How the Canadian Forces Snowbirds saved our airshow

As I write this story, the world-famous Canadian Forces Snowbirds demonstration squadron have parked their jets at the airport in Peachtree City in preparation for their participation in the 2019 Atlanta Air Show at the nearby Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. I am planning to be at the airshow, and it will be particularly nice to see the Snowbirds again after first meeting them more than 19 years ago.

They are heroes to me, perhaps more so than even the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, who I met just a few years ago. The Snowbirds saved our airshow in 2000, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for that.

My story starts in late September 1999, when many of us were enjoying the fresh buzz of a successful Wings over Dixie Airshow & Festival at Falcon Field in Peachtree City. That had been our second annual event, and we were already excited about what lay in store for the fall of 2000.

The first Wings over Dixie lost money, which is to be expected with any large, first-time event like this. This second airshow more or less broke even, but many of the non-profits that set up vendor booths that weekend made a good return on their time and effort. The problem was that the event backers, Fayette Youth Protection Homes and the Dixie Wing of the Confederate Air Force, weren’t seeing much of a return yet, and there was talk that the 2000 airshow would be cancelled so the organizations could refocus on more profitable fund raisers.

Tom Barnes, a U.S. Air Force veteran who was also the local Confederate Air Force wing leader, wanted to press on. He was convinced that, if we could sign a big-name demonstration squadron, we could then attract the kind of sponsorship investment and generate the kind of ticket sales that would not only raise the profile of the these two non-profits but would also generate the kind of revenue that would make all of the work worthwhile.

I sided with Tom and several others who wanted to press on. We signed my new marketing contract (not much money, but a great opportunity for this young entrepreneur), and I got to work planning the fall 2000 event.

In December 1999, Tom called me with the disappointing news: The airshow board was leaning toward canceling the 2000 event. An official decision was imminent. Even as he relayed the news, he sounded like he was still in the fight. He hadn’t given up yet. He was just bringing me up to speed on the prevailing sentiment so I could prepare.

“If only we could get the Blue Angels,” Tom said. “If we could get a big-name squadron, we wouldn’t have to worry about the money anymore.”

The reason we couldn’t get the Blue Angels, we were told, was because Peachtree City’s runway was too short for fighter jets to land. Hogwash, Tom said. He was a pilot during the Korean War era, and he knew these warbirds could manage, but he also knew the military had standards and protocol to maintain, and he was sure they wouldn’t bend. A second option, he said, would be to convince a big act to stage at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, then fly down for their part in the Wings over Dixie show and land back at Dobbins afterward.

A few days later, and I think this was in January 2000, Tom called me again.

He said the Canadian Forces Snowbirds were looking to fly in our airshow, but only if we could move it up to May 2000. They fly the smaller trainer jets, which could land on our runway and park on our ramp. I was delighted, confused and terrified at the same time. We were a September airshow. If we signed the Snowbirds, we would only have four months to pull off the sponsorships, the marketing, the publicity and everything else. But it had to happen.

The reason I was confused is because I had never before heard of the Snowbirds. I would become their biggest fan in the weeks to come.

One of our first assignments as a marketing team was to visit the Canadian Consulate in Atlanta to talk about an event partnership. They quickly jumped on board with us, and that made all the difference. We signed the Snowbirds, we attracted an amazing stable of corporate sponsors, we had an amazing spring airshow, and we cleared more than $130K, not including whatever money charities made at their vendor booths scattered throughout the festival grounds.

I’m guessing that was the most profitable year of the event, which we later renamed The Great Georgia Air Show. It wouldn’t have happened if not for the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

Of course, I can’t mention the Snowbirds without also describing what was one of the most amazing aerobatic performances I’ve ever witnessed. The nine-ship team pushed through every imaginable formation with such precision and grace that I was left dumbfounded. I had heard they were good, but nothing could prepare me for what I would see on that airshow weekend.

No, they’re not as fast as the Blue Angels. And yes, the U. S. Airforce Thunderbirds, who will also be at the Atlanta Air Show this weekend, are faster. But the Snowbirds aren’t trying to compete with these fighter jets. Their game is to fly those Tudor jets so close together that you’ll not be able to tell where one ends and the other begins. They’re amazing, and I look forward to seeing them again.

— Danny Harrison

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