Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Plane Crazy - The Singapore Airshow (Part 2)

Singapore’s special place in aviation history isn’t apparent during the island republic’s air show season.

From start to finish – the Media Day, four Trade Days and two Public Days – it’s all business. The strong business focus is a good thing for bean counters who need to justify sky-high bills chalked up at the biennial event.

But as crunch time dawns and budgets shrink, air show organisers the world over must look for, and exploit, key advantages that will keep exhibitors and show visitors coming.

Not all of these advantages - unique selling points in marketing speak - can be quantified purely in dollars and cents.

The passion for flying machines and appreciation of aviation history are good examples. Singapore was the place from which famous British warbirds such as the Spitfire fighter, Sunderland flying boat, Beaufighter and Mosquito warplanes made their last operational flights.

In its heyday, RAF Seletar in the north of Singapore was acclaimed as the finest flying boat base in the British Empire.

Singapore is also the only country in Southeast Asia to have developed its own TV-guided glide bomb.

Its TA-4SU Super Skyhawks are the only ones in the Skyhawk family upgraded for a particularly demanding type of combat mission.

This rich aviation heritage isn’t celebrated, let alone mentioned at the Singapore Airshow - the world’s third biggest air show. Pity.

When the Singapore Airshow returns for its third showing on 14 February 2012, more attention should be paid to rekindling people’s interest in things that fly.

It is this love for aeroplanes that drew many people in the aviation sector to their chosen profession in the first place. Pilots, aircrew, maintenance teams, air traffic controllers and other professionals in the aerospace industry who excel in what they do all share a love for aircraft.

This passion is hard to quantify. It is an intangible, a straight-from-the-heart attitude, sometimes irrational love for flying machines that cannot be measured as an ROI or EVA. And it's such passion that the Singapore Airshow needs to nurture, if the event wants to avoid falling by the wayside.

Anyone with a runway, generous apron space and a sheltered (preferably air-conditioned) exhibition area can stage an air show. Good show infrastructure aside, what keeps people coming back is the network of like-minded individuals and business associates they meet at the show.

People travel across many time zones to meet and greet their business partners because one cannot email a handshake.

Strengthening the “air” element of the Singapore Airshow is the way to distinguish the event from the also-rans in Asia.

A quick fix solution would be to inject more life into the Singapore Airshow's Flying Display and flightline.

The Singapore Airshow 2010 clearly had difficulties selling exhibition space. It says a lot when prime real estate in the main hall is turned into lounge areas with chairs, tables and blank walls – space that could otherwise be sold per square foot for a pretty penny. Instead of turning it into a plain visitor’s lounge, why not fill any unsold space with information on the island’s rich aviation history? Surely Singapore has enough to showcase?

The event's Flying Display and Static Aircraft Display Area (SADA; an unfortunate acronym. SADA used to be the Republic of Singapore Air Force formation that shot down airplanes!) could also do with a makeover.

Rather than entreat the RSAF with a static display wish list as long as your arm, why not think creatively?

The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) showed the way in 2001 at its Navy Open House. It was the biggest ever Navy Open House, measured in terms of variety of warships displayed and total tonnage of hulls visitors could see. The RSN succeeded because it held a major regional naval exercise around the time of that year’s IMDEX naval show and foreign warships set sail for Singapore just to take part in these events. It was thus an opportune time for the RSN to showcase Changi Naval Base to visitors.

The Singapore Navy did so, most successfully, without breaking the bank. The Navy Open House 2001 organising committee did such a wonderful job that their record (total tonnage of ships and variety of warships displayed) stands unchallenged till today - this weekend's Navy Open House 2010 pales in comparison with that staged nearly a decade ago.

If the RSAF timed war games with regional air forces to coincide with the Singapore Airshow 2012, surely some could be persuaded to park their warbirds on the SA 2012 flightline?

To be sure, flying displays are hugely expensive to hold. And the closure of Singapore's air routes for the air show's Flying Display has a knock-on effect on connecting flights as far away as Europe and the United States.

What's more, nobody in his right mind will buy an aircraft just because of its spirited air display.

But when done well, air displays are crowd magnets and are the cornerstones of major air shows.

Though the Singapore Airshow and its predecessor, Asian Aerospace, were touted as regional events, more effort could have been made in gathering a diverse Flying Display lineup. In my opinion, past air shows banked too heavily on RSAF contracts. Indeed, some foreign vendors have commented that the manner in which they were arm-twisted to support the air show left much to be desired.

Now that major RSAF contracts for its Basic Wings Course (Lockheed Martin offering training hours using PC-21s), Next Fighter Replacement Programme (Boeing's F-15SG Strike Eagle) and Naval Helicopter (UTC's SH-60B Seahawk) have been signed, that pipeline of RSAF contracts has dried up. This is bad news for the air show as there is little, or no incentive, for warplane makers to send their birds to the Far East.

This explains why we no longer see Dassault Aviation's Rafale or BAE Systems' Eurofighter flying in Singaporean airspace. And once the Advanced Jet Trainer winner is announced around the middle of 2010, I am willing to bet that the losing platform won't be seen at SA 2012.

The air show should have embraced a regional focus and not look to the RSAF for Flying Display participants. A stronger list of participating fixed and rotary wing machines, from different air arms, would heighten the show's appeal to aviation fans - and this includes people in the industry charged with deciding whether an air show is worth attending.

We ignore such passion at our peril. People automatically gravitate to like-minded strangers and if the Lion City fails to show it is a part of the world’s aviation fraternity, in spirit and in deeds, they will eventually flock elsewhere.

Some years ago, Singapore Airlines celebrated a major historical milestone by restoring – at some expense – an Airspeed Consul twin-engine passenger plane. It was the first plane that flew with Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, the forerunner to today’s SIA.

The Airspeed Consul made the headlines and stories were written on the restoration effort. It was a labour of love that made a great yarn.

Where, pray tell, is that propellor plane now?

I hear it’s been restored (again) in Australia. It ended up there because the Airspeed Consul was bumped around like an unloved child after the SIA anniversary exhibition. It was placed in the open at the Singapore Science Centre, where the wooden plane attracted more termites than visitors. From an exhibition showpiece, it became a basket case until plane crazy Australians came to the rescue.

This isn’t the first time Singapore has lost part of its aviation heritage. Years ago, a Dakota, Hawker Hunter, Meteor and Sea Vixen that were left to rot on Sentosa island were rescued by an Australian aviation museum. The planes were shipped Down Under, stripped and painstakingly restored.

If this is how we treat our aviation history, how can we expect people to take our world-class air show seriously?


Anonymous said...

It seems that the RSAF won't be buying anything new in the near future.

What about replacements for the C-130s and the Super Pumas?

Any thoughts or comments on possible successors?

Those seem to be the oldest aircraft in their inventory.

Keep up the great work.

goat89 said...

Interesting article, but that last part about restoring airplanes... theres just no way any Singaporean is going to waste money to restore a relic. Its just not worthwhile in our view, though I applaud the Australians for doing so. in fact, we should tag them when found and make a call out for restorers all over the world and they make a pitch to who is the best group to restore it.

Mike Y said...

***WARNING: Long Post ahead***

Hi Dave, interesting post. While we would all love to see regional air forces send their planes over to the Singapore Airshow, thereby turning it into an regional Air Tattoo/Air Fete, which will bring in the local and overseas punters (which boosts tourist numbers), you might argue that a) that’s not the overriding KPI consideration for the organizers and b) the airshow is already packed to the brim on public days as it is, and more people brings in the attendant crowd control issues.

Ditto goes for having warbirds, it brings in Joe Public, but not so much business, and the latter is what the organisers and participants are after. I'm really not sure how much the corporations (or their staff) determine which airshow to turn up for based on the static and flying programmes.

I reckon you are right on the point that once the haemorrhage of exhibitors start, it will quickly gain momentum unless drastic action is taken to stop it

Just tossing an idea out, but if we can combine IMDEX and Singapore airshow into one, that might rejuvenate the show to an extent. Build a few piers at the showsite, get air and sea participants in for the show and allow the trade visitors and VIP to get up close and personal on the ships, and moor them offshore for the public to admire on the public days. Not too sure if the waters are the showsite are deep enough for warships to come alongside, and I know those familiar with the show circuit will cry that we're ripping off a neighbour's idea, but it might be an idea worth exploring.

Regarding the lack interest in the aviation and maritime heritage of Singapore. I reckon it is a bit sad considering out past and present status as a major hub for both sectors. Every once in a while we see letters in the press calling for the old Kallang airport and its hangars converted into a aviation heritage centre, but if the authorities bother to reply, its usually to fob off the suggestion in one way or another.

From what I have observed from the warbird fraternities of other countries, while the museums and warbird organisations (Think Old Flying Machine co in Duxford) do drive the scene to an extent, there are still a lot of dedicated individuals willing to sink their money into restoring and flying their own warbirds. And of course, the aviation regulators must be understanding and supportive as well, somehow I can't see the Singaporean one allowing warbirds to fly over Singapore, even under an 'Experimental' rating like how CASA in Australia does.

Goat89, while I'm happy there's someone who appreciates Singapore's aviation heritage enough to buy it and keep it pristine display condition or even restore it to flyable status, I just think its sad that foreigners see more value in our heritage than we do.

Anon, the Herks and the KC-135s are the oldest airframes in our inventory. The newest of the KC-135s were built in 1963 (2 of the 4), while the oldest dates back to 1959. All were originally KC-135As (at least on served in Desert Storm) and in active service till 1993-94 when they went to AMARC before we picked them up a few years later.

Anonymous said...

For the old Asian Aerospace, Reed Exhibitions is a profit-making outfit. They would have little interest in the preservation of a heritage.

Anonymous said...

In case you didn't know, the Short Singapore III was also based in Singapore at Seletar.