WORDS AND PHOTOS: JEREMY MEYERS | ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: NATHAN THOMPSON
The 2023 Defenders of Liberty Airshow, held at Barksdale AFB, the home of Global Strike Command and the 8th Air Force, took place over the weekend of 25th-26th March. As well as the first Barksdale appearance of the Blue Angels’ new Super Hornets, the show featured its traditionally strong flying and static displays, complete with heavy bombers, two USAF fast jet solos and a rare three-ship display of MiG-17s.
Given the base’s links to the USAF’s strategic bomber fleet, it was fitting to have no fewer than three home-based B-52s on static display, as well as a B-1B Lancer from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess AFB. Other US military participants in the static display included a UH-60L Blackhawk, two A-10s from the 442nd Fighter Wing in Kansas City, a KC-135, C-130 and more. The show also included a glimpse of the future with a yet-to-be-delivered Boeing MH-139 Grey Wolf, a licence-built version of the Leonardo AW139 which is to replace the venerable UH-1 Huey.
Starting the flying display on Saturday was Capt. Samuel “Razz” Larson, the newly-assigned commander and demonstration pilot for the F-22A Raptor. The Friday weather had prevented the team’s usual practice, so this took place at the start of Saturday’s show in addition to an official demonstration in its usual afternoon slot, meaning the fans were treated to two F-22 demonstrations in the same day.
Following that was a more traditional start to the show, with LA native Kevin Coleman in his Extra 330 circling parachute jumpers from the Red Bull Air Force, who jumped from the Commemorative Air Force’s C-47 “That’s All, Brother”. The Red Tail Squadron then showcased their P-51C Mustang before another local pilot, Jeremy Holt, performed in his Pitts Model 12. Wrapping up this segment was a sole F-15C Eagle from the 159th Fighter Wing taking off to the hold.
Compared to previous shows at Barksdale, there was perhaps less action from the B-52 than usual. A pair of B-52s was slated to depart in the morning, returning later in the day during the show, but following an aborted take-off, only one was able to make it into the air. This sole B-52 later returned for a single flypast in loose formation with the Commemorative Air Force’s B-25 “Devil Dog”, before each aircraft made a series of flypasts accompanied by pyrotechnics. Next came the return of the F-15, which performed a number of flypasts and missed approaches.
A number of civilian acts then followed, including a single F-5B Freedom Fighter, which made some flat passes. This was a welcomed sight, but paled in comparison to most of the day’s other performances given the lack of aerobatics – especially given it was sandwiched between the award-winning Aeroshell Aerobatic Team and Matt Younkin in his Beech 18.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated performances was a three-ship of Lim-5s (the Polish-built version of the MiG-17) from Fighterjets Inc., led by Randy Ball and accompanied by wingmen Bill Culberson and Michael Terfehr. This was, in fact, the first time that the three-ship display had been seen at any airshow, with the exception of his home events in Tyler, TX, where the formation has performed several times, debuting in 2017. Their show opened with a series of tight formation passes and turns before Randy broke off to showcase the MiG-17’s trademark afterburner flame with some dramatic low passes, before rejoining the formation for a break-to-land. It was quite a fight to see; let’s hope it becomes more common in the years to come.
The final civilian performers of the afternoon included World Freestyle Aerobatic Champion Rob Holland’s solo routine and the combined Red Bull Air Force show including Kevin Coleman’s Extra 330, Aaron Fitzgerald in the Bo.105 and a group of parachute jumpers.
In tribute to the bomber force on hand at Barksdale AFB, a pair of B-1B Lancer bombers passing Barksdale enroute to their base at Ellsworth AFB diverted to the airshow, making a single pass along the show line before departing in burner. This was then followed by the Air Combat Command segment, featuring solo demonstrations by the F-22 and F-16, as well as a three-ship Heritage Flight which also featured P-51D Mustang “Bumsteer”.
Closing the show was the US Navy Blue Angels, starting with C-130J-30 Hercules “Fat Albert”, and next, the six-ship formation of F/A-18F Hornets, rounding out a varied flying display and a broadly well-run event. The only major issue of the weekend was that some people who had paid for seating were turned away from the base as it had already reached its maximum capacity of 85,000.
The Defenders of Liberty Airshow is planned to return in 2025 and is likely to host the USAF Thunderbirds, although the exact date and headline act are yet to be confirmed.