Mark Kennedy: Whatever happened to the Chattanooga Air Show?

·3 min read

Sep. 19—Michael Brown was just 8 years old in 2005 when the curtain dropped on the most recent Chattanooga Air Show.

From 1992 until 2005 the successful air show featured the Navy's Blue Angels jet team and attracted more than 100,000 spectators a year. It also raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars in 2005 for the Erlanger Children's Hospital Foundation.

Brown, now 24, is a Chattanooga native and student at Tulane University law school. He has vague memories of watching the air show with his dad, Mike Brown, who worked as an air show volunteer for years.

"Aviation has been a real passion with my family," said the younger Brown, who also dabbles as a freelance aviation journalist. "Some fathers and sons play golf or collect cars. Dad and I would go to the airport and sit."

Brown notes that his grandfather worked for Delta Air Lines for 37 years and his father is a recreational pilot. Brown said he learned to fly while in high school at McCallie School.

Over the years, Brown heard people around his hometown wonder aloud: "Whatever happened to the Chattanooga Air Show?" So, he decided to try to find out.

"My thoughts were always, 'Why couldn't we bring it back? What happened?'"

It turns out, a family friend of the Browns, Morty Lloyd, now senior pastor at Chattanooga Church and former Chattanooga Air Show director, was the best source of information.

Based on interviews with Lloyd and others, Brown has written an article on the discontinued air show that will appear in the October issue of Air Facts Journal, a publication for aviation enthusiasts.

It describes three main factors that ended the 14-year run of the show, which Lloyd confirmed in an interview with the newspaper.

1. Growing air traffic and physical expansion at the Chattanooga airport made shutting it down — or working around passenger flights — to accommodate the air show impossible. "In the early '90s, we could put out the airport schedules and the airlines would cancel flights," Lloyd said. "The number of airline flights coming into Chattanooga now would make it impossible to conduct an air show."

2. A primary sponsor decided to withdraw.

3. Clearing the ground space for the Blue Angels show — businesses and transportation had to shut down inside an aerobatics zone — became increasingly difficult. A team of F-18 fighter jets traveling 600 miles per hour requires lots of cleared ground space.

Lloyd, the son of the late U.S. Rep. Marilyn Lloyd, said Chattanooga simply outgrew the air show. There's a reason most air shows aren't in metropolitan areas, he said. The logistics just don't work.

"It was kind of the price of progress," said Lloyd, noting that what was necessary and good for the city's economic evolution was not great for the air show.

"It's a great thing the city is growing," Brown said. "It's changed so much since 2005. It's a sad byproduct that the air show had to stop."

The late Rep. Marilyn Lloyd was primarily responsible for the city snagging the Blue Angels. In 1992, she was the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and convinced a Navy admiral to help the city attract the jet team. The Blue Angels, along with the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds jet team, are notoriously hard for private air shows to acquire.

Although he misses the excitement of the past Chattanooga air shows, Lloyd said he doesn't see an opening for a revival.

"We were regarded as one of the top air shows in the country," Lloyd said. "I miss it every day. But the reality is, it will never happen in Chattanooga again."

Life Stories publishes on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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