06 February 2023
IMAGES: (L) Sophia Lazarou and (R) Dave Walton working with the Republic of Korea Air Force Black Eagles team for AVALON 2023 and the Bournemouth Air Festival

For those who attend the Australian International Airshow (AIRSHOW 2023) at Avalon Airport and witness one of the world’s greatest air displays, the flying spectacular may seem effortless. 

According to the Ringmasters of AIRSHOW 2023, Dave Walton and Sophia (Soph) Lazarou, this perception of ease is one the measures of a successful flying display. 

“It’s all about doing the best we can in the safest possible manner and that’s what I get a kick out of - a show everyone enjoys and everything’s gone well,” said Dave.

The role of an airshow Ringmaster, officially titled Display Coordinator, is to plan and execute an exhilarating but ultimately safe, flying display.

The name gives apt reference to the leader of a circus but according to the AIRSHOW 2023 team, it is simply an amusing name for what is essentially an admin-based job.

“Behind the scenes we are doing lots of paperwork to establish that the pilots and aeroplanes are safe and airworthy, they have insurance and are suitable to fly,” said Dave.

“Then during the week of the show we scrutinise them to make sure they fly well and safely in front to the public.”

Dave and deputy Soph are a first-time Ringmaster team for AIRSHOW this year but have a long history with the Avalon event, both starting as volunteers in 2007.

“I was in my third year of an aviation degree at university, so I volunteered in pilot briefing,” said Soph who is now a full-time pilot on the Airbus A330.

“I really enjoyed volunteering in 2007, and over subsequent years I only missed one or two shows depending on what job in aviation I was chasing” she said.

Based in the United Kingdom, Dave brings twenty years of international airshow experience to his role as Ringmaster with director credits including RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo), Bournemouth, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia among others.

“My dad was in the (Royal) Air Force so I grew up on Air Force stations around the UK, and as he had worked for RIAT when it was called IAT in the seventies and eighties, I effectively grew up around airshows,” he said.

Dave initially volunteered at AIRSHOW 2007 before moving into the Ringmaster team for subsequent events. But it wasn’t until he and Soph worked together in 2019 that Soph wondered if she could perform the role too. 

“We were working really closely with the Ringmasters and at the end of the show I said to Dave, do you think I can do what you do and without hesitation he said yes,” she said.

“I jumped at the opportunity.”

Soph travelled to the UK in 2019 to work with Dave and his team at the Dunsfold, Bournemouth, and Southport airshows. After observing the Singapore Airshow in 2020, she returned to the UK to undertake mentoring and training via Dave’s company, TSA Consulting, which provides Ringmasters with a Flying Display Director (FDD) accreditation.

“I flew back to Australia and then the world stopped,” she said referencing the start of the global pandemic in 2020.

Post-pandemic, Soph has worked closely with Dave while juggling her full-time pilot schedule to put her FDD training to work in preparation for AIRSHOW 2023.  

Australia has a small air display industry and therefore has no specific framework on qualifying as an FDD for up-and-coming Ringmasters. As two of only 31 currently accredited FDDs in the UK, Dave and Soph have a qualification that adheres to the rigorous conditions that regulate the hundreds of air displays in the UK each year.

“The UK provides a really solid framework based on evidence, previous experience and the legislation has a grounding in what is a safe way forward,” she said.

Safety is paramount for Dave and Soph and underpins every action and decision they make as AIRSHOW Ringmasters.

“Safety is the background to everything we do,” said Dave

“It is our number one role. While aesthetics play an important part so the public sees a tight running order and an inspiring show that flows well, the reason we are here and the reason I am involved is because first and foremost; it has to be safe.”

In 2023, Dave and Soph will work alongside the Royal Australian Air Force Ringmaster team that supervises the military aircraft displays, to bring a vibrant and refreshed air display to the skies over Avalon.

“We are bringing our overseas experience, and developing local performers to delight the Australian public,” said Soph.

Between pilot briefings, logging paperwork, scheduling timeslots and directing the airshow, Dave and Soph will still make sure they take a moment to experience AIRSHOW 2023 noting previous favourites.

“The Japanese Self Defense Force Taiko drumming team is one of the best performances I have seen at the airshow,” said Soph.

“That’s what I love about Avalon, you can go into the defence exposition halls, you can see the future of the space industry in Australia, you can see schools and universities who are building up industry in this country, you can see aircraft and manufacturers from Australia and overseas and you can watch a flying display, but you also get this huge cultural and arts aspect.”

And when asked for a teaser on what we can expect to see in 2023?

“Expect to see aeroplanes made from wood and fabric, all the way up to F-35 and everything in between. We will have something from every decade of the last 100 years of flight and that really is unusual and quite special,” Dave said. 

“From 60 knots to 600 knots, we’ve got everything.”