When the big show hits town
How FBOs and pilots prepare for high-density operations.
By Douglas Wilson
Private/Helo. Dir Line Ops, Galvin Flying Services
Landmark Aviation (shown here) and Scottsdale Air Center were among the FBOs at SDL (Scottsdale AZ) handling the majority of general and business aviation traffic to Super Bowl XLII on Feb 3, 2008.
In the evening of Jan 20, 2001, following the inauguration of George W Bush as 43rd President of the United States, the persistent rain that had been falling for the previous 24 hours turned into something more sinister as a cold front passed through the nation's capital.
At around 11:00 pm, freezing rain and sleet began falling in the Washington DC area. While attendees at the Inaugural Ball danced, some 250 business aircraft parked at then-unrestricted DCA (National, Washington DC) became encased in ice.
By 6:00 the following morning, as concerned crews started arriving at DCA for the scheduled mass exodus, the magnitude of the glistening aftermath of the weather was hard to comprehend.
First, aircraft cabin doors could not be opened because the ice had covered the locks. Once finally defrosted, keys could be inserted, but the cabin doors wouldn't open because ice also encased the entirety of the fuselage, meaning the fuselage needed to be deiced just to open the door.
When they were finally inside the cabin, shivering crews couldn't start the APU because the APU inlet door was also frozen shut. Even walking across the tarmac to the aircraft had become a perilous venture, as one unprepared passenger demonstrated graphically by slipping backwards and knocking herself unconscious on the frozen tarmac.
For an FBO, a request by one crew to deice the cabin door is pretty simple. The same request, when made by 250 separate crews with passengers enroute, is among an FBO's worst nightmares. And this was just at one FBO.
Multiply that scenario to include facilities at surrounding airports and one can appreciate the enormity of the service catastrophe facing these FBOs. All of these facilities had been planning for this event for over a year.
Scottsdale Air Center GM Tommy Walker advises making operational changes to allow FBOs to handle additional aircraft. He notes that the cooperation of the airport, ATC and the FBO are of key importance during major events.
All had flown in an army of additional, well-trained and experienced employees from other FBOs, and all had additional equipment-including deicing vehicles and fuel trucks-shipped in. But 8 years ago, after a cold and icy inauguration, it just wasn't enough.
Most major events involving business aviation-for example, the Daytona 500, The Master's Golf Tournament-occur only once a year. In the case of events such as the Super Bowl-which is hosted in a different city each year-the opportunity for an FBO to "practice" event planning is virtually nonexistent.
In the case of a Presidential inauguration, considering its 4-year cycle, many FBO employees and pilots may only ever participate in such an event once. Generally, then, all of this planning goes into just one day a year.
For the other 364 days, pilots and FBOs go quietly about the business of business aviation. While the 2001 inauguration was the epitome of "worst-case scenario" for FBOs and pilots alike, major events-such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and the Kentucky Derby-are handled seamlessly and with grace by those same FBOs and flightcrews.
Fail to plan? Then plan to fail
For an FBO, handling a major event is anything but business as usual. Most FBOs have processes designed around handling a certain number of aircraft operations on any given day. If these procedures are not modified to account for the differences an event day brings to an FBO, those procedures, now heavily taxed by additional aircraft, can break down or fail.
Tommy Walker is general manager of Scottsdale Air Center at SDL (Scottsdale AZ), an FBO that handled a significant number of aircraft during Super Bowl XLII earlier this year. Walker made changes in staffing and procedures in order to handle additional traffic.
DSU Aviation Dept Mgr Harold Waxman advises monitoring the frequency and being ready with the cabin door closed when ATC is using an engine start list at major events.
He recalls, "We knew airplanes were going to 'fall out of the sky,' so we brought in 8 additional employees in line service, and 3 additional in customer service." As a Ross Aviation FBO, Scottsdale Air Center was able to leverage additional locations in Denver CO and Santa Fe NM from which to draw additional experienced staff.
Operationally, Walker notes, FBOs have to plan for some things to change. "For instance," he says, "we didn't allow passenger vehicles-personal vehicles, limousines and taxis-onto the ramp as we normally do. We just had too many airplanes.
Instead, we rented 4 crew vans, and drove around picking people up and dropping them off, because aircraft parking was scattered all over the field." One interesting methodology incorporated to account for different departure times was to physically place a tag on each aircraft for quick recognition by line personnel.
Walker says, "We tagged airplanes as they arrived, as those departing either the night after the game, the next morning or the next afternoon, with a red, blue or other colored sheet of paper placed in the cockpit window.
That way, we could double or even triple stack aircraft in the correct order on the ramp based on planned departure time." Another key to an efficient operation is the individual at the FBO responsible for ground-to-air communication with arriving aircraft and ground-to-ground communication to line staff.
When it comes to the dispatcher position for these events, Walker says, "You have to have a dedicated person on the radio, and that person really has to know what they're doing because they have to talk on multiple frequencies-Unicom, ARINC, ground channels to line staff-nearly simultaneously. It's a full-time job."
Welcome to the show
For a pilot, flying into a major event can be challenging and painful-it requires detailed planning. A good rule of thumb is to treat the planning for a flight to a major event with the same attention to detail as that needed for flying an international operation, only minus the passport.
Gabe Miller, a line pilot for a California-based Part 135 Beechjet 400 operator, advises, "Plan on spending twice the amount of preflight preparation you would on any normal flight, in terms of looking at Notams, TFRs and weather.
You also have to consider your departure airport to the big event, because you're going to encounter flows between the two." A resource that is sometimes overlooked is an FBO's local knowledge surrounding a big event that simply does not show up in a briefing or a Notam.
As NBAA VP of Safety, Security and Regulation Doug Carr notes, "FBOs are often your best friends for these types of event-they've got access to intelligence about the local area, and the airport information an operator could definitely rely on."
Randy Gause is a Seattle WA-based Dassault Falcon 900 pilot who has had the opportunity to fly to the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, the NCAA Final Four and the Daytona 500, seconds Carr's comments. He advises, "Get the lay of the land by calling the FBO beforehand and see what difficulties they anticipate.
Often they know something, such as possible issues with ground transportation, which is completely different than what you were expecting." DSU Aviation Dept Mgr Harold Waxman, whose company operates a Falcon 900EX, is a veteran of no fewer than 2 Presidential inaugurations and 2 Super Bowls, as well as a handful of other major events.