WORDS & IMAGES: JEREMY MEYERS
The 2023 edition of the Orlando Air and Space show took place over the weekend of 28th-29th October, headlined by the Thunderbirds for the third successive year. It also played host to the final demonstration by Major Kristen “Beo” Wolfe as she closed out four dedicated years showcasing the F-35A Lightning II.
The static line up was small, only boasting four F-16s from Shaw AFB, a single C-17 from Altus AFB, a Navy T-44 Pegasus, a T-28 Trojan, MiG-17 and a handful of general aviation aircraft. Some other features of the showground were new and immersive, though: for example, an interactive flight simulator where guests could try and ‘beat’ Michael Goulian with their aerobatic routine, with a leaderboard of high-scoring participants kept through the weekend of the airshow. Another item of note was a trailer with stairs to a few levels, overlooking the airshow ground from both sides. This allowed for selfies and pictures of the F-16s from a higher angle – a new and exciting way to capture the event which would be well received elsewhere on the airshow circuit.
Another unique feature at the Orlando Air and Space Show was its a mainstage, which was set up in the middle of the spectator area, much like concert, with big screens in the background. Hosted by Allen Mitchell and airshow announcer Brittany Nielsen, this was used to conduct pilot interviews and other features during the day – they even had smoke machines and sparkle/flame cannons as the pilots and aircrew walked out to be introduced. This seems to have been well-received by the crowd and is likely to be seen elsewhere on the circuit in seasons to come.
Saturday and Sunday’s lineups were nearly identical, punctuated by regular scheduled flights from Allegiant Airlines. Even so, it was one of the most seamless airshows I have attended, and the airliner traffic did not disrupt the flow of the event.
To open the show, the ReMax skydivers were circled by Mike Goulian in his Extra 330SC, who then dropped into the box for a short teaser routine. Then came VFA-122’s Rhino Demonstration Team with its colored CAG F/A-18F Super Hornet, making for some striking pictures against the clouds, especially with favourable lightning conditions as the sun shone from behind the crowd all day. The weather also provided enough humidity to get some shots of vapor on the aircraft at high speed. At the conclusion of the demonstration, it joined up with an F4U Corsair for the Legacy Flight, which is always fun to see.
A planned C-17A Globemaster III demonstration had to be dropped from the line up due to operational commitments, so John Black in his Super Decathlon was called in last minute to complete the line up. Keeping it close to the crowd, John showed just how surprisingly aerobatic this high-wing aircraft is. Next came the USAF’s F-35A Demonstration Team and Maj. Wolfe, her display enhanced by some memorable vapour cones. Maj. Wolfe was joined by a P-51D Mustang on both days for a Heritage Flight before landing and being greeted by team maters to commemorate her time as the USAF’s highly-acclaimed F-35 display pilot.
A final two civilian displays came from Michael Goulian and Scott Yoak in P-51D Mustang “Quick Silver”, before the USAF Thunderbirds closed the show. At this event they are parked on the ramp across from the main show ground, so the ground show was not visible. On the Saturday, some might have noticed a scare when a few of the Diamond aircraft made what appeared to be sharp evasive manoeuvres following the Diamond Overtake, but the team was nonetheless able to continue with its performance without missing a beat.
As airshows large and small continue to seek feedback, and there are certainly some relevant points which the show can address in future years. Parking, for example, was mainly along the north-south runway behind the main showground. It was easy to get onto, though getting off site took some time, and some parking volunteers seemed to be unaware of where specific parking areas were located – perhaps in future years, this will be clearer.
To that end, the photo pit was also a promising – if not entirely flawless – experience. In many ways, the photo pit was memorable for the right reasons; it extended past the crowd line to allow photographers to spread out, and light snacks and water were available. All that is of limited use, however, if one of the standby fire trucks parked directly in the line of sight for those in the photo pit area. After a quick debrief with the powers that be, the fire truck was moved further back for Sunday, allowing a better angle for pictures.
Overall, it was a positive experience and those in the area would do well to keep an eye on the Orlando Air and Space Show for announcements on future dates. The Thunderbirds’ provisional 2024 schedule suggests the show will return on the 20th-21st April, but firm details will likely follow at the upcoming ICAS Convention in early December.