Thunder Over Louisville Organizers announced a bold theme earlier this year when they announced a full return to the waterfront air and fireworks show. No doubt everyone was excited to be back in person. The air show was cancelled in 2020 and televised-only in 2021. The question was, would Thunder Over Louisville live up to the hype?
I can 100%, undoubtably attest that the legend has returned.
Thunder has a long and chequered history that needs to be appreciated to understand how we got here today, and it starts with fireworks. You see, Thunder Over Louisville kicks off the Kentucky Derby Festival. The Kentucky Derby Festival consists of 2 straight weeks of daily events leading up to the Kentucky Derby. As a local, it’s a big deal. In the beginning, the show organizers were looking for ways to get more folks to attend the kickoff fireworks and give them something more to enjoy to before the show, and so an airshow was born. Given the fireworks are a one-night kickoff to the festival, it is only a one-day airshow. This part is important later. Fast forward a couple decades, and here we are.
The airshow occurs over the Ohio River, and spectators get great views from both the Indiana and Kentucky sites (although the Indiana side offers some unique photo opportunities, with the Louisville skyline visible in the background). In recent years, the aerobatic box was constrained to Class 2 as a new bridge was being built across the river, but this year, the restriction was removed and the event returned to a Class 1 box. This was significant because it allows fully aerobatic demonstrations by the likes of the F-22 Raptor.
The show featured multiple crowd favorites this year, including several making their first appearance at the show. Making its Thunder Over Louisville debut, the KC-46A Pegasus made one pass down the show line with the refuelling boom extended; a fitting addition to the show given the Pegasus is a theme throughout the festival.
The B-29 “FiFi” also made several passes of her own, as well as a formation pass with a B-24 Liberator and B-25. For those of you that may want to photograph this opportunity should it occur again in the future, note that it is a very wide formation. You may need a lens wider than 24mm to get all three aircraft in one image. Regardless, it was awesome to witness so much history in one pass.
The airshow consists of a mix of flybys and full demonstrations, with a huge variety of aircraft types represented. Multiple F-16 squadrons executed formation passes, followed by some fast solo passes, pulling up to almost 90 degrees and getting the crowd’s attention. A group of A-10s executed similar maneuvers, although much more sporty. A pair of F-15Es and T-38s also executed fly-bys – it was great to see all these aircraft In person even if for just one pass.
On the cargo front, the Kentucky Air National Guard showcased their new C-130Js with multiple passes. The C-17, a Thunder staple, also performed several passes in front of the crowd. Civilian cargo airline UPS, with a major hub at Louisville, provided some contrast with one of its smartly-painted 767-400s.
Greg Colyer and his T-33 executed a stunning, dynamic demo for the crowd. Greg flies the T-33 with grace and finesse in a smooth demo that you will just have to see in person to fully appreciate.
There were several participants that really stood out, and one of them was the B-2A Sprit, which executed two flat passes for the crowd. While not aerobatic, loud or fast, that is exactly what this plane was designed to do. The side profile is small but as it flies over, it’s unique shape will definitely get your attention. It was not the only rare classic jet in attendence, with the world’s only F-100 Super Sabre also making its presence felt.
The MH-53E Sea Dragon was another crowd-pleaser: it spent a lot of time down low interacting with the crowds on both side of the river.
The return of the F-22 Raptor Demo had everyone excited leading up for the show and it did not disappoint. The big question was what the demonstration would look like with the new bridge obstruction at the end of the box, but demo pilot “Cabo” made it work flawlessly.
The last full demonstrations, and one which certainly got my attention, was the Growler Demonstration Team from the US Navy. The EA-18G and crew ripped up the sky with fast passes and low approaches before joining up with an F4U Corsair for a Legacy Flight. From a photography perspective, this was a tricky demo to photograph; it was unpredictable in a good way and the sunlight ranged from harsh to golden light depending on where the aircraft is at any one time.
As the sun set, the aircraft started to slow but the fun kept coming. After a short break, one of my personal favorites, the Carbon Cub, took to the air box. The Carbon Cub gracefully performed many water landings in front of the crowd. Maneuvers around the bridge were either full power, pitch up maneuvers to climb over the bridge or a quick water landing so the Carbon Cub passes under the bridge while on technically not being airborne.
Matt Younkin, who also performed a day show earlier in the afternoon, rounded out the main flying display with his night show in the Beech 18. Finally, this was followed by a drone show. If you’ve never experienced a night time drone show, I encourage you to find one. It’s an incredible sight to see and I hope the drone show becomes a staple in the future.
While my focus was on the air show, the fireworks are another part of Thunder Over Louisville that must be felt, heard and seen. As North America’s largest fireworks display, it has a reputation to uphold. This year’s fireworks were no exception.
If you remember earlier, I mentioned that Thunder Over Louisville is a one day event. This year, however, for the first time in more than two decades, the Kentucky Derby Festival, Louisville Muhammad Ali international Airport and Kentucky Air National Guard hosted a static display at the airport. It was great to meet some of the crews that had flown the day before and tour the aircraft. Almost all of these were open to either walk through or climb up a ladder to see the cockpit. I know that it was an incredible amount of work to host a static display like this but I hope it becomes a yearly event.
Thunder Over Louisville was a huge success. Between a stellar lineup and great weather, it’s going to hold a fond place in my mind for a long time.
If you plan on attending next year, here are some tips: Park as far away as you can comfortably walk. You’ll save a lot of time getting home or to your lodging by not parking in the downtown core. For photographers, be prepared for all kinds of lighting situation. You will encounter everything from harsh midday sun to golden hour and night. Don’t forget about practice day. While the air show is a one day event, practice day gives you an opportunity to get a sneak peek of the show and try out a viewing location. My view for the airshow and fireworks was provided courtesy of Sheraton Louisville Riverside Hotel. The staff was very friendly and you are not going to find a more conveniently located hotel on the Indiana side for the festivities. I’ll see you at Thunder Over Louisville 2023.