Behind-the-scenes planning: The key to a successful air show

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Al Watkins relishes his role as a behind-the-scenes ninja preparing for Keesler's 2015 Air Show and Open House.

The Air Force Thunderbirds will soar overhead and the Army's Golden Knights parachute team will sail through the skies over the base, but thorough advance preparations on the ground are vital to the success of a spectacular event expected to attract thousands of visitors, March 28-29.

Watkins, director of operations for the 81st Infrastructure Division, is responsible for setup of "everything except the planes," including barricades, foreign object debris fencing, utility setup, recycling and trash receptacles, tents, water buffaloes and other on-the-ground requirements.  He is the liaison with the contractors on base responsible for many of the services involved in staging the show.

"My military training prepping for contingencies and setting up bare bases prepared me for handling all kinds of events," explained Watkins, a retired master sergeant in the civil engineering career field who took a civilian position here in 2000.

He was part of the set-up team for Keesler's 2009 and 2011 air shows and has played a comparable role each year since he arrived on base in 1997 when the base sponsors the annual Mississippi Special Olympics Summer Games.

"Special Olympics has similar requirements, but on a smaller scale," he pointed out.
Some necessities like portable toilets are supplied by contract, but other things like the metal barriers that keep the crowd a safe distance from the aircraft are borrowed from the City of Biloxi.

"Thank God for the City of Biloxi," Watkins remarked.  "We can always count on the city's support for special events - we couldn't do it without them."

For this year's air show, Keesler is borrowing about 750 metal barriers from Biloxi for the crowd line on the airfield, in addition to some tables, chairs, tents and bleachers.

"Keeping the crowds away from air operations is a major safety concern," Watkins pointed out.  "We'll place the metal barricades near the flight line.   The base's big yellow barricades are unsightly, so we'll use those to block off certain streets and parking areas."

Litter control is a huge consideration for safe aircraft operations.  A paper cup, candy wrapper or any garbage that goes astray can be sucked into an aircraft engine and cause damage, and in rare instances, cause an accident, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.  Loose trash can be lodged in aircraft operating mechanisms or damage plane tires.

"It's important for us to show the public that safety and trash control go hand in hand," Watkins stressed.  "We'll have lots of trash receptacles that will be emptied regularly, but it would help if everyone could assist us with this."
Even after preliminary preparations have been completed, the operations tempo remains high for the entire weekend.

"We'll reconstitute after the first day, and sometimes we revamp things on the spot from lessons learned," Watkins stated.

Coordinating volunteer support is another part of his duties.

"Our students will be a huge help in our operations, but we want to make sure that they have an opportunity to enjoy the show, too," he commented.

Watkins has incident command certification and noted that in the event of an emergency, "we have qualified people there to take care of it."

In his off-duty time, Watkins is a deputy with the Harrison County Sheriff's Department.  When he runs into people who have heard about the air show, he becomes an enthusiastic ambassador for the event.

"Events like our air show are great recruiting tools," he emphasized.  "It's a great opportunity for our young people and our community partners to see the Air Force in action."

Watkins said he's impressed with the way Team Keesler comes together to make events like the air show an unforgettable experience for its guests.

"We all play an instrument in this orchestra, and we'll make beautiful music together," he added.