Five Things About: the 2014 Rockford AirFest (Rockford, IL)

USAF Thunderbirds Wall of Fire Rockford

Five Things is our regular feature to review the airshows that we attend. You already know that the performers were great, so instead of recapping who flew what, we want to jump straight to the most notable moments or stories; things that would remain in your head on the drive home and for a long time afterward.

Airshow: Rockford AirFest
Location: Rockford, IL
Date: 6/7/14-6/8/14

1) Thank you, Canada!Canadian Snowbirds and CP-140 Aurora
Although US military support for airshows is slightly better than last year, it is still sorely missed. Static ramps are sparsely populated and show schedules are headlined by acts that used to be only the teaser. In Rockford’s case, the Canadian military stepped in the fill this gap with the flying performance of the Snowbirds and the static presence of a CP-140 Aurora and a C-90B.

It almost didn’t happen, though. Months ago, the Canadian Forces announced that they would not be sending the Snowbirds to any US shows in 2014, and canceled all of those that had been announced on their schedule. Shortly after this announcement, they reversed course and started adding US shows back on. When the show at CFB Borden in Ontario canceled, Rockford jumped at the chance to host a second jet team. After reworking the schedule, the Snowbirds now have plans to appear at five US shows, but Rockford is the only one that will also feature a US jet team. We are thankful that our friends to the north could show up and provide so much entertainment!

2) Food Vendors
The airshow featured an unusual variety of food vendors, including restaurant chains Culver’s and Famous Dave’s as well as several local establishments and more typical food booths. Although a minor part of the show, the selection of food sticks out as unique and a positive part of the weekend. Chicken tenders at Culver’s ran $6 and even included a bag of chips; elsewhere this combo might have cost $10. Not non-airshow pricing, but at least more reasonable than usual.

3) Sasquatch is Awesome
The last time I watched a Jet Waco, I was very young and afraid of loud noises. Fast forward to 2014 and the Sasquatch Jet Waco sponsored by Jack Link’s Beef Jerky had jaws dropping. Frequent airshow fans have all seen aerobatic planes fly vertical, pull a hammer-head, and recover. Instead of that, the “Scream’n Sasquatch” Jet Waco goes into the vertical, hovers, kicks in the jet, and accelerates – vertically. Every maneuver just had that extra kick of power that you would expect from a jet-powered biplane. To add to the showcase, the Jack Link’s Sasquatch, made popular in the commercials, was roaming around the show grounds taking pictures with guests. Unfortunately, none of them tried to prank him with hilarious results.

Jack Link's SasquatchJack Link's Screamin' Sasquatch

4) Line-Up Surprises: Good and Bad
I was disappointed to find out on Friday afternoon that Team Aerodynamix had suddenly canceled their appearance. In fact, they never even showed up with no reason given. The Sea Harrier also didn’t fly Saturday due to a broken hydraulic line that was fixed for Sunday’s show. The disappearance of these two acts would have left a 45 minute gap in the show schedule. However, the organizers were able to wrangle up some replacements that were very exciting. On Saturday, a Boeing Dreamlifter did a single pass while flying parts from Everett, WA to Charleston, SC. Local warbird pilot Jeff Kaney also performed several afterburner-filled flybys each day in his MiG-17, recently acquired from the Black Diamond Jet Team. Credit must be given for the last minute adjustments to an already solid lineup!

Jeff Kaney - MiG-17Rockford AirFest Crowd

5) Horrible Customer Service
Unfortunately, the lasting impression of Rockford is one of abysmal customer service. This is due to a two-pronged attack on respectability; not only did the show have some questionable policies, it also had some of the rudest, nastiest, and most arrogant volunteers to have ever worked at an airshow.

The policies start out with the cardinal sin of airshows, as mentioned in our previous post about the La Crosse Airshow, the banning of water. However, some credit can be given because this did not seem to be uniformly enforced. Some were allowed in with water bottles, but no other food or drink. Others said they had water confiscated on sight. Even others mentioned a ‘one water bottle per person rule’ which is slightly less asinine than an outright ban. There was also almost no fenceline space available to the general admission crowd, instead it was taken up by large fenced off ‘premium seating’ areas that cost an extra $10 per person. This was not unexpected, but was still very frustrating to witness.

The more devastating of the one-two punch was the behavior and attitude of some of the volunteers at the show. The argument can certainly be made that they were a few bad apples, but it was our misfortune to deal with bad apples exclusively that day. From their very first interaction with us, nearly every one acted as if we were trying to cheat them when really we were just following the rules given to us.

One particular volunteer said if we didn’t want to pay the extra we could sit in an open area next to the premium seating. We, and many other paying customers, set up our chairs there as we were told we could do. About 20 minutes later, another volunteer walked up and placed a ‘Photo Pit’ sign near the area. Suddenly the same volunteer who told us to sit there was back, raising hell that we had dared to sit in the photo pit and ordering us to leave. She interrogated every person in the area as to why they were there and did they have the credentials to be there, before storming off.

We were soon forced to leave the area with the explanation (from another incredibly rude volunteer full of apologies that dripped with insincerity) that the show was still being set up and it was simply a mistake. I don’t know about you, but if my show had a reserved area of seating I would make sure it was set up before paying customers were able to occupy it. In the end we were relegated to sitting several rows back despite being the first people to get to the fence. Truly, this was one of the worst airshow experiences I have ever encountered and only some lucky circumstances made it an ok weekend in the end.

If you do decide to go to the Rockford AirFest in the future, you should be just fine as long as you bring plenty of money and a good deal of patience for the people you will probably have to deal with. It’s unfortunate that the usually strong lineup provided by the organizers has to be undercut by these issues. Going just to watch the planes should not be too bad of an experience, but if you are more serious and looking to get good photos with no obstructions, you will have a rougher time.

– Patrick Barron and Ryan Sundheimer

1 comment to Five Things About: the 2014 Rockford AirFest (Rockford, IL)

  • Mark Washburn

    This is a great summary of the Rockford experience. All it all it was a great airshow as far as performers go. The weather was good. One can’t complain about any of that. I didn’t run into any rude volunteers, the few that I dealt with were fine, but I was surprised to see the front line basically being blocked off as much as it was. I ended up spending the extra 10 bucks to get on either extreme end of the flight line since I came to take photographs. It was about the best one could do and if I had known as much before hand I probably would have just spent more on the better seating. But not everyone has the budget or interest to do that. I see nothing wrong with opening up more space farther down the line for general admission if you want to tie up everything else with some kind of premium seating. Maybe this isn’t that unusual, I don’t’ know since I only go to a few shows each year, but it didn’t go over all that well with me. For folks that brought a carload of people though the $30 admission and parking wouldn’t end up being a bad price just for sitting back on the line.

    The only other problem I had was getting there a bit late and it took quite awhile to actually get parked. There appeared to be a ton of people at sunday’s show and it just took a long time to manage that much incoming traffic. Getting out was actually a lot quicker and it flowed well.

    It sounds like the organizers just need to do a better job of training volunteers in some cases. I have always, always appreciate the people who were willing to help with a show and make it all happen…they really are unsung hero’s, but one should never forget where the money is coming from. Volunteers need to be taught how to deal with customers in the most respectful manner possible and there’s not much that would excuse anything less.

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