One of the prime public events on New York’s Long Island is the Jones Beach air show, which draws over 400,000 spectators each Memorial Day weekend. But that success was the longstanding event’s problem in 2020 because of the coronavirus. With crowds like that gathered on the sands of the huge state park, officials saw no way to enforce social distancing.
Downstate New York has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19. State officials had no choice but to cancel the show, which has been sponsored for many years by Bethpage Federal Credit Union, headquartered on Long Island.
Besides the obvious appeal of an air show, the event has a connection to the area’s heritage. Long Island has been home to major defense contractors, including makers of landmark military aircraft like the Grumman Hellcat fighter and its TBF Avenger torpedo bomber of World War Two and the NASA Apollo lunar lander of the 1960’s space program.
The crowds gather to see the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team and the Air Force’s Thunderbird team, typically in alternating years. In addition to those and other military flights, the show features biplane aerobatics, the Army Golden Knights parachutists team, “skytyping” and much more. This year a special appearance had been planned for the Fairchild Republic Thunderbolt, more commonly called the “Warthog” by the military and aviation fans.
Bethpage Federal has a national charter these days but is the result of the amalgamation of many Long Island credit unions and employee groups over the years. The core was the original Grumman employees credit union, which opened in 1941. (The company is now known as Northrop Grumman, after a merger.)
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As New York’s version of the national shutdown grew longer, “we had a feeling that this would end up happening,” says Michelle Traynor, Corporate Communications Coordinator at Bethpage Federal and social media director for the event, officially called the “Bethpage Air Show.”
Traynor says the credit union’s staff began brainstorming how it could bring something of the flavor of the popular event to a locked-down Long Island. The definitive blow came in mid-April, when the state had to pull the plug on what would have been the seventeenth annual show. Working with marketing staff, Epoch 5, a public relations agency, and New York State Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, the credit union’s air show team set out to make the live event a virtual one.
“Nothing can replace the real show,” says Traynor, for whom this would have been her sixth event. But the credit union reached out to all the participants for 2020, including the Blue Angels, to gather fresh and archival footage that could be presented in an on-demand reel running about an hour. They scheduled the video to go live on Sunday, May 24.
The virtual event made it possible to include some views that attendees at the live version can’t see. One example is cockpit footage from pilots’ perspective as well as views showing what it’s like to be a Golden Knight parachutist.
Many Long Islanders consider the show the official start of the region’s summer season and the feeling of being on the beach when a modern warplane hits its afterburners is indescribable. The roar of vintage battle aircraft and appearances in some years of specialty aircraft such as military helicopters and tanker craft — even a WW II PT boat — can’t be duplicated. But Traynor says the credit union brought all of the experience possible to viewers, including video interviews of some of the participants.
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The virtual approach also prompted Bethpage Federal to feature the work of the many volunteers from its staff and the region who make the event possible.
Among other aspects of the virtual event:
- Airshow activity book: The event is a popular family destination and the institution’s marketing design team developed a PDF of an activity book that could be printed out. Among its features is a Blue Angels paper airplane.
- Fan album: People were invited to submit photos for the credit union’s Facebook page from past years’ shows.
- Blue Angels contest: A contest for who is the biggest fan of the Navy aviator team will decide who receives a personal video message from an Angel.
- VIP tickets: A drawing will be held for VIP tickets to the 2021 show.
Traynor is already working on the 2021 show — planning is a yearlong affair, between working with the state parks authority and many other agencies. That year the big act will be the Thunderbirds, and all hopes are that the show will be live.