WORDS & PHOTOS: JEREMY MEYERS
On the 22nd April, Dyess AFB in Texas hosted its first airshow in four years, dubbed the Big Country Air Fest. Despite not having secured one of the main military aerobatic teams, the USAF pulled out all the stops to support the event, and the airshow organizers were able to secure some unique acts and airshow ‘firsts’.
The static display was filled with aircraft including a T-38 from Vance AFB, F-35s from Elgin AFB and a sole F-15 from Seymour Johnson in a striking livery, representing the 333rd Fighter Generation Squadron. They were joined by no fewer than three B-1B Lancers, a C-130, KC-135, C-17, B-52, KC-46 and a C-5, in perhaps the biggest static park of heavy aircraft seen for a while in North America. Of note, the C-5 was carrying an Army UH-60 Blackhawk inside, giving crowds an impressive demonstration of the size of the C-5’s cargo area.
For the second time this season, Capt. Larson, commander and display pilot for the F-22 Demonstration Team, flew a mini-demo to kick off the airshow as he had been unable to practice on the Friday. Following that was the USAFA Wings of Blue parachute team, who formally started the show. As the last jumper landed, a pair of B-1 bombers launched, before Brian Correll performed a solo display with his Pitts. A second solo aerobatics performance came slightly later in the day, courtesy of Adam Baker in his Extra 330.
The show included a high-quality line up of rare warbirds, one of the star items being the Commemorative Air Force’s B-24 Liberator “Diamond Lil”. This is one of only two still flying, with the other belonging to the Collings Foundation. Joining the B-24 was B-25 “Yellow Rose” and a BT-13 Valliant. A pair of jet warbird solos came from Bill Culberson in his Black Knight liveried CT-133 and Jerry Conley in the Vampire .
Another unusual and much-anticipated act was the Horsemen Flight Team, who typically fly three warbirds in a stunning sequence of close formation aerobatics, accompanied by moving music composed by James Horner. This weekend’s show featured a trio of P-51D Mustangs. It was my first time seeing this poignant display, which is only performed at a small handful of events each season – let’s hope they add further events to their calendar so there are opportunities to enjoy their show again.
The USAF heavy metal was not just limited to the static display, with airlift aircraft old and new present in the flying line up. This included the West Coast C-17A Globemaster III demonstration team, as well as a Dyess-based C-130 which performed a cargo drop. The C-130 also performed an exceptionally rare airlift heritage flight with a C-47, with the formation making two passes along the show line – but sadly they were spread out too far to easily capture in a single shot.
Further USAF heavies included a KC-135R Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry, which each made two passes before departing on a joint training mission. With the impending retirement of the E-3, it is always a welcome sight at an airshow.
Towards the end of the day, one of the B-1s launched earlier in the show returned for what the airshow website described as a “demonstration”. In reality, this was not as dynamic as hoped, consisting of two flypasts, but it was still impressive to see the aircraft fly – a take-off and two flybys is more than most shows can hope for.
The final act was the F-22 Raptor demonstration team. The clouds and lighting conditions made it a difficult demonstration to photograph, but the afterburner glow was impressive against the darkening sky. After the solo demonstration, a pair of F-5 Freedom Fighters joined up for a three-ship Heritage Flight – the first time that such a Heritage Flight had been performed at a public airshow. The F-5s, flown by two pilots from the Horsemen, kept the formations tight, although it felt like the repositions between each pass took a bit longer than usual. It was certainly unusual to see an all-jet Heritage Flight, which paid tribute to the days of the aggressor F-5 in USAF service.
The event seemed to be well organized on the whole, despite some complaints of confusion on parking, gate access and cameras. Lens restrictions were a particular issue at this show, and in the run-up to the event, a 200mm lens size limit was announced. Through swift action on the part of the experienced team at Shultz Airshows, this was rescinded, much to the relief of visiting photographers who had already made arrangements to attend.
Another item of mention was ramp layout; the food vendors were located at the very back, making it difficult to grab something quickly during the day, and a few even ran out of food. The restrooms were oddly placed, in the back right corner of the grounds, while the opposite end had but a few vendor tents and was otherwise mostly empty.
Overall, though, it was an enjoyable day out, especially given the quality of the flying display. The dates for the next airshow at Dyess have not been announced, but it typically alternates with an event at the nearby regional airport.