Scanning the people at any airshow event, Willie Turner stands out. You’ll recognize him anywhere; he is tall, he has a contagious smile and is wearing his signature hat, a fedora given to him by his dad.
Willie is an “airboss.” His job is to direct traffic at airshows. In Navy terms, “airboss” is the person in charge of the flight deck. In airshow terms, it is the person who is in charge of the airfield.
One can easily say that his job is the most important one in the show. And yet, the audience does not even notice he is there. He is not introduced. You will not see him. On the loudspeaker you do not hear his voice — that is the voice of the announcer.
Being an airboss is a background job. It requires absolute attention to detail, an in-depth knowledge about every performer, every act and anything else that might be going on in the air or on the ground. His job is to ensure every performance moves along seamlessly, everything is coordinated and the audience remains entertained. He is like the an orchestra conductor.
Willie comes from a family of aviators. His dad, Bill Turner flew for the Navy and later began building replicas — most of them air racers.
Willie grew up going to all the air races and air shows with his family. He got to know all the racers and performers. He decided to get his pilot’s license and learned to fly many aerobatic performances, but he says: “It’s just not in my DNA.”
Air bossing came more naturally. He learned air bossing from the legendary Vern Dallman, who was running aerobatic safety seminars for all the top performers. Before he knew it, Vern without hesitation introduced Willie to do the safety briefing, to top aces like Julie Clark, Wayne Handley, Eddie Andreini and Sean D. Tucker. Willie’s career was born.
Willie Turner begins his research far in advance of an airshow. It takes 20-30 hours of preparation. A shortlist of his responsibilities all related to safety are: he submits airshow waivers for FAA approvals; he develops the performance script and timing for the show; he prepares and conducts performer briefings; he ensures emergency crews are fully briefed and ready; he coordinates the airshow acts to keep the entertainment value high, and he works as safety officer with the military team air bosses.
With such a heavy load, he commits to four to five shows a year — he also has a day job as Vice President of Operations at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, Calif.
There his duties include marketing the museum and creating promotional events supporting the museum’s mission.
He has successfully developed the “Vertical Challenge,” during which Hiller museum hosted the world-class civilian and military helicopter show.
Asked who his hero has been through the years, he answers without hesitation: Eddie Andreini. The respect was mutual.
Eddie introduced Willie to many airshow organizers across the country. Willie recalls with pride and astonishment Eddie’s trust in his capability to be airboss for some high profile air shows such as the Redding Airshow, San Francisco’s Fleet Week, and Salinas’ California International Airshow.
Willie agrees with announcer Steve Stavrakakis, who conveys there is no “dress rehearsal” — they go straight into “opening night.” Preparation must be flawless.
Willie advocates education and professionalism as a board member of South West Council of Air Shows, an arm of the International Council of Airshows. The list of things to learn is long: building a script, a schedule, organizing event timing, the importance of a briefing and overall preparation, starting the engines of a performer early so that it is clear they can take to the air, knowing how long a warbird takes to taxi as opposed to an aerobatic plane, and that while some routines start on the ground others start at 2,000 feet.
Willie has been an airboss for two decades and is still in high demand.
On July 12, 2014 Willie Turner brings his brand of safety and professionalism to the free Truckee Tahoe Air Show & Family Festival.
For more information visit http://truckeetahoeairshow.com.