Dillon’s “Highest Air Show on Earth” unlikely to get a fifth year
November 25, 2016
Every summer for the past four years, spectators have packed into Dillon's Marina Park to watch WWII-era planes streak across the sky pulling remarkable feats of aerial acrobatics for the town's "Highest Air Show on Earth." Next year, however, the skies over the waters of Lake Dillon are likely to be quiet, as cost increases have all but scrapped any prospect of a fifth consecutive show.
"We are really disappointed because we love the event, but we looked at the proposal this year and decided it wasn't feasible," said Kerstin Anderson, who added that the quoted price was up to about $68,000 from $44,000 last year. Coupled with potential cost overruns that can accompany such big-ticket events, town officials decided the airshow would've been too big of a bite out of next summer's programming budget.
Breckenridge local and former Air Force pilot Gary Rower has put on the event each year through his company, Rower Airshows. Rower has been a perennial headliner, engaging in mock dogfights and leaving a thick trail of billowing smoke in the wake of his 1942 Stearman biplane.
His wife and business manager, Gwen Rower, said the main reason for the price hike was the recent departure of Bob Evans from his role as Dillon Marina manager. An airman himself, Evans used to play the role of air boss and organize the event in his capacity as a town employee. Since he's no longer on the payroll, however, the town would have to bring someone else in to do that work.
"He put in a lot of hours organizing the event, and I doubt he or anyone else would want to do it for free," said Gewn Rower.
In a holding pattern
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While the town hasn't completely abandoned the possibility of having an airshow next year, it's unlikely it would be able to find another vendor in time, due to both the complexity of putting together the event and the limited number of pilots who are able — or willing — to pull aerial stunts at 10,000 feet.
"We will put out an RFP (request for proposals) to see if there are other contractors who could put on the air show," Anderson said. "We like the event so we don't want to kill the idea, but we're not very confident it'll come in at the right price point."
It's not clear, however, if many other contractors could even put on a show over Lake Dillon given the myriad challenges of flying at such high elevation.
"Just like it's harder for you to breathe, it's harder for an engine to breathe," said Gwen Rower, referring the High Country's thin air, which she added could cut the horsepower of an engine in half compared to sea level. "There are only a handful of pilots trained to fly at high elevations — it takes a lot of training and specialized engines."
On top of that, pilots have to fly from an airfield in Kremmling just to get to the event site, tacking on extra miles and fuel costs. And while there's a slightly closer airfield in Leadville, Rower said that it was at an even higher elevation and had fewer places along the way to put a plane down in case of emergency.
There's also the question of time. Even if Dillon were able to find a contractor that could offer a cheaper price, they would already behind schedule planning-wise, Rower said.
"It takes a whole year to organize this — getting all the vendors, the pilots, requirements with the FAA, the fundraising."
Because of all the legwork required, Gary Rower probably won't be taking his red and white Stearman to the skies for a High Country airshow next summer, but his wife said they were currently scouting for other possible venues in Summit County for 2018.
As for Dillon, Anderson said officials are hoping to find another event that could replace the airshow in the town's summer lineup, but she couldn't speculate as to what that might be.