In the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, the word “challenge” is on page 220, in between “challah,” a leavened white bread made with eggs and “challis,” a soft weave fabric in wool, cotton or rayon.
But you won't find that word in Col. Scott DeThomas' vocabulary. Little more than a month away from having more than 200,000 guests swarm MacDill Air Force Base to watch the first AirFest in two years, DeThomas, the base commander, prefers another word to describe the mad dash of cramming six to 12 months of planning into 90 days.
“We don't use the word challenge here,” says DeThomas, whose base will open up the gates on March 22 and 23. “I told my staff I don't want to hear about challenges, I want to hear about opportunities. This is an opportunity for us to model and build something, working in cooperation and close support from this great community.”
The opportunity kicked in about two weeks before Christmas, says DeThomas.
That's when he was told by Air Force higher-ups that AirFest, cancelled last year due to the constraints of automatic budget cuts, would be back on.
But with a lot less money from the Air Force. About 25 to 30 percent less, which is even a greater cut when you factor in inflation, he says.
“It was good news,” says DeThomas, who is finally getting to put on his first show since taking command of the base. “But then we had to know exactly how good it was because we didn't know exactly what the mechanics were going to look like. We were concerned with what the show was actually going to look like.”
It was all well and good to get the Thunderbirds, the Air Force aerial demonstration team that will headline the show.
The Thunderbirds are paid for by the Air Force. But who would pay for the civilian flying acts? Hotel rooms for the military and civilian performers? Food for those who would staff the gates during a weekend that would see long lines of traffic into and then out of the base. And even the smoke oil that streams out of aircraft during aerobatics?
Enter the Bay Area Community AirFest Committee, an ad-hoc group of local leaders led by Chase Stockon, the founder and CEO of Panther International, a software application company. The name of the event was changed to MacDill Presents the Tampa Bay AirFest to signify the greater community role, says Maj. Matt Parker, the show director.
Stockon, an honorary 6th Air Mobility Wing vice commander, is heading an effort to raise $250,000 to pay for acts and services the base could no longer afford.
“The community is covering about half of it,” says Stockon.
He is working with the Greater Tampa, South Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater Chambers of Commerce. But at 40 days out, none of the acts has been officially booked and money is still being raised.
“The window is extremely tight,” says Stockon. “Truthfully, we need to start making commitments to vendors in the next seven to 10 days.”
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The conference room at the 927th Air Refueling Wing headquarters building at MacDill slowly fills, until about four dozen take their seats.
A little more than a month away from the first AirFest since the fall of 2011, there is an all-hands effort to make sure the show goes off with as few hitches as possible.
More than 20 base tenants and wing units are involved, including U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, the Joint Communications Support Element and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as local law enforcement agencies and fire departments.
The tasks are great and the clock is ticking.
First up at this meeting is the issue of how to get so many people onto a base that spends a great deal of energy on keeping people out.
“Public access will be through the Dale Mabry gate and the MacDill gate,” says 6th Security Forces Squadron MSgt Kamrad R. James. “Vendors will use the Tanker Way gate and be inspected out there, along with performers. If you are authorized to be on base, go through the Bayshore Boulevard gate. You will see a lot of cops out there.”
Parking all those cars, says James, will be in four phases, with the last one being when “traffic is backed up halfway” to the Medical Group building.
“When that happens, we will shut it down,” says James. “We will call our TPD counterparts and tell them 'don't let anyone else on.'”
There are other security issues that come up.
The area by the “Big Golf Ball” — a satellite communications array — is off limits unless there is an emergency. Children will have to wear bracelets with their phone numbers. And there will be an “amnesty box” at the entrance for people to drop in the small knives or other items considered potential weapons.
Then, one by one, representatives of each of the groups gives a brief update.
When it's his turn, Terry Montrose, from the public affairs office of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, explains that there are no AirFest posters yet.
“The reason it has been slower than I would have liked it to be is the uncertainty of acts,” says Montrose.
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News that AirFest was returning raised the spirits of the civilian air show community as well, says George Cline, a professional air boss who was hired to run the show at MacDill.
The cancellation of last year's AirFest, and many others like it at military bases across the country was “devastating” to those who perform, says Cline, owner of the Greensboro, N.C.-based Air Boss Inc. The cancellations “drastically affected business. Some performers went out of business because they depended on this.” Cline says that it's no great concern among the flying community that the acts haven't been locked down yet. The military typically can't pay ahead of time anyway. ❖ ❖ ❖
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The community began reaching out even before last year's AirFest was cancelled, says DeThomas.
As soon as it was back on, they reached out again, he says.
“There is a lot of excitement that AirFest is coming back to Tampa,” says Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Bob Rohrlack. “Typically, the military paid for all of that, but there has been a steady shift and more and more communities are helping with the on-going issue of budget cuts and sequestration. It's a matter of how do we help make sure this works and that we are a candidate to come back sooner rather than later in the future.”
DeThomas says that despite the time crunch, being able to pull the event off so quickly will become the norm.
Most of the plans were already in place from previous shows, says DeThomas. It was just a matter of making adjustments to the new funding realities.
“We are agile. We are mobile. And we are confident that the team, in cooperation with the community, is going to do a great job,” he says.