While six Navy Blue Angels screamed into the Kansas City sky with stunning precision Saturday afternoon, the more than 70 shuttle buses on the ground outside Wheeler Downtown Airport were hardly prepared to follow through.
And so the Kansas City Aviation Expo and Air Show’s best act was promptly followed by its worst.
Several factors — though predictable — combined to exert a crush of exiting air show fans that would take some two hours to clear.
Interviews with the show’s organizers and with city services plus accounts from witnesses show how the event’s transportation planning came undone.
First of all, appetite was high. Budget cuts with federal sequestration had prevented any shows since 2012, and the top draw, the Blue Angels, hadn’t been in the show for nine years.
Second, the weather was good. Blue skies. Hot, but not excessively hot.
The result was a record crowd Saturday of some 20,000 attendees during the day — which is estimated because children 12 and under are free and they make up as much as a quarter of the crowd, said Pat O’Neill, spokesman for the show organizers, the Mid-America Youth Aviation Association.
Thousands more spectators drove downtown and swarmed into points all around the airport, adding to the traffic congestion.
In the past, without such a climactic act as the Blue Angels, more attendees would be filtering back before the end of the show. But Saturday, it was more like a Chiefs game that went down to the wire.
The more than 70 school buses contracted to run shuttles out of the airport were not queued properly to get in and pick up the crowd as they flowed out from the show, O’Neill said.
And on the streets downtown, the thousands of spectators returning to their cars began to jam the routes as the buses tried to make their circuit down to the airport.
By many witness accounts, the result was a mess. The crowds were confused, with a lack of ample signage, about where to pick up the buses. The drivers also were confused. Many in the crowd were waiting on asphalt without water.
Weary swarms of people often shoved and squeezed to try to take spots on buses. In one account, a bus brought down for disabled passengers needed a police officer to direct able-bodied spectators off and away from it.
The police helped with crowd control and also called on city ATA buses to come down to help relieve the situation, said Kansas City police spokesman Capt. Tye Grant.
The police reported no arrests, he said.
Fire and ambulance crews — including services on site — treated some spectators for heat-related illnesses, but no serious injuries were reported, O’Neill said.
The organizers “stayed up way past midnight” Saturday into Sunday redoing plans to avoid a recurrence Sunday, he said.
They coordinated better bus timing. They put up better signage. They set up water stations. Grant said the police made sure to keep side streets blocked longer to help smooth the bus routes.
The crowd was also about 25 percent smaller on Sunday.
“Saturday was frustrating,” O’Neill said. Organizers and transportation planners “all stayed up very late to remedy the situation.”