Our security detail had its hands full keeping the crowd at bay. As the mob reached a fevered pitch, we needed to get our celebrity to safety – and fast.
Bringing an A-list celebrity into the booth is a surefire tactic for attracting a crowd and garnering loads of media buzz. However, every once in a while, that much-desired audience can turn into an overzealous mob and a serious safety hazard, which is what nearly happened several years ago when some of my colleagues became trapped in an exhibit with no easy means of escape.
A few project managers from our GES Sheffield, United Kingdom, office were supporting a couple of our clients on site at the Aero India Exhibition held at the Yelahanka Air Force Station in Bangalore, India. The show features all manner of private, commercial, and defense aircraft ranging from drones and helicopters to stunt planes and fighter jets. The wildly popular event opens to the public on its final weekend, and typically about a couple hundred thousand locals swarm the airfield to check out the latest aerospace technologies and watch the impressive air show that includes scores of sky-high feats, such as daring wing walkers and supersonic booms. It's a fantastic spectacle that people can't get enough of.
One of our clients – a U.S. defense contractor – almost always entertains the crowd by inviting a celebrity to take a flight in its fighter jet during the air show, and this year was no exception. It was correctly rumored that a popular Bollywood actor, considered "the Indian Tom Cruise," was to climb into the cockpit and take to the wild blue yonder.
The defense contractor had a large booth in one of the exhibit halls, as well as a private corporate chalet some distance away on the airfield. The plan was to use the utmost secrecy to sneak "Maverick" into the exhibit hall to get him some flight experience in the firm's simulator shortly before strapping him into the real thing. After tuning up, he was to head over to the chalet for a final briefing before his public appearance on the airstrip.
At first, the covert op was going just fine. Shortly before the show opened to the public, Maverick arrived incognito with a small entourage of the usual A-list celebrity handlers and started his flight prep in the simulator, which was tucked out of sight in the rear of the booth. The company suited him up and started acclimating him to the G-forces he could expect to be pulling a few hundred feet in the air. In the meantime, the show opened its doors to the masses, and attendees started to filter onto the airfield and into the exhibit halls to scope out the fair's many amusements.
However, it soon became apparent that word of Maverick's in-booth presence had leaked, as a small crowd began congregating around the exhibit in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the soon-to-be-airborne heartthrob. At first, the company's security detail politely but firmly prevented people from passing through the post-and-rope barrier that was around the exhibit's perimeter. But as more attendees caught wind of what was happening, our trickle of rubberneckers swelled to a flood.
Before Maverick was done with his training, onlookers had clogged the aisles and cut off the planned route from the exhibit to the sanctuary of the corporate chalet outside. As the mass grew, so did its enthusiasm, and soon our security detail had its hands full keeping the crowd at bay. People were jostling and pushing to get a better vantage point as their collective energy reach a fevered pitch. When attempts to convince the crowd to disperse failed, reps from the defense contractor began to fear for Maverick's safety, and we went to DEFCON 3. We needed a contingency plan to get our celebrity to safety – and fast.
Deep in the exhibit, it was all hands on deck as the crew formulated an extraction plan worthy of a Cold War defection. In true silver-screen fashion, they decided to use a body double – or at least the closest likeness we had on such short notice.
The plan was to shroud the look-alike in a coat, a hat, and a pair of aviator shades and surround him with enough security for a general. The decoy would then exit the front of the booth and walk straight into the teeth of the waiting mob – a bit like throwing a pride of hungry lions some fresh meat – to buy as much time as possible before the crowd figured out he was an imposter. While the throng was distracted, a lone wingman would sneak Maverick out the back of the booth, across the aisle, through a side door, and onto a waiting golf cart that would deliver him to the chalet. Calls were made for the "escape pod" to be on standby outside the door.
By the time the final details and logistics were sorted out, the situation had become even more dire. The packed masses had expanded and were pressing into a high wall of a neighboring exhibit, causing it to wobble and threaten the crowd below. It was now or never. The team got the signal, and Operation Hail Mary began. Keeping his head down, the cloaked body double rushed into the fray. The crowd took the bait and turned their full attention and energy onto the decoy, pressing in on the outmanned envoy and clamoring for photos and autographs. Taking advantage of the distraction, the real Maverick and a handler slipped out the back two seconds later.
Then things squirted sideways. Before Maverick made it two steps, an attendee spotted him and raised the alarm. The frothing fans shifted their attention from the doppelganger and flowed like a human tsunami toward the back of the booth, shouting and waving and trying to get their hands on the star. Seeing the ruse had failed, Maverick and Goose discarded any semblance of secrecy and triple-timed it for the side door.
As the crowd closed in, they burst out the door and catapulted themselves into the back of the waiting golf cart. The driver punched whatever afterburners the vehicle had, and it launched away from what seemed like a scene from "The Walking Dead." The crowd spilled out and watched agape as the golf cart disappeared into the distance, horn blaring as unaware attendees scampered out of the way of the careening conveyance speeding to the safety of the chalet.
Everyone involved in the escapade breathed a heavy sigh of relief as everything returned to business as usual. The crowd dispersed, and the rest of the fair was as eventful as it was supposed to be. It goes to show that you can find yourself in a dogfight despite your best-laid plans, and sometimes you just have to keep your wits about you and do everything you can not to crash and burn.
— David Sparkes, principal project manager, Global Experience Specialists Inc. (GES), Sheffield, United Kingdom