LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — The Lake of the Ozarks Shootout is the largest unsanctioned boat race in the nation, drawing more than 100,000 spectators in a miles-long, three-tier flotilla to enjoy an August weekend on the water with crazy-fast boats going by.
One of the highlights of the event is the air show. The approximately 15-minute show happens around the Shootout’s “halftime,” and features a highly modified Pitts Special Bi-Plane exhibiting dizzying tricks and occasionally even racing a powerboat down the race course. “People love the air show! It’s exciting,” said Christy Janssen, Executive Director of the Shootout. “Sometimes people come, I think, to watch the air show as much as to watch the races.”
This year’s Shootout is scheduled for Saturday–Sunday, Aug. 24–25. (View the full Shootout schedule here.) But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which in the past has issued a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) for the show to prevent any unauthorized aircraft from flying into the airshow’s airspace, recently said it’s not sure the air show even exists, and has declined to issue the TFR, despite issuing formal “permission” to conduct an airshow.
In keeping with his normal process, the Air Show Director submitted a TFR request to the FAA in May. The TFR is designed to protect the pilot during his performance by restricting and not allowing any other aircraft, manned or unmanned, to enter the airspace that the pilot is using to perform.
The FAA’s reply and reason for the denial of the TFR, which came in early July, referenced a single hotline complaint about last year’s event. The complaint, according to the FAA, claimed there was no actual air show but only a “5 minute fly over [sic].” Because the complaint seemed to imply the event was something other than the 12-to-15-minute air show that has occurred for seven of the last eight Shootouts, the FAA said the agency was rejecting the TFR request.
In an email to the Air Show Director, the FAA said, “…last year’s event generated a Hotline complaint with allegations of improper restriction of airspace at the boat races.” The FAA cited the complaint as alleging “…there was zero indication of any actual air show during the boat race event...” and the agency's email concluded with, “We are unable to issue a TFR for the event this year.”
It’s unknown who filed the complaint, but the Air Show Director says it could result in him cancelling the air show for the sake of safety.
It’s his prerogative, but he says the decision is simple. No TFR: no air show.
“I’m very hesitant to put a pilot in the air based on the history of aerial interruptions,” at the Shootout, he told LakeExpo. For context, the 2018 Shootout Air Show was interrupted by the presence of an unauthorized drone. The pilot, Brian Correll, veered off his planned path and left the area until the drone was gone. Some say they recall a drone surprisingly plopping—and then sinking—into the Lake. Wherever it went, once the drone was gone, Correll finished the show.
But that’s not the only unauthorized aircraft that has made its way over the Shootout. Other drones as well as low-flying planes and helicopters have cruised over the tens of thousands of people without permission while in restricted airspace: decisions that were not permitted and were downright dangerous, and even got some pilots’ licenses suspended a few years ago, the Air Show Director said.
A TFR was in place for those instances, and any pilot who violates the restriction (and who is required by the FAA to know if there are any restrictions in their planned flight path) can be held accountable. The TFR is not mandatory, the Air Show Director explained, but he requires one at the Shootout, “for the sake of safety and good common sense.”
He pointed out sports events typically obtain TFRs, simply to ensure the safety of the tens of thousands of spectators below. But, the Shootout’s attendance dwarfs that of many major league sports events, and the FAA will not issue the flight restriction even for the 15-minute duration of the planned air show.
Since the initial rejection of the TFR, the Air Show Director says he has sent more than a dozen videos, articles and photos of past airshows to prove an airshow does exist and that issuing a TFR is a smart move for the safety of those in attendance.
FAA Public Affairs Officer Tony Molinaro told LakeExpo the Air Show Director had been given approval for the “‘creation’ of an aerobatics box during the airshow and he has requested the placing of a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the area during the airshow portion of the events. He is waiting for the FAA Air Traffic office in Ft. Worth to review and approve the TFR request.” He added, “In general, when a TFR is in place, drones are not allowed to fly in the specifically designated airspace area.”
That email from Molinaro came weeks after the FAA’s email to the Air Show Director informing him the agency would not approve the TFR for this year’s show. So it’s unclear whether the FAA might change course and opt to issue the restriction. But without it, the Shootout will be without one of its most popular features this year.
That would be a major disappointment for the tens of thousands who line the race course in August, eager for the roar of engines and high-speed excitement on water and on air, Janssen said, adding, “We don’t want it to go away.”