Sunday, September 03, 2006

Red Bull Air Flop

"The Red Bull Air Race is returning to the Longleat estate in Wiltshire on Saturday 2nd September and organisers say this year's event will be bigger and better than ever." Thus the BBC Wiltshire announced the event and predicted more than 100,000 people to attend. In the end, no racing took place due to adverse weather conditions. According to the organisers "The Air Race safety committee, in conjunction with the police and the local authorities, made this decision based on continuous weather reports of strong winds which made it too dangerous to fly." Elsewhere they stated "The Red Bull Air Race team and Longleat regret any disappointment caused by the cancellation of the event due to the weather, but the safety of both pilots and spectators is paramount". The last bit is more than economical with the truth.

Paramount was the hope to make as much money as possible in spite of the advance knowledge that the race would not go ahead. Under general info and weather the Red Bull website continued to tell potential visitors throughout the day that "We have no current plans to cancel this event and it would have to be pretty bad weather for the event to be cancelled. If we are informed the day before the event that it cannot go ahead, we will text all ticket holders with this news. As long as you supplied a correct mobile number when you booked your ticket you will be kept informed."

Pretty bad weather it was. The forecast of the previous day and all day long on the Saturday of the event was for low cloud ceiling and strong gusting winds. There was a chance for maybe an hour long window of calm in between two passing weather fronts, but only the most daredevil pilot would have risked committing to a flight in a light aircraft on Saturday afternoon, and to approve aerobatic competition flight over hilly terrain under such conditions would have been reckless. The organisers must have known this.

Yet, there were no contingency plans. There was no alternative programme on offer, e.g. live entertainment, to keep the crowds engaged during the afternoon. Throughout the day they were kept with upbeat announcements in the hope that the weather would definitely improve and the race would kick off. As late as 4pm the race was officially opened by the Earl of Bath in front of the cameras, watched by the spectators on big viewing screens, only to be officially cancelled within half an hour after that. I suppose, having to refund tickets, they wanted to make sure people spent as much as possible at the food, drinks and accessory stalls to make up for lost revenue.

Misinformation was also evident with regard to other aspects of the event. As the race was delayed, people were invited to visit the "pit lane", the location of the hangars housing the participating aircraft and pilots. The only way to get there was over a narrow bridge, causing heavy congestion and a real risk of crushing. Yet when people managed after an hour or two of negotiating the crowds they found that the pit lane had been closed to entrants long ago and was not being reopened. On the screen they could hear the commentator announcing that its opening times would be extended to ease congestion. Media dishonesty experienced first hand.

In many ways the event was a lesson in how poorly organised this country has become. To choose September, not known for its clement weather, as the date of the UK event of this international spectacle was folly to start with, but the previous year organisers struck lucky and banked on good fortune once more. They did not adequately prepare for anything else. And when they intervened they made things worse.

Crowds flowed at trickling speed over the bridge until security staff and the police got involved. In their wisdom they ordered people to stop moving in both directions which, evident to anyone with common sense, would not ease congestion. In separate VIP and services access corridor next to the bridge you could see the police debating what to do and a sergeant losing his temper. There were more officers engaged in discussion than deployed in crowd management. Amongst the crowds Polish workers hired by event security had a good time chatting to each other in their own language rather than paying attention to the task in hand; maybe they thought that if you get a low wage you might as well enjoy it.

I personally managed to bypass the bottleneck with my 3-year-old grandson (in order to reunite him with his mother) by climbing over a fence right behind a police officer into a forest path and emerging at the other side, again climbing a fence behind a totally oblivious uniformed police officer lacking situational awareness. They were as incompetent as they are in catching make-belief terrorists.

When people were eventually told that it was all over and they might as well go home there was chaos at the car park exits. The BBC referred to it such: "There was also a battle with massive congestion problems as thousands headed for the Red Bull Air Race at Longleat near Warminster." They then repeated the originally projected figure of 100,000 without revising it downwards as they would usually do with demonstrations, although the actual number of attendants was probably less than half that figure.

For the first hour after announcing the cancellation no security staff were in evidence at the Red Car Park (we have no first-hand reports from the other car parks) as several lanes of parked traffic tried to narrow down to enter the single lane access road. Ordinary people volunteered to direct this traffic and did reasonably well, using common sense, until security staff and the police arrived, took charge and made an utter mess of it. Once more, nobody was moving for a long time whilst security staff and police debated amongst themselves how to best manage the crisis.

If there was a positive side to this disastrously mismanaged Red Bull event it was the stoical nature with which the crowd accepted their fate. In spite of the frustration there was no evidence of people losing their temper. They had come to see an aviation spectacle and they accepted that the weather spoiled their plans. However, just like the event organisers, authorities in the UK rely on this good-will of the British people and take them for a ride, knowing that they are not going to mount the barricades any time soon.


At 3 September 2006 at 16:28, Anonymous David Johnson said...

You have painted a perfect picture of what it was like yesterday. We spent 4 hours getting down to Longleat, 2 hours sitting in the rain and wind until we pretty much figured out that nothing was going to happen, and promptly left at 3pm to beat the crowds leaving.

I felt sorry for those people who were still lining up to get into Longleat when we were on our way out. Cars with their entry stickers visible were still heading towards the site past 4pm. Those poor people.

But I suppose in true British fashion, they would have shrugged, gone home for a cuppa and blamed it on the weather. Again.

At 4 September 2006 at 10:31, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A totally accurate picture of what went on. I've been in discussion with the Local authority (West Wiltshire D.C.) who re responsible for Health and safety on site and they concur with most of what you say. They also added several other bits of interesting info. In that the car park marshalls were ordered to take off their jackets because of the abuse they were getting. I heard of people travelling from 3.00 in the morning and not even getting into the site.

At 4 September 2006 at 14:52, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more! The whole day was a bit of a fiasco, but we managed to have a good laugh despite the lack of a race. Many would say that only the Brits would put up with an event like that... only because an event (as badly organised) like that would never be allowed to take place anywhere else in the world!!


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