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‘Air Boss’ Royce keeps Airfest airborne
Russell Royce
Russell Royce

It’s not the “sexy” part of the airshow, he said, but Texas native Russell Royce will be behind the scenes during the Great Bend Airport Airfest this year keeping things running safely and smoothly, both in the air and on the ground.

Royce is serving this year as the Airfest’s “air boss,” which is the senior coordinator of all the weekend’s aerial events. This is Royce’s first year serving as the air boss for the Great Bend Airfest, though he has worked as an air boss at various airshows for around 20 years.

“I’m like the conductor of the orchestra, of all these instruments that play, and I’ve got to put them together to make a song,” Royce said.

His job means working with several different groups to make sure plans run smoothly.

One key component of his work is coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop flight plans for each of the show’s pilots that do not interfere with existing air traffic, because the FAA has different guidelines for airshows than for standard air traffic. He also works with local air traffic controllers in developing this plan.

He also works with pilots to ensure their planes are in proper operating order and that they meet all regulatory requirements. In shows that require the use of more than one plane, Royce is responsible for developing a coordinated flight plan to ensure the planes fly safely in conjunction with each other.

Advance planning for each airshow he works begins up to one year in advance and, because of all the regulatory requirements that have to be met, can involve 150 hours or more worth of preparation. He prepares a detailed, coordinated flight plan for each performer, designed to keep both the pilots and spectators safe during the event.

Once the show arrives, Royce’s days are usually 15 hours or more long, depending on whether or not there are unforeseen hiccups with the show.

His days begin around 6 a.m., preparing for a pre-show briefing with the pilots, which includes going over flight plans, briefing the pilots on the airfields and airspace, and reviewing the aircraft to ensure they in safe working order. The briefings usually take place about two hours before the first flight.

The briefings also involve going in-depth with the all pilots over the day’s schedule, and making adjustments to that schedule as necessary.

Once the first plane takes off, Royce quipped that it is his job to, “manage the absolute chaos that ensues, because nothing goes according to plan.”

Assuming that all goes according to plan, though, Royce said his day at a show will end around 9 p.m., possibly later if problems are encountered throughout the day. In between, Royce joked, “I’m the guy that’s sitting there the whole time, thinking about what can go wrong.”

Background in airshows

At 37 years old, Royce grew up in a family with a rich aviation heritage, and he has been involved with airshows his entire life.

Royce’s father was a volunteer for the Commemorative Air Force, a Dallas, Texas-based non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic U.S. military aircraft, and to teaching the public about the historical roles of those aircraft.

At an airshow in 1974, Royce’s father filled in when an air boss for an area show did not show up for the event, and continued that work throughout his life. In addition, his father served as president of the CAF, as well as president of the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston, Texas.

“In the summers, I would go to airshows with my Dad in an old World War II airplane, and I would watch him run an airshow and help out,” he said.

This, in turn, kindled his own love of aviation. Royce then followed in his father’s footsteps. As a teen, he served as an apprentice at several air shows, and began solo work as an air boss when he was just 18 years old.

In addition to a love for aviation, Royce enjoys the complex problem-solving skills needed to put on a safe show for both performers and spectators. He also likes the challenge of working with pilots who are pushing the limits of their own aircrafts’ capabilities.

Royce appreciates the tight-knit family nature and the relationships formed between members of the airshow community, both in the air and on the ground.

The end result of all his work is a chance to share his love of aviation with communities that may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it.

“(Providing the aviation experience) is the driving force,” Royce said.