REVIEW: Barksdale AFB Defenders of Liberty Airshow 2019

WORDS: TIM PASSMORE | PHOTOS: TIM PASSMORE & DAVID LEADINGHAM

What would happen if someone gave an airshow and nobody came? Sadly, that is essentially what happened at the Barksdale Air Force Base Defenders of Liberty Air & Space Show on May 18 & 19, just outside Shreveport, Louisiana. Despite featuring stellar performers such as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team and Rob Holland, multiple time world and U. S. aerobatic freestyle champion, the crowd was disappointingly sparse all three days. On both Saturday and Sunday, it was possible to get up to the crowd barrier almost anywhere except right at show center, and it was easy to walk parallel to the barrier no more than 20 feet away. What could cause a community with a history of supporting airshows well to forgo such an excellent lineup?

Officially, the airshow weekend began Friday evening with a special performance just for members of the military and their families. The fun actually started on Thursday when the two F-35 Lightning IIs arrived and made a few passes to give everyone on the flight line a thrill. Over the course of the afternoon, a C–5 Galaxy, C-17 Golbemaster, C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotankers, T-38 Talon and a lone Zero of the Tora Tora Tora team made their arrivals. I watched arrivals from just off-base at the north end of the runway and met several other aviation fans there for the same reason.

On Friday I switched to a park just off the south end of the runway for practice, and was able to catch more arrivals before the practice started. First was a Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye which proved surprisingly nimble when the pilot pulled it into a tight 90° bank at the end of the pass – more than a match for the A-26K Counter-Invader “Special Kay” that arrived an hour later. There was also a KC-135 that arrived escorted by an F-15E Strike Eagle glued to its wingtip.

Talk among the plane spotters gathered at the park had concentrated on rumors that the F-35 was to begin practice at 2:30, and almost on the dot we heard the familiar roar of that incredible Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, and everyone began a mad scramble toward the closest corner of the park. I was able to get directly in line with the runway for a great vantage point for photos, including a full afterburner climb with the sun almost behind the plane.

I had to leave practice shortly after the Snowbirds began to fly to enter the base ahead of the evening show. Despite the flurry of activity at the visitor center, there was only a very small crowd on the flight line when flying started. While this evening show did not include the F-35 or the Snowbirds, most of the remaining lineup did perform with the golden light of sunset and darkening eastern skies providing a great backdrop for all the flyers.

This included Greg Colyer in T-33 Shooting Star “Ace Maker II”, a unique P-63F Aircobra flown by Captain Mark Allen, Scooter Yoak in the superbly restored P-51D “Quick Silver”, local fliers Jeremy Holt in his beautiful Pitts 12 and Kevin Coleman in his Extra 300, the AeroShell team in four classic AT-6 Texans, Rob Holland who was as stunning as always in the ultra-nimble MXS-RH and finally Randy Ball in the MiG-17F with its trademark trail of fire. Impressive by daylight, this is a real treat at dusk.

On Saturday morning, I was met by fellow TIF contributor David Leadingham. Originally thinking he’d be unable to attend, he ultimately decided he could not pass up this lineup, which began with the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) parachute team. Unfortunately the low cloud ceiling forced them into a low jump, and they were unable to carry the flag due to the winds.

The main flying display began with the Tora Tora Tora team, flying replicas of the Japanese aircraft that attacked Pearl Harbor, reenacting that event for the crowd. Two replica Mitsubishi Zeros, two Nakajima Kates, and an Aichi Val wheeled around the sky making multiple low passes accompanied by a pyrotechnic display which simulated the exploding bombs. Also on the team is a replica Curtis P-36, one of the outdated aircraft still in front line service on the day of the attack.

They were followed by several passes by B-52H Stratofortresses and one KC-135R Stratotanker refueling aircraft. The main flypast was originally scheduled to include a B-1B Lancer and B-2A Spirit, but the B-1 never arrived due to ongoing technical problems with the Lancer fleet, and the B-2 remained on the ground all day due to the low ceiling.

Following the bombers, Greg Colyer took to the air carrying a TIF action camera mounted next to him in the cockpit of his T-33 Shooting Star. The resulting multi-angle video of his display can be viewed on the This is Flight YouTube channel. Although based on one of the US Air Force’s first jet fighter, the P-80, the T-33 still looks pretty impressive as Greg puts it through his routine of slow rolls and loops.

Mark Allen then showed off the surprising agility of the Bell P-63 King Cobra, which was built as an improvement and replacement for the P-39 Airacobra, which had proved inferior to the Japanese aircraft of the time.

Next was Jeremy Holt in his beautiful Pitts Model 12 “Pegasus”, powered by a Russian Vedeneyev M14P nine-cylinder radial engine, which gives this airplane a distinct appearance. Holt was one of two very impressive local pilots who performed at the show. He puts the Pitts through a wide range of aerobatic maneuvers from tail slides to snap rolls and performs them crisply.

Next to fly was the amazing MiG-17F “Fresco” piloted by Randy Ball. While not subjecting this aging aircraft to any violent maneuvers, Ball does show off its incredibly tight turning radius and incredible climbing ability, and does most of it with the afterburner lit, creating a brilliant trail of fire behind the airplane. Any performance by Randy Ball in this aircraft is well worth seeing for the visual effect alone.

Scooter Yoak then treated the crowd to the beautiful sight and sound of his P-51D Mustang “QuickSilver” and the incredible Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that some historians credit with winning World War II.

From one credible fighter to another, it was then time for Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson to amaze the crowd with the performance of the incredible F-35A Lightning II. The difference between this current display and that of years prior is dramatic. Previously, the plane showed off climbing and turning ability but nothing compared to the current performance. The high-G turns that Capt. Olson makes appear impossibly tight, and moves like the pedal turn demonstrate this fighter’s ability to face virtually anywhere in the sky at will.

One of the more astonishing maneuvers from a technical point of view is the unbelievable steep high Alpha pass. This term refers to the aircraft’s “angle of attack”, or more simply, the angle of the plane compared to the direction it’s flying. Veteran US planes like the F-16 have a maximum angle of attack of under 30° while the F-35 can officially fly at around 50°, and it sometimes appears to be even more.

Following a brief rain shower, an incredible pilot with a long list of championships showed off the form that makes him a four-time world freestyle aerobatic champion. Rob Holland does few of the aerobatic “standards”, but much of the routine is composed of his own unique maneuvers, all of which are absolutely stunning. With names like the “Frisbee” (and the inverted Frisbee), “Typhoon Tumble”, and “Inverted Tumble”, his style of flying becomes apparent. Almost every maneuver resulted in the airplane tumbling wildly in all three axes at some point. One less violent, but equally impressive, maneuver is when he does an extended sideslip virtually flying on the rudder.

Next to fly were the Aeroshell team of Mark Henley, Steve Gustafson, Bryan Regan, and Jimmy Fordham in their brilliant orange and white North American AT-6 Texans. Not exactly nimble, this classic trainer was such a versatile aircraft that several planes were developed from it or inspired by it in several countries. Besides several nicely flown loops and barrel rolls, the team plays a version of tag with the other 3 flying in trail behind leader Mark Henley. They also split into pairs for maneuvers like the opposing pass.

The second local flyer, Kevin Coleman, did a very impressive job in his Extra 300SHP. Coleman also performed several tumbling type maneuvers in addition to the more common tail slides and hammerheads, and capped off his performance by “racing” the Aftershock jet truck down the runway.

Finally, it was time for the headliners, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, flying their compact Canadair CT-114 Tutor trainer and ground attack aircraft. The Snowbirds are a nine pilot team, putting on a different style of show than the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels. Whereas the other teams showcase the power and speed of their aircraft, the Snowbirds use the more docile characteristics of the Tutor to fly more intricate maneuvers both as a full team of nine and in smaller groups of various sizes. Perhaps their most amazing maneuver is the Lag Back Cross, in which a group of 5 planes approach show center from in front and then break, with the planes separating in crisscrossing directions – breathtaking to watch.

The Snowbirds close their performance with a memorial to the Battle of Britain. The entire team approaches the crowd at about a 45° angle with smoke on. They then wheel and twist around in the sky leaving contrails reminiscent of the skies over London during the Blitz. As the smoke trails fill the sky, the scene becomes more incredibly beautiful by the second, a great capper to a very enjoyable performance.

At several points during the day, David and I had discussed the surprisingly light crowd and whether it was more due to the threatening weather or the lack of a US jet aerobatic team. The following morning, just after the morning briefing, I asked a young vendor what he had thought of the Snowbirds, and he answered: “They’re no Blue Angels”. Unfortunately others I spoke with shared similar sentiments. When the crowd was very light again on Sunday, despite a favorable weather forecast, it seemed to indicate that much of the local community seems to share this opinion of teams like the Snowbirds.

Just as I was approaching this vendor’s kiosk, I saw the B-2A Spirit lifting off the runway behind him and watched it fly away. We didn’t see it again.

Sunday’s show was much like Saturday’s with the added bonus of much improved weather including abundant sunshine. Once again the crowd was treated to superb flying and some magnificent vintage warbirds, but sadly, there were relatively few people there to appreciate it. For anyone who has ever passed on an event because of the lack of a Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, you are depriving yourself of some fantastic flying. Their aircraft may not be fast and loud, but the F-35 more than had that department covered, and the flying that the Snowbirds do is crisp, precise and jaw-droppingly fun to watch. It is an aerial spectacle you really need to catch.

A huge “Thank you” to Greg Colyer, Randy Ball & his wife, the whole Black Daggers team, and to Dreshawn Murray of the Barksdale PA office.