navies and air forces from around the world have always been part of our family.

“I have to say the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, is hugely supportive of what we do - whenever he’s visiting foreign countries or they’re visiting him here on official visits, he frequently promotes us for participation, and you couldn’t hope for a better agent than CAS! The new CAS, Air Marshal Stephen Dalton, is also very supportive of us and we look forward to his time in office from August this year.

GP: “That leads on to another aspect of airshows that I just wanted to talk about, airshows working together. Your meeting with the other RAF shows in February seems to be the catalyst for a new mood of wanting to work together, which I think is excellent – what are your views?”

TP: “There’s a temptation to keep your head down and just do a good job yourself, but we all learn lessons and it would be silly not to share them. We’ve been part of the European Air Show Council, and we meet every year in Belgium. We’ve worked hard to make that a coming together of European organisers and display pilots. In the past, we had probably fallen into the foolish position of seeing Leuchars and Waddington as competition. That eased back a few years ago when we did come together, driven by us wanting to do their ticketing for them. But the changeover from the Benevolent Fund made us stop and think about how we’re all going to do better. We decided that we ought to come together more closely. We are very close to the Royal Air Force now, and accept that for us to be fighting for aircraft participation would be foolish. At the meeting in February we (RIAT) made it very clear that we only want probably four of the big teams every year, rather than six or eight. If we are joined up, we can say go to Waddington one year, come to us the next, go to Leuchars the year after that. We’ve already identified lots of areas of potential money saving on equipment hiring and shred ownership of assets, so yes, it’s very valuable.”

GP: “Is the intention to bring the civilian organised airshows into the forum as well? For example, the clash of dates last year with Flying Legends was unfortunate.”

TP: “I’m in close touch with Stephen Grey regarding Legends now. We will always try and deconflict from other events – last year was very, very unfortunate but driven by the Farnborough dates. So, will we open that discussion up? There’s already the Air Display Association and we don’t want to tread on their toes. I think the Royal Air Force events should be joined up so they get the corporate message over. As far as civilian shows are concerned, we’ve got a very strong working relationship with Farnborough International Ltd. In fact, the first guy to win the AT Solo Jet Aerobatic trophy is now its director of flying - Rod Dean. As far as other civilian events are concerned, we’ll always try and deconflict, what we don’t want to do is seen to be poaching other people’s crowds!

“The challenge of course is 2012 - I’m currently in the process of communicating with all our chief constables, chief fire officers from all the counties that we rely upon to ascertain whether they can support us in 2012, given that I’m sure the Olympics are going to require a lot of them.”

This Hellenic Air Force RF-4E is becoming part of the fixtures and fittings at RIAT, having particpated in 2008. Key - Dino Carrara
GP: “A complaint I heard last year from traders was the Legends/RIAT clash, one big earning weekend lost for them.”

TP: “I can see that. We’re definitely tied to Farnborough now, but the industry needs us both to be either very close or a long way apart in the calendar. If we had to move, we’d move and find a way to do it. It’s a difficult one, because we welcome the traders’ involvement - it helps make the show and income for us both.”

GP: “Could a radical change of date happen - could RIAT be moved to say late May or early June?”

TP: “We’re driven by our volunteer force - we’ve tried many different dates over the years. We liked it a lot when Farnborough was in September, as it gave us freedom to avoid Flying Legends and whatever else. The period around the first and second weekend in July really works for us with our volunteer force. We rely hugely on air cadets, now the Royal Air Force has shrunk somewhat, and they use us as one of their largest and most valuable summer camps.”

GP: “Looking to the future, where do you want to take RIAT – do you have a vision, or are you comfortable with its current format?”

TP: “There are a lot of things that we can do better. We’re always trying to refine the operation, so our supporters feel good from the moment they arrive and stay that way until they eventually leave us. However, I believe the basic model is right; it just needs tweaking a little to ensure we stay on top!

“As an organisation, our core activity is the air show. We also run the concert tour, bringing all the RAF bands together; we have our trading side, but we also have event management experience. In the past we’ve run the airshows at Sunderland and Eastbourne, I even used to run the Brands Hatch Formula One Grand Prix air shows in the good old days. We need to do a bit more of that to broaden our base, because if we couldn’t get an airfield the size of Fairford and had to downsize the air tattoo, we’d need to have a few more irons in the fire to keep the income stream for charity.”

This may have been the last visit by the Royal Air Force of Oman BAC 1-11 as it is soon to be retired from service and replaced by the Airbus A320. Key - Dino Carrara
GP: “I recall there were rumours of a European event a few years ago; is that something you would look towards doing?”

TP: In 1996, we were asked to run a show at Deelen in Holland for the Historic Aircraft Stiftung, and got a long way with that, but were finally beaten by zoning regulations where the ‘green’ issues required things be done that were not affordable. If we had a site overseas and could run it ourselves, we’d probably like to do that. But I must be realistic and perhaps accept that a more likely situation would be for us to be working with a ‘home based team’ as advisers.”

GP: “And will Tim Prince still be in charge at the 2020 Air Tattoo?”

TP: “How old will I be then?! We are always trying to recruit more young people that have the right (RIAT) spirit. When I got involved with Paul Bowen in 1970, there weren’t so many rules and regulations and we just did it - we used common sense and logic and we kept an eye on each other. Nowadays, there are perhaps fewer people who are prepared to stick their necks out as we used to do. We still do it, pushing the boundaries and achieving a lot, Health and Safety regulations permitting! We’ve got some very good people coming up through the organisation: many on our permanent staff, and within the volunteer team. I’ve got to step back sometime and let someone else run the whole shebang - but that person has got to love it, it’s got to be a vocation, it’s got to be weekends and evenings. Just last night I was e-mailing volunteers at midnight, much to my wife’s chagrin, and most of last Bank Holiday weekend I was working, because that’s what it’s about. You could say that I’m just inefficient at what I’m doing, but the evenings are for the volunteers, daytime for industry, the military and the sponsors, and then weekends again to bring it together with all those elements. There are of course plenty of people who could replace me; the RAFCTE Board has just got to select the right one! So I would like to retire before too long, but when I do I will probably be a real pain to live with as I worry about someone else flying my desk!”

Images of the 2009 Air Tattoo by the author and Dino Carrara

Royal International Air Tattoo 2009 - the displays

Filed Under Airshows Features.


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