WORDS & PHOTOS: TIM PASSMORE
Most airshow fans have probably seen the words “no refunds” while on a website while buying tickets, or in small print on the ticket itself. You may have seen the term yourself and thought it an unfair practice, but have you ever wondered why that is universal policy? The Heart of Texas Airshow just north of Waco on the 6th-7th April was a perfect example of why this policy is absolutely necessary and understandable.
Travelling down from Fort Worth on Friday morning, I drove in perfect airshow weather until running into a fog bank about 30 miles from Waco. Confident the fog would burn off quickly with the temperatures forecast, I located the media representative to find out what the plans were for the weekend. Optimism started to fade when time for practice to begin came and went and the fog still showed no signs of lifting.
Although the tiny crowd that had waited patiently to see the Thunderbirds fly consisted mostly of just one small group of special needs kids, the team showed why they are such tremendous crowd-pleasers and have the loyal following that they do. The entire officer team from Thunderbird #1 Lt. Col. John Caldwell, team commander and flight leader, to #12 Maj. Ray Geoffroy , Public Affairs Officer, plus their crew chiefs came out and spent about 20 minutes signing autographs and taking photos with the kids. The team’s new Opposing Solo pilot, #6 Capt. Michelle Curran was a huge hit, and not just with the girls.
By the time the team finished their meet – and – greet, everyone was resigned to seeing nothing in the sky but clouds, so it came as a surprise to hear the sound of an airplane taking off. It was aerobatic veteran David Martin in his stock 1963 Beechcraft Baron. While Martin’s flight was short, consisting of a couple of slow rolls and a photo pass, is still put smiles back on most faces.
Shortly after Martin landed, some of the effects of bad and threatening weather became very apparent when we saw the event organizer and just one other person starting to move the hundreds of chairs in the reserved and chalet viewing sections. Folding chairs and impending thunderstorms are a bad combination. Even with eight media reps helping, it took about 20 minutes to clear the chairs, and their day was far from done. Among other tasks now awaiting them was dealing with fans who’d paid for a dawn photo tour early the next morning. Not only was the weather going to be terrible, very few of the static aircraft due to appear had arrived, leaving next to nothing to photograph.
Saturday did not start off well, with moderately heavy rain and a ceiling in the dozens of feet, if that. The large room used for the briefing was full of pilots and crew members, as well as representatives from all parties involved in putting on the airshow, such as the safety crew and the FAA. These briefings cover everything from the roster and schedule to carefully showing the immediate area using Google Earth to identify landmarks and boundaries. This time, everyone’s primary concern was obviously the weather, which showed a fair possibility of at least minimum requirements later in the afternoon.
During this delay, the question appeared on one of the airshow’s social media pages. This person expressed dissatisfaction over the lack of a definite yes/no answer regarding holding the show as well as not being able to get a refund. In a manner that is rare on social media, one responder pointed out that an airshow has the same considerable expenditures regardless of weather, not the least of which is a virtual fleet of rental vehicles. This is just one of the many expenses that most airshow goers may not even be aware of. Another person responded to the original question by pointing out that trying to give a definite answer about holding the event is a no-win situation. If they swear that the show will go on and it doesn’t, there will be an angry storm from people who feel they were lied to. On the other hand if they call it off early and the skies clear, the public will be just as angry. Sadly, the weather never did clear enough for any flying despite hopes that the F-35 would be able to fly at least briefly.
Sunday morning was a repeat of Saturday, and by 11:30, it appeared almost certain we would have a total washout. Then, gaps started appearing in the radar images. Shortly after this, air boss Jon Powelkop said those three little words everyone longed to hear, “We are flying”. He then went through a revised schedule of events which eliminated some performers and had shorter flying times for most of those who remained on the schedule.
Skies were leadened and a light rain was still falling when the Blackhawk helicopter carrying the USASOC Black Daggers for their opening ceremonies jump began to taxi, but something was finally going to get into the air.
Flying started off with a boom with the incredible flying of Rob Holland who has a list of awards and championships longer than the ultra nimble MXS airplane he flies. Not the least of these is winning the last four World Freestyle Aerobatic Championships. With maneuvers like a double hammerhead, his insane looking Frisbee and inverted Frisbee, and torque rolls, all done at impossibly low looking altitudes, he constantly has you wondering if you just saw what you thought you did. There a lot of extremely talented aerobatic pilots, but very few who can fly at Holland’s level.
Immediately after Holland, Greg Shelton put his old Super Stearman through its paces. Normally performing a wing walking act with his wife Ashley, Shelton performed a shortened solo flight due to the weather. In addition to already dark conditions, Shelton’s own smoke stream almost hid him from view at times. Following Shelton, Bruce Winter made several passes in his beautifully restored P-51D “Happy Jack’s Go Buggy”, giving the crowd several good looks at the Mustang’s sleek lines.
Following a brief pause, an unusually loud growl came from the south end of the runway as the United States Air Force’s amazing F-35A Lightning II came blasting down the runway followed by a rooster tail of steam & spray from its powerful Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. Demonstration pilot Captain Andy “Dojo” Olson wasted no time in showing off the unbelievable maneuverability of this aircraft, which is not achieved through thrust vectoring, but with a unique aerodynamic shape and ultra efficient control surfaces. One of the more impressive maneuvers is a pedal turn at the top of a vertical climb. Dropping straight down, the aircraft the aircraft rotates on its yaw axis, spinning like a falling sycamore leaf, thus allowing the pilot to point the nose of the aircraft in virtually any direction. The radius of its high-G turn looked more like a Stearman or a Pitts Special than that of a supersonic jet fighter, and the corners of the square loop looked more like right angles than turns.
Perhaps even more impressive than its incredible turning ability was the high alpha pass in which the pilot flies as slow as possible with the aircraft’s nose lifted in a high angle of attack. Flying at an unbelievably slow speed, the aircraft appeared to be flying at its 50° alpha limit before Capt. Olson lit the afterburners and climbed away. Easily his most crowd pleasing pass was the Dedication Pass in which he approached at high speed from crowd left before tipping airplane up on a wing and curving past the crowd line.
Following his solo performance, Capt. Olson was joined by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Tommy Williams in his beautiful P-51K “Fragile But Agile” for several Heritage Flight passes.
Last up was the Trojan Phlyers team, flown by Chip Lamb and Robert Johnson in their nicely restored T-28 Trojan trainers. As they were flying, and approaching squall line reached the airport and it began to rain once again. The Thunderbirds taxied into position at the end of the runway after the Trojan Phlyers’ display, but that was as far as they got. What was initially called a pause to wait out the weather to pass through soon proved to be the end of the airshow, and the remaining spectators began the dash to their cars.
What looked to a classic airshow with a fantastic lineup proved once again how susceptible these events are to the whims of nature, but was it a total washout? Not any means. Time spent waiting with other photographers and pilots, just to name a few, is never wasted. Watching Rob Holland and his absolutely jaw dropping display made a lot of the waiting worthwhile, but when Capt. Dojo Olson began his display in that incredible F-35 Lightning II, all the waiting was quickly forgotten. That one flight made every inch of a 1300 mile trip well worthwhile.
This is Flight wishes to thank the President of the Heart of Texas Airshow, Debbie Standefer, and Gary Daniels, who stood in as media liason at short notice, for their hard work and hospitality over the weekend.