REVIEW: Thunder Over Louisville 2019

WORDS & PHOTOS: JACOB RUTLEDGE

It’s hard to believe the Thunder Over Louisville Airshow started out to entertain guests that arrived early for what is now the largest annual fireworks display in North America. This single day airshow could easily stand on its own. The weather held out for the airshow this year, although overcast skies during the evening portion of the show made it difficult to photograph. Ultimately light rain started almost as soon as the formal air show was over but I didn’t see anyone leave until after the fireworks were finished.

The air show started at 15:00 with four F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 180th Fighter Wing. They made a formation pass, then solo high-speed passes with a high angle of attack climb-out, generating copious amounts of jet noise. The US Army Golden Knights were up next sending out a solo jumper then a mass exit jump several minutes later. Their Fokker C-31A Troopship then descended to make a dirty pass (flaps down, gear down) through the air box.

The Trojan Thunder T-28 team started their demonstration from behind the city, giving the Indiana side of the crowd a picturesque view of their opening break. The six-ship team consists of four formation pilots and two solo pilots. With this configuration, there is constant action in front of the crowd. The solos perform multiple opposing passes between the four-ship formation passes. They performed both a day and an evening show keeping the crowd entertained.

Local Lee Leet and his Super Tucano were up next. Lee performed many loops and rolls within the air box. Having local pilots participate in Thunder adds to the sense of pride the town takes in the air show. The Tucano was followed by the KC Flight Formation Team, consisting of eight RV-4 aircraft. They flew both during the day and at dusk, using multicolored wingtip smoke.

For at least as long as I can remember, Thunder has received fantastic support from the Royal Canadian Air Force. This year was no different. The CT-142 “Gonzo” and CT-155 Hawk are welcomed regulars. “Gonzo” is a modified De Havilland Canada Dash 8. The extended nose houses radars. The platform is used for training. Thunder usually features a CF-18 Hornet but this year Thunder featured four of them. The more jets the better! Also from the RCAF, a CC-130 Hercules also attended.

Speaking of the C-130…. There were 4 different C-130 Variants this year. (CC-130, C-130H, C-130J, and the HC-130) The C-130H and C-130J were from the 123rd Airlift Wing based out of Louisville. The C-130J was used to transport a STS HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump team before making a high-speed pass through the box. Later on in the show the C-130H was used for a low altitude air drop. Once the drop was complete, they formed up with P-51 “Swamp Fox”. While the formation was wingtip to wingtip on practice day, the P-51 trailed the C-130 during the show, which was a little disappointing. It was such a unique formation I was hoping that everyone would be able to see it during the actual air show. The P-51 would make a set of solo passes but remained uncharacteristically high. The P-51 is a crowd favorite but I felt like vertically distant passes did not satisfy the crowd’s attention. The HC-130 from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida flew two passes. During the last pass, the refueling booms were fully extended as the aircraft flew in front of the skyline. This was one of those moments that made this Thunder Airshow special.

While Thunder Over Louisville hosted the newly reinstated A-10 Demo Team last year, this year four A-10 Thunderbolt IIs (also known at the “Warthog”) made a visit to Thunder, providing us with multiple passes. The whine of the GE TF34 engines is unmistakable. During the last set of solo passes, pyro was set off on the bridge as each A-10 passed. The simulated strafing runs were a nice touch and gave everyone a pleasant surprise.

For the second year in a row, UPS sent their newest and largest aircraft, the Boeing 747-8F. The aircraft made two passes in front of the crowd. Even though Worldport, the shipping giant’s largest hub, is in Louisville, seeing the aircraft fly up close was a real treat. For such a large aircraft, it’s amazing how quiet it is.

Billy Werth flew his Pitts S2C in a mid-day and evening slot, wowing the crowds. It’s no secret that I’m a jet guy but there is just something about Billy’s demonstration that I can’t keep my eyes off. His demonstration is superb but pair it up with the Louisville Skyline and you’ve got magic. One of my favorite parts of his demonstration is a mile long knife-edge pass in front of the skyline that ultimately ends with him still in knife edge just feet off the surface of the Ohio River. Billy at Thunder Over Louisville is a must see.

Thunder wouldn’t be complete without helicopter demos. The first such display came from the HSM-40 Airwolves and featured an MH-60R Seahawk. The second helicopter demo featured the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey. Both helicopters types performed last year, although in 2017 there were two of each and the demo seemed much more aggressive. The Louisville Metro Police Department performed a demo this year with their MD-500N helicopter. They worked the Kentucky side of the river the majority of the time. The final helicopter demonstration was from the MH-53 Seadragon.

The Thunder Over Louisville airshow featured many military aircraft this year, but only one formal demonstration: the US Navy TACDEMO with the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The demonstration is best described as loud and rowdy. Even though it would start raining around 9:00pm there was not enough humidity in the air for much vapor, but the low light conditions made the afterburner easily viewable. Being able to easily view the afterburner and shock cones in the exhaust easily made up for the lack of vapor forming on the wings. Once the TAC Demo wrapped up, the F/A-18 formed with an F4U Corsair for a legacy flight; I would have loved to see the F4U Corsair also perform a solo demonstration, but that did not happen.

Similar to last year, a B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base made two passes during the show. The B-52 is a massive eight engine aircraft that is a spectacle to see fly.

Matt Younkin flew his Beech 18 in two separate slots. If you’ve never seen Matt’s demo, picture the once very popular Beech 18, paint it fire engine red with black detail on the nose, throw in thick lingering smoke, then go inverted. Part of the allure from Matt’s demo is seeing an aircraft that was never designed for aerobatics perform loops and rolls. Matt’s day and dusk demonstration have become a welcome staple of the Thunder of Louisville airshow.

Greg Colyer flew his T-33 Shooting Star “Ace Maker” during the evening set. The T-33 is a graceful machine performing slow rolls and large loops. Once Greg cleared the box, four T-38 Talons made two passes though the air box in low light conditions. They were followed by a C-17 Globemaster from nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which made two passes. The C-17 is an amazingly powerful machine as proved by its high speed, high angle of attack climb at that the end of its last pass.

Once the C-17 had cleared the air space, four F-15C Eagles from the 159th Fighter Wing flew a formation pass then broke for solo high-speed passes. Watching the afterburners light up was a real treat that is not always evident during mid day air shows. As the light continued to fade, a Carbon Cub made multiple passes on the river along both side of the shore. While this may be one of the slower parts of the show, I enjoyed watching the graceful Cub skimming along the waterfront.

The Army Golden Knights got in another night jump before the fireworks, performing their “bomb burst” maneuver in the sky. This is an impressive maneuver involving all jumpers free falling together with flares ignited and sparks trailing. From the ground it appears to be one large streak in the sky until they break heading all heading away from each other.

From a photographer’s perspective, Thunder over Louisville will likely challenge you just based on the variety of lighting situations. The air show starts at 15:00 with the sun overhead and technically ends around 21:20 when American Flags, illuminated by spotlights, are flown around. At 21:30 the fireworks start and last a whole 30 minutes. If you plan on attending Thunder Over Louisville, here are some tips:

  • Park as far away as you come comfortably walk and arrive early. With hundreds of thousands of people converging on the waterfront, traffic can get pretty congested. The further you get away from the air show center, the faster you will get home. Walking in will feel like a waste of time but you’ll bethankful on the walk back home as you walk past traffic.
  • Dress accordingly. This goes for all airshows but Thunder is early in the year and can have a wide variety of weather in a given day.
  • Don’t forget sunscreen. It’s early in the year and it might be cool but you can easily get sunburned.
  • Put some thought into your viewing location. The Kentucky side hosts many more people and has more vendor booths but the Indiana side offers the Louisville Skyline as the backdrop. The air box is in a bend in the Ohio River and the Kentucky side of the airshow can see the aircraft coming into the air box, but aircraft will generally make a sweeping right hand turn into the box. This generally means lots of belly shots on the Kentucky side and topside shots for the Indiana side.

I mentioned the “personal airshow” in the Thunder Over Louisville review last year, but I feel like it needs mentioning again. Practice day is held on the Friday before the show. There is nothing formal about it except for a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) typically published at least a week before. You will not find a schedule published, but practices generally run from 11:00 to 17:00 (check the TFR times) – although not every act will perform. Practice day is a great opportunity to scope out your viewing area for Saturday as well. This year there were a couple of thousand people lining both sides of the shores for practice, but on Saturday that number can swell to over 750,000 people if the weather is nice.

I can’t talk about Thunder Over Louisville without talking about the fireworks.Thunder over Louisville boast the largest annual fireworks show in North America. The fireworks are amazing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the fireworks portion of the show but I can tell you it will ruin any other fireworks you will ever see. The fireworks start at 21:30 and go until 22:00. Fireworks are launched from two separate barges split by the Second Street Bridge. If you are traveling to see the airshow and fireworks, my recommendation is to stay close and enjoy the atmosphere. Some hotels offer firework views. My views of the airshow and fireworks were courtesy of the Sheraton Louisville Riverside Hotel.