Revisiting the Air Festival Article icon


It is nearly 12 months since the traffic death of Red Arrows pilot Jon Egging following a display at Bournemouth Air Festival and the town is close to unveiling a permanent memorial to the 33 year old Flight Lieutenant.

The death of the pilot, who lived in Rutland, intensely moved residents who witnessed the tragedy play out on their doorstep. 'The groundswell of public reaction was akin to Princess Diana's death,' recalls Georgia Turner, corporate communications manager at Bournemouth Borough.

Egging had tried to steer his stricken jet away from houses before crashing in a field near the village of Throop in Dorset. He was the first Red Arrows pilot to die in a crash in 33 years. Within days Turner raised the issue of a permanent tribute with the council's chief executive. 'I knew people would suggest a memorial early on and we needed to have an answer ready that was respectful and sensitive to the family,' she explains.

The council approached Egging's family and, by the end of September, Turner had met with his widow Emma who suggested running a competition involving local school children. The council had regular meetings with the pilot's family in the months following the tragedy to develop the plans.

The tribute, which was conceived by two pupils from Kinson Primary School, depicts a three plane vertical formation in the Red Arrow's distinctive scarlet hue. The winning design was chosen by Egging's widow and mother Dawn before being interpreted by artist Tim Ward.

It will be produced as a final sculpture on the East Overcliff in Bournemouth in time for this year's air festival, and will also mark the end of an intensely challenging period for all those involved with the organisation of the biggest free event in the UK.

Organised by Bournemouth Tourism, and supported by its PR team, the Bournemouth Air Festival, which is now in its fifth year, takes place over four days in August, attracting up to 700,000 visitors on any given day. But it is the council's corporate communications team that is required to lead in times of crisis.

'It was incredibly hard for the team. We were utterly shattered and emotionally drained,' Turner admits. The tragedy came at the end of a testing time for the council's communications team. Just 48 hours earlier, parts of the town had been waterlogged by the heaviest rainfall for 30 years; one month's rain fell in 24 hours. Access to the main route to the town's seafront, which comprises the spectating area, was swamped in raw sewage after flash flooding, and many other roads and public open spaces were underwater.

The rain started at 9am on Thursday 18 August, just five hours before flying was due to start, and within two hours, Bourne Stream, a major stream, burst its banks, submerging Bournemouth's Lower Garden. As the flooding worsened, the seven strong communications team were assigned tasks. One individual monitored CCTV footage, one was put in charge of social media while another was tasked with briefing the press.

The floods made it hard to move around and, accordingly, Turner dealt with some of the early radio and television appearances which her colleagues arranged to show locals what the council was doing to combat the flood damage. Channel 4 News, BBC News 24, Sky TV News, Sky News Radio, BBC TV South, ITV Meridian, as well as local radio and press, all covered the work of the council as it sought to cope with the unexpected floods. Social media was used to communicate which roads had been blocked and which public open spaces rendered inaccessible. A live outside broadcast at 7am with BBC Radio Solent on Friday 19 August offered news on the clean up, and the council provided updates on social media to followers and fans throughout the day. By Saturday, the areas had been cleared and Bournemouth had begun the process of drying out.

It was also the day of Red Arrows' appearance. After a 20 minute performance, the world famous aerodynamic team concluded their routine by drawing a Union Jack from colourful plumes of vapour in the sky. Minutes later, Egging's Hawk T1 aircraft - Red 4 - plunged to the ground about one kilometre from Bournemouth Airport.

Turner recalls the moment when she got the 'bronze command' call at 2pm. 'We knew then that we had a red plane down but we didn't know what state the plane or the pilot was in,' she explains.

The gold-silver-bronze command structure is a way of organising responses to major incidents and disasters that is used by the emergency services. Each command represents a pre-agreed task force. The command structure for the Bournemouth Air Festival is multi-agency, which means the police, fire brigade, ambulance, as well as the local council, need to be represented on the different task forces. The command structure does not reflect the severity of the incident but the role of the task force. Gold works on strategy, silver command on tactics and bronze on the operational response.

Details were slow to emerge. Initially, no one was able to officially confirm or deny reports about the plane's fate. In early news reports, a Ministry of Defence spokesman refused to provide the name of the pilot or indicate whether he had been hurt, which caused confusion as eyewitness reports circulated online.National news outlets reacted swiftly. Sky News broadcast images of the plane's wreckage not long after the accident, while the Daily Mail later reported that the BBC had been asked to stop filming after one of the Red Arrows aircraft issued a Mayday call at 1.50pm.

Once the Ministry of Defence confirmed the fatality that evening, the communications team began to use the hashtag 'redfour' on Twitter to lead tributes from Bournemouth. 'As a team we've never been so busy in the days following the tragedy,' Turner recalls. 'In terms of responding to the crash it was split; Bournemouth Tourism PR team was dealing with the response of the air festival organisers and we were dealing with the response on behalf of the town.'

The council had already arranged media training of key figures in the town, who led Bournemouth's response to the tragedy, including Chris Rochester, who received coaching soon after being sworn in as Mayor.

In the days following the tragedy, the council engaged with Facebook groups set up to honour the pilot. It also used its Twitter feed, @bournemouthbc which has almost 5,000 followers, and its Facebook account, which has more than 5,000 'likes', to publish photos of the floral tributes that had been left outside the town hall.

Hundreds of residents turned out to sign the books of condolence, and the council used social media to keep locals updated with waiting times as the queues swelled with people wanting to pay their respects.

The council's communications teams have learned some important lessons as a result of the tragedy. 'We previously had limited contingency planning. Now we have much clearer incident response, which we now use them for anything that constitutes more than business as usual,' Turner says.

These updated crisis management plans include clearly defined roles for each member of the communications team and existing resources have been centralised. In a crisis, there is a delegated coordinating officer, media liaison officer, two press officers and four e-comms specialists. Bournemouth's corporate communications team also now play a role in the gold commandtask force. 'We have restructured ourselves and we feel a lot more confident and a lot better prepared,' says Turner.

Bournemouth Council has also strengthened its reciprocal arrangement with other councils across Dorset, allowing them to draft in communications officers for incidents that run on for several days. These arrangements will come into play during the Olympic Games, when sailing events are taking place in the county, in the event of a crisis.

Turner says the tragedy has taught them other lessons about social media. 'One of the most important lessons we've learned is to have holding statements on social media ready for any eventuality because speculation online moves so quickly,' she says. And while Turner concedes there are some things she would have done differently, the council was recently awarded for their efforts in dealing with the challenges of the festival  weekend by the British Air Display Association (BADA).

The award, called the Unsung Heroes award, was presented for what the association called the council's 'exemplary' response to the crisis by air festival commentator and vice chairman of BADA, George Bacon.

Bacon called the events of that weekend 'unprecedented in nature' but commended the council for its dedication, professionalism, teamwork and sensitivity.

The recognition is vindication for the council which, like so many local authorities, runs on limited resources and without agency support. And arguably the team has a lot of wisdom to impart after the events of the past year.