This should have been a series of blog posts over the 10 days as I was working as a volunteer at the Air 14 Air Show in Payerne, Switzerland, but since we were up from about 0600 (that’s zero six hundred for you military guys or just too early for the rest of us) until we had tucked in the last of the jet pilots (helicopter pilots don’t need us, they are adults) at 2200 or later, frankly I was toasted by then. Therefore I put it in one, albeit a long one.
For the nerds among us, the IT part is at the bottom. But if you read on, you get exciting stories of lost love, almost homicide, Kung Fu Panda, not so funny jet pilots and such a deep view into human nature, your world will never be the same.
For me, that was one of the best times of my life. I am still completely worn out. My back hurts like hell and my feet are finally completely flat, but I would not have missed it for anything in the world. I met hundreds of air and ground crew, was part of an absolutely wonderful team and tagged an Apollo astronaut.
Apart from that, we solved several diplomatic incidents, ended a cold war, made new friends and enemies.
Disclaimer. If you have been convicted for crimes like having no sense of humor, being easily offended be sarcasm or suffer from the inability to recognise irony, do not read on. Please go here.
Air 14 was this years biggest air show in Europe. While still a far cry from Oshkosh, about 390’000 people came to see incredible performances of Europe’s best on two weekends, as it was the celebration of 100 years Swiss Air Force, 50 years Patrouille Suisse and 25 years PC 7 Team. It is quite a task to organise an event like this and I was one of more than 5000 volunteers. Our group of around twenty were there to manage welcome and transport of hundreds of air and ground crews with Hotels in 5 different locations. We had to herd our flocks around which became quite a task with certain teams. Others came, parked their aircraft and where never seen again. Unfortunately, while we were preparing to sell their planes, they always showed up to reclaim them. There goes the chance for the Swiss Air Force to replace two crashed F/A-18′s by two (rather filthy) Canadian ones.
On monday after the show I met the USAF F-15 drivers. They claimed they were at the static display the whole day. I never saw them and since I distributed coupons for ice cream and drinks at the static display every day and stayed there for quite while to chat with the teams, I suspect they got lost on the way to the show, somewhere in the alps or at a beach. To make up for that, they wanted to do a bit of tactical navigation on their way home, finding almost unknown and boring places like the Matterhorn, Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau and the Aletsch glacier. ATC wasn’t up to it and sent them home on a more direct route. But that happened to everybody. The crews that had to hold on their way in, were luckier. Some of the holding patterns they choose were so large, they covered half the alps.
Love at Midnight
My colleagues Martina and Matthieu had the task to work with the Midnight Hawks, the Finnish display team, which kept them on their toes (literally, because M&M are both quite short), that they did not eat for 14 hours. There was always something new and since Martina is a quite cute 19-year-old from Ticino, most of the pilots were hitting on her. They probably just made things up to see her. Matthieu had a hard time to get their attention. One get’s the impression, that if Matthieu had just thrown Martina to the lion pack of blond-haired and blue-eyed pilots, things would have gone much smother for him. But always the gentlemen he is, he saved her every time from the fangs of the Hawk drivers until, the lowest member of the pack got his chance. The copilot of the Casa transport aircraft and Martina saw each other and the rest I will not reveal to protect the bud of a young love. Alas their luck was cut short on monday when the Midnight Hawks left (finally, from Matthieu’s point of view). Despite all the trouble they caused, there is no doubt that the Midnight Hawks will have a special place in M&Ms hearts. They were presented with two framed pictures with all the signatures as a reward for their exceptional work and dedication. While it is possible that others were given to somebody important and then will collect dust on the wall of some pilot lounge, the two for M&M are a symbol of true gratefulness. And for the first time Matthieu was just speechless (which is a very rare event in itself). I think he even got a bit teary-eyes, but that was probably just the fatigue he accumulated over those days … yeah, must be … no doubt …
Pilots and other animals
It’s all about style. When the french Ramex Delta Mirage 2000N arrive, it’s low and noisy. Here we are! Same with the dutch. He used up every feet he could spare. Then you get the Frecce Tricolory. They use smoke at every moment, they feel it is appropriate, which means about every time they turn on the engines and even on their last take off, they turned on the smoke still on the taxiway. This time the tower must have told them in not uncertain terms to cut it off. Certainly because they did not want the airbase go IFR again. The Italians used so much smoke, our sight to the world became a green, white and pink (the red smoke becomes pink when dissolving).
A completely different story were Al Fursan, the UAE Air Force display team. Rumors got out, that our hotels weren’t good enough, nor our cars, almost new Renaults in all forms and sizes. They booked the ground crew into a five-star hotel near by and the pilots in an even better five-star hotel, the Palace in Montreux. As cars they somehow got hold of three Mercedes with all the trimmings and a Range Rover. The rumor peaked, that they bought them new before the show. They did not leave them on our car park after the show, though. Pity that (now read the comment of my colleague Olivier).
One of the pilots was quite attracted to one of our adorable female staff members. While she was rather quite annoyed whenever he showed up – and he did that a lot – we were negotiating in the background the number of camels we could get for her. Unfortunately we couldn’t arrive at an agreement.
The UAE pilots were trained by the Italians and shared the same addiction to smoking, even in the same colors. I am pretty sure that still today, from the air the landscape around the airbase is checkered white, green and red.
During the displays of the Italians or the UAE, once in a while the fire alarm went off in our building.
Quite an impact had the C-130 Hercules of the Danish air force in the static display. They lost count after five minutes about the numbers of people they visited the plane. I am not sure, if it was the plane that was the main attraction, or madam doctor they brought along. What an excuse for a father to tell the kids how cool the plane is and they should absolutely go inside. Some of them probably dragged their kicking and screaming offsprings several times to the plane or bribed them with toys and ice cream.
The Caps Affaire
I believe many would hope to keep this story under the hat but some things just must be preserved for future generations. It all started on the first training day. Our bus drivers asked for base-ball caps as souvenirs and protection. An airfield on a normal summer day has a micro climate like the Sahara in mid summer. Since there were hats available to us from the main sponsor, we asked for some, but they were already gone. A little later we were sent to the VIP welcome tent, because they were understaffed (there is probably a very logic reason why). Every VIP was presented with absolutely useless VIP batch around the neck (how on earth would anybody think a VIP batch could be a nice souvenir for a VIP), a useful VIP wristband and a hat. Since we are fast thinkers, we asked for a few caps for our drivers. We got two or three. So far so good. The next day, other bus drivers asked for caps, too. Thinking of nothing, one of us went to collect some more caps at the VIP. This time, no luck. Our colleague, always dedicated to make everybody happy, was a bit desperate. Being an elderly lady of chinese ancestry, she must have triggered the fatherly feelings of Chefchef (Sebigboss, The ONE), who must met her accidentally (or she tracked him down like a Ninja fighter she probably was in another life, the story is not clear here). On hearing her problem, he immediately jumped into action and ordered some caps for her (did he just wanted to get rid of her?). Since it was Chefchef who ordered, the staff acted right away to this asian-european crisis, ad hoc meetings were held, action plans drawn and after another “accidental” encounter with Chefchef, she was finally provided with caps. They were rather sorry, that they could not bring more, but they got her 500 caps. Unfortunately they did not provide transportation. Now imagine your grand mother sitting among thousands of people on four rather large boxes of caps everybody wants. She was stuck. To her luck, she met her white knight who took pity and drove her back. But that’s not the end of the story, somehow that triggered something. After a while we got the message, that giving the caps to the bus drivers would be a court-martial offence and we would be shoot at dawn. The VIP organisation thought, that the VIPs would not be amused to see bus drivers and other beings from low casts with the same caps. Having met quite a few VIPs in my life, rest assured, they could not care less. Anyway, the same caps are given away to every spectator during other air shows in Switzerland. There must be millions of them.
By mischance, we were not able to make a dent in our stock it that short of time. So I packed the caps and drove them back. Four big boxes of stupid caps back to the sender, dully signed and stocked. Strangely, one box seemed to be lighter than the others.
The next time I was at the other side, I went to Pilatus and asked for caps. They did not have a lot, but since then, at least a few of us made publicity not for the main sponsor, but for Pilatus. Our boss just smiled when he saw me.
Pyjamas saved from doom
One of the highlights of the first weekend were certainly the Patrouille de France – flying wise – while on the ground the situation was a bit less glorious. It started when they arrived at our head quarters. Cool pilots as they are, they strolled in with a nonchalant manner. Unfortunately they wear light blue flight suits (probably tailored by one of the great french couturiers). Actually that does not look too good. The remarks started immediately among us: Get’s dirty easily … my boy had one while a toddler … are they flying in pyjamas? That stuck! Since then the PaF drivers are Pyjama 1 to 9. But it got better. On saturday, with fair weather predicted, the traffic situation on the highway deteriorated as expected to an almost standstill. Up to two hours of stop and go traffic on the highway which accidentally runs along the air base. We had provided the Pyjamas with cars and warned them about taking the highway but they still thought, they would be much faster not taking the proposed route, but sticking to the highway (or the could not handle the basic functionality of the navigation system). And yes, they got stuck. When time for their pilot briefing started running out and their take off time was almost there, they phoned the base. The Swiss Army immediately started one of the biggest search and rescue operations in history. One Super Puma was made ready – really – and truck loads of soldiers were dispatched to drive along the highway to find the stranded stars of the show. Fortunately they were right at the edge of the air base. The soldiers got them over the fence, herded them to their planes, shoved the in the cockpits and sent them flying. Some grunts were left with the cars to drive back. The rumor goes (not confirmed), that the pyjamas even did some cold forming on our precious cars, while parking on the emergency lane.
On another occasion, one of the bus drivers would not believe one of our colleagues, that it was absolutely imperative to follow the proposed route. Twice he rejected her plead to get off the highway: “I am a professional, I know what I am doing”. The police finally had to get them.
Not that next weekend’s “stars” of the show, the Red Arrows were any better. First we booked them into one of our partner hotels and the rooms were free of charge for everybody. In fact a quite nice one just twenty minutes from the air field. Somehow it wasn’t to their liking and they booked their own hotel. One that we rejected on the grounds of a too low standard. But they paid for it and we thought they would just organise themselves. On friday evening the Reds arrived and the pilots got the rental cars we provided and asked us for the shuttle for the ground crew. What shuttle? They only booked the hotel and thought we would do the rest. Not that we hadn’t enough to do shuttling around crews staying in our partner hotels. One other RAF member just called them divas.
On the other hand, I had the pleasure to work with the RAF Falcons parachute display team. Their organisation was just perfect. Unfortunately the VIP organisation messed up the access to the VIP area for crews. Their rule was pretty simple. Goes up in air, VIP. Stays on ground, NOT VIP. Now that was bound to cause problems since the VIP organisation wasn’t able to tell apart important people on the ground, from not so important in the air and vice versa. In the morning before a rather posh party for air crews with invitation, the commanding officer of the Falcons, who is on the ground during the display, came to us and explained that either all of them go or none. Since he and all his colleagues are rather impressively built, the decision to come up with more VIP tags was made pretty fast.
As everybody thought that the whole VIP invitation stuff was done a bit randomly, solutions were created on the fly. Whole medevac transport airplane crews were smuggled in at some point. There is really no reason, why they should be less important, than some common jet driver.
Me as a screaming teenager
Rainer Wilke is the closest to a super star you can become as a helicopter pilot. So I locked forward to see his performance and probably even meet him. In the end I saw his flight three times from different perspectives and I did meet him. Albeit I am not sure, that he has such a good memory of that event. The first time I saw him, I was standing beside him at hangar 2 which served as pilot lounge. First he was eating ice cream, then he got a phone call. And that is while some times it sucks being brought up in Switzerland. We just leave stars alone. And if you are a star and think that you get special treatment every time you open the front gate, you become pretty fast an unperson. We treat pretty much everybody equal. That’s why famous people like to live in Switzerland, because they can live a normal life. Therefore I did not approach him boldly.
The next time I saw him, he was talking to a few people I knew and I joined the group. He explained the fuel system of his BO 105. Probably not that interesting if you are not into stuff like that (I am). We changed a few words after he got a call from OPs, if he could fly the JetMan when the Ecureuil broke down, but that didn’t happen. Then I saw him at the final party the same day. I was talking to the dutch F-16 demo pilot, teasing him about who did the best F-16 demo – he did, but I would not tell him – and there suddenly Rainer Wilke joined us. That was the moment were the difference between helicopter and jet pilots became apparent. The F-16 driver was explaining his maneuvers in great detail and talking with his hands, too, while Rainer Wilke was standing there calmly, explaining once in a while his stuff.
By then, I had spent the last drop of adrenalin that kept me running and my brain must have been shutting down more and more parts that were not necessary to keep me barely on my feet. In retrospect, I have the impression I was just babbling. I just hope Rainer Wilke has not a good memory for faces.
(And for the US guys who think Chuck Aron is the man, Rainer Wilke trained all five helicopter pilots doing this kind of display).
Bush Pilots vs. Jet Pilots
I have a confession to make. One of the reasons I volunteered was to hang out with other pilots. Unfortunately, and I am not alone with that view, many jet pilots are amazingly boring (or too snotty to talk to us). Not all though, the dutch were quite approachable and fun to be with, but we had loads more fun with the technicians/mechanics/engineers (it’s always the same job, but the designation depends on the country).
There are several groups of pilots apart from jet jockeys. First, size matters. In the first week, those with the biggest plane were the most pain in … Somehow a lengthwise challenged Airline driver managed to get special treatment. He parked were nobody else could and somehow he got shuttle service when nobody else could, just because he drove the biggest plane? Fortunately he was too cool to come to the party were just about everybody made fun of them. But as always, you get those guys, and those who for come with their own P-51, are happy to flying an air show, are naturally good-humored and just grateful for everything we could do for them.
At one point I had to pick up a VIP, who was lost at a public entrance. It took us about 10 seconds to find out we had worked as pilots in the same bush years ago. We had so much fun with in the 10 Minutes we needed to go to the VIP area – where staff like me was persona non grata – it took me several days to accumulate the same amount fun with jet pilots. One evening we were sitting at a table and telling “war stories”, the only jet pilot never ever smiled, not once. How can you live like that?
Constantly complaining were some, who flew for some sponsors. What they don’t get is, without us organizing airshows, they would not have the platform. Nobody does it for them. If they want to sponsor it, all the better, but they are not the customer, neither the most important stars … most of them at least. The Breitling Jet Team is quite the opposite. Again, M&M got the problems and the rewards. While the Breitling Jockeys are extremely nice and approachable, they also had a lot of smaller and bigger wishes. But M&M got invited for dinner and karting and a whole bunch of other goodies. The trunk of M’s car was barely able to hold all of it. But it was a small car anyway.
The fun magnet
If anybody ever needed a laugh, Carmen was the girl to follow. She has the amazing ability always to find the coolest crews to hang out with. In the first week, it was the French Mirage Ramex Delta ground crew, in the second week the German CH-53 (helicopter!) crew. Don’t know how she does it, but it worked every time.
Plank strollersThe Breitling Wingwalkers must be escapees of a mental clinic. Why on earth would anybody do this? Quite impressive, though. The two stearman put up a hell of a show. We were standing under the show line one day and saw them crossing at 90 degrees, which is very difficult to judge. Oh, sorry, forgot the girls. They both were pretty young, cute, light and out of their mind doing this kind of stuff. They flirted with about anything in a flight suit. Probably even with that dummy on the ejection seat at the static display. Not with me though, I somehow became suddendly invisible (note to myself, buy flight suit, not in light blue). The pilots on the other hand, did exactly the same thing. Unfortunately their market niche was pretty limited. We did not even see a single female pilot. I hope they didn’t saw the Danish doctor.
Sometimes in life you meet somebody who is at the same time extremely annoying, on the other hand have such a strong personality, that they leave you behind completely fascinated. Such a personality is the head of the Sally B preservation trust. Sally B is the only european B-17 still flying, and frankly, one beautiful plane. She is in top-notch condition and that is – credit were credit is due – thanks to Elly Sallingboe. When she arrived, she made such a fuss about everything, that even chefchef had to be summoned, to keep the situation at bay. But that seems to be her normal behaviour. After all, she manages to keep an aviation icon flying, and that probably only works if you are not afraid to act like a leopard tank and just run over everything in your way. But still, when she was near, everybody just got extremely important tasks to do or out of sight as fast as possible.
Don, our liaison officer who knows her, just said: “After a few gin-tonic, she is actually quite a nice girl.”
Czech best sales men for SAAB
One of my flocks was the Grippen Team from the Czech Republic. Due to some language barriers it wasn’t a constant party, but we got along very good. On training day we checked on them at the static display. There they were sitting in the shade of the wing, certainly a bit bored. We talked for a while and then he invited us to sit in the cockpit. The Grippen is a really nice plane inside. Everything seems logically arranged and it is very comfortable. But our visit must have triggered something. Over the whole weekend people were queuing up for a sit in the Grippen. The plane the Swiss population did not want.
SAAB should have sent the Czechs on a few good will mission before the votation, rather than trying to convince some what they thought “key persons”. That sounded like bribery to the Swiss voters. What SAAB’s communication department did not get, was that in Switzerland you have to convince the voters, not the politicians. Now SAAB got it and brought a Grippen E to the show, but it was a mock-up.
Some day, the Swiss Air Force has to buy new planes anyway and the Grippen isn’t off the table.
Kung Fu Panda
When I started kung fu, I took the oath, only to use it to defend myself. But there are some times, where on gets to the edge to break the oath and bend somebody’s knees the other way. There were times were someone in the organisation started to put spokes in our wheels. Since we had to meet teams, we were travelling quite often between our head quarters and the other side of the field, were static displays, VIP area and spectators were located. We took whatever means of transportation was available, shuttles or crew busses. After a few days, we were told, we were not allowed to use the crew buses anymore, just the shuttles. Unfortunately, the shuttles stopped at one end of the runway. That meant a walk of sometimes up to two and a half kilometers and going against the flow of 100’000 spectators. No fun. That was resolved after a day, but we weren’t allowed to take the crew buses, if they were already full of crews. No really? Did they really think we wouldn’t be that clever?
The next thing came with the VIP organisation. They were understaffed (one has an idea why) and asked for help. First day went ok and somebody had the idea, that we should make a plan and whoever is free, should help out at the VIP tent. Good idea. Three times I was summoned, three times when I got there, I was told they did not need me after all. Though I thought to myself: “get lost”. They tried to contact me afterwards, but they had the wrong number. Now bugger that.
The third time I was close to going bananas was, when four of us were asked to help the staff on the other side to help selling books together with caps, about the history of the Swiss Air Force. I said yes, but I had to leave at a certain time. We went there with our personal Renault cars we were provided in the beginning. Since I became somehow the head of the group (my mother always told not to be the first to volunteer. Should have listened to her), I searched for the person responsible and finally found him. I told him that we were there and ready to roll but he shut me up in a quite unfriendly, if not rude manner and continued to do small talk with some female staff, until the bags with the money arrived. By then I had already identified the targets I would hit, if anything else would happen in the next five minutes.
We loaded our cars with hundreds of books and caps and went to the static display. Here we were told, no commanded, to sell the stuff and would be relieved in one hour and just leave our cars there. Ah, no way my friend, our cars stay with us. Then we were told that in one hour other cars would arrive. Fortunately we had Martina with us and I was immediately relived of my role as the boss, since I am by far not as attractive as her.
While we were standing there in the sun desperately trying to sell the books not many wanted with caps everybody wanted, but not for that price, our friend was standing 50 meters away, watching the air show with one of VIP support girls (and I thought they were understaffed). That did it, at 1500 sharp we packed up and left the scene. The other promised cars did not arrive and were never seen at the static display. We reported back at headquarters and poor Kevin had to listen to our story. He picked up the phone and told the other side in very clear words, not to ask for help again.
As my readers can imagine, we were happy campers, when we were told, that we could attend the two parties on thursday and sunday. First thursday we got in without any fuss. Next sunday we were not really welcome, but let it, because we had to meet our crews, sort of. Technically we were still working. But for about half of us, access was denied. Markus, our team leader (or whatever, I never figured the hierarchies out anyway) wasn’t amused. Next thursday we got stopped at the entrance, but chef was there and told us to get in. Since we had to follow orders, we went. Somebody must have been annoyed by our presence and pulled strings in the background. But since we were the group that did the most for the crews and were pretty much the face of that organisation, and a very pretty one for that, they had hardly any reason to suddenly deny us access.
I did it again. I asked people to take pictures of me while sitting in various cockpits. I do not get wiser with age it seems. On every single picture I look like terminal ill rat with a stupid grin, due to distorted face muscles. That is the reason, why there isn’t a single picture of me on the internet, except the one, where I am standing behind an R44 with only my feet in clear view. Why can’t I be a quarter vampire? Normal, just not showing up on photos and in mirrors.
Our biggest mistakes
No event of this magnitude goes without moments we really messed up. I mean big time. We have to admit, that these situations could have been prevented, had we thought about it correctly. And the press, always up to the task to find any flaw in an organisation, put its finger on it.
First problem: We had no grilled sausages. They were available, but from private booth, not at our restaurant at hangar five. Sorry about that. The reason was probably that we are in the french part. One right-wing party even thinks we are not real Swiss anyway.
Second problem: The German speaker was from Austria. Actually the French speaker was from France, but the press didn’t find out. Why didn’t we get Swiss speakers? Because the two are highly experienced airshow speakers and you can not find people like that in Switzerland.
Martina, having Italian as mother tongue, always started to groan, when the guest speaker of a swiss team said things like “finale grande”. It’s gran finale.
The rest of the BS we did, the press did not find out about and I am not going to tell them.
One more lost opportunity (here starts the nerd thing)
One of the problems we faced, was the lack of information we would have needed at our fingertips and not on some spread sheet. Those poor guys organizing the event had to rely on very few legacy tools, like Word, Excel, Access and Outlook. With XPages, a mobile framework and all the smart phones around, we could have provided everybody with the information at the time needed. That would have saved hundreds of hours of searching, revising lists, general chaotic trouble shooting and a lot of pain in my back and feet.
We as the Swiss IBM Business Partners could have made a lasting impression on quite a few people: let’s say 390’573 and few thousand VIPs thrown in for good measure, if we would have reacted early enough. It is a pity, I often get the best ideas, when it is too late.
I could not help it, while there I started to design the application in my head. As has been done during the Christchurch earthquake, we have the unique capability to start from scratch and get results fast. A q&d application would easily be ready within a week, with the first results up and running in a few hours. The data wasn’t that complicated and not a lot of features would have been needed. Just a few good views and a concept to keep all the data connected and the ACL correct, would have made a huge difference. In exchange I would have asked for a boot for all involved, preferably near the VIP area. Even a public information service could have been possible.
We probably would have had to ask IBM for a few licenses, but what a small price to pay, for such an incredible opportunity.
I think we should face the fact, that we will not get any marketing support from IBM to broaden our customer base. If we want that IBM products are better known also to non-IBM customers, we have to do that ourselves. Events like this, were we could show a solution that is working and helping people right there, could be a low-cost, but very effective marketing tool.
Usability made in France
As I mentioned, I was provided with an almost brand new Renault. An Espace. When I first took it for a ride, the radio was on. There is a multifunction display for navigation. On the center console are buttons and stuff, labeled with “menu”, “-” and so on. I started to fiddle around with it. There wasn’t anything on it, that said “Radio” but I thought, if I click through all the menus, I will find it eventually, because after three days, the darn was slowly annoying me. Nothing. Then I tried every glove box I could find. There is one in the middle, that opens downwards on pressing a button. After three days I found out, that instead pressing the button, I pulled upwards, there is another glove box. And there it was, the radio. After a while without music I realised, the MFD only showed a clock. Touching the navigation buttons did not change that. Since I did not need it anyway, I forgot about it. After a while I turned on the radio and the MFD lit up? What? I turned the radio off, MFD off. It turns out, if you want to navigate, you have to turn the radio on (I asked the mechanic). Thank god the germans help the french to build the Airbuses.
At the end we were happy and sad, that it was over. We had no accident, that is the most important. We got a personal letter of the european airshow council, congratulating us for the amazing organisation. Seems we even get a price for the best airshow, but the season isn’t over yet. Anyway, everybody gave us high marks and that makes all of us proud. Never have so few be thanked by so many.
To make things clear, because I was asked this more than once, M&M are not a couple. Their relationship is rather strange. They went from complete strangers to “let’s just stay friends” skipping everything in between. While Martina has hit Matthieu on several occasions, he did not suffer lasting effects. With the right counselling he should be as good as new in a few month. The twitch he developed will hopefully disappear with time.
Thanks to all of my colleagues during those 10 days. It was a joy to work with you and I am proud having all of you as friends.
Thank you Joe for being a good mother.
… and I don’t like jet noise anymore.