REVIEW: Wings Over Houston 2023

The 2023 edition of the Wings over Houston airshow took place over the weekend of 14-15 October. This year’s feature act was the USAF Thunderbirds and while the A-10 demonstration had been slated, was changed in the weeks leading up to the show for the F-35A. Several warbirds were also on hand as always.

In the weeks leading up to the show, the event was hit by considerably uncertainty caused by a looming US government shut down, which would have caused the withdrawal of all US military assets. While some shows stubbornly insisted that everything would proceed as normal, Wings Over Houston adopted a disarmingly honest strategy, being frank with ticket holders about the risks of a Thunderbirds no-show but promising free tickets to next year’s event if the shutdown went ahead. Fortunately, the shutdown was averted with hours to spare and this arrangement did not need to be put into action.

The static park this year was smaller than in years prior, with many of the planned military assets noticeably missing, including a B-52H Stratofortress. Military aircraft that did make it to the show included a WC-130J Weatherbird, P-8A Poseidon, F-35A Lightning II, C-17A Globemaster, KC-135R Stratotanker, CH-47F Chinook and a lone F-16C from the local detachment. NASA contributed a T-38 Talon and WB-57 Canberra, which were rather popular. Locally-based historic aircraft included an F-100, F-4 and A-4, marking the anniversary of the Vietnam War, partially-restored CH-46 Sea Knights and a naval aviation corner featuring an SBD Dauntless, two Corsairs and a TBM Avenger. The usual red MiG-17 was not seen, for unknown reasons.

Friday’s Special show took place this year after weather cancelled last year’s events. It kicked off with a teaser from Mike Gallaway in his Extra 300SX followed by a T-6 Texan and further warbird action from Rick Sharpe in his AD-4DW Skyraider performing full aerobatic maneuvers in such a large and rather bulky airframe. The dull skies made for some good photographic opportunities and vapor trails coming off the wingtips of the Skyraider.

The USAF Thunderbirds took the airfield next flying just a four-ship of two Diamond jets and the two solos. It was a much different practice than had been seen before. Later in the afternoon, a secondary spare jet arrived making way for them to fly all six through the weekend.

The second practice session started with Mike Gallaway again, followed by a full practice display by the Thunderbirds. The US Coast Guard displayed their HH-65D helicopter, even flying it backwards, but not performing the usual SAR demonstration. They were followed by Tora Tora Tora, who flew eight replica Zeros and Kates in their signature routine, albeit without pyrotechnics during their Friday practice. Keeping with the warbirds, the CAF’s P-40 Warhawk and B-17G “Yankee Lady” flew a several parade like passes over the airfield. Rick Sharpe then flew again, this time in the MiG-15 in a series of low, high-speed passes and big barrels rolls showing the agility of the Korean era fighter. The final practice of the day came from the F-35A Lightning II, the weather conditions leading to copious amounts of vapor as Major Wolfe tore through the skies. The evening light made it even more spectacular, as the F-35 paired up with TF-51D Mustang “Bumsteer” for the Air Force Heritage Flight.

Saturday weather was much cooler than Friday, one of the main talking points being a solar eclipse that occurred during the flying display, making for some interesting lighting conditions. The day started with the Remax parachute team, flying with Mike Gallaway in the Extra, before continuing with the MiG-15, then the father-and-son McGills duo in their Extra 300s. This year, it felt that there were more aerobatic performers than usual, yet the show still lacked much in the way of truly high-calibre, high-energy aerobatics

A lone B-52H Stratofortress broke away from a training mission to make a single flypast through the airspace; it was great to see the lumbering bomber in the skies especially since they had to cancel the planned static appearance of the Boeing giant. This was followed by the local HH-65, and then Tora Tora Tora – this time accompanied by numerous pyrotechnics to bring the story to life. CAF Central Texas Wing’s own B-25J Mitchell “Yellow Rose” flew in place of the usual B-17. Then, rounding out the warbird segment was a series of flypasts of trainers and bombers: a few BT-13s, T-34s and other such types flew first, before no fewer than three B-25s and B-17G “Yankee Lady” did likewise. The bombers certainly seemed higher than in previous years, with visibly wider spacing between them. Even so, the air boss and pilots kept aircraft in front of the crowd at all times.

The F-35 demonstration flew next, and had the honor of being selected to benefit from the final ‘wall of fire’ of the day; after the Heritage Flight, the F-35 performed two additional flybys, one being an inverted-to-inverted aileron roll, and the second beign a high-speed pass accompanied by a 300-500ft burst of pyrotechnics. Rick Sharpe then took off in the Skyraider for a rare race between Bill Barrack’s jet car and a piston-powered warbird, before the SUAF Thunderbirds wrapped up the day with all six jets.

Sunday would be almost identical to Saturday’s schedule, except with no B-52 flyby and with Rick Sharpe flying the Me262 instead of the MiG-15 – it was a shame that these two aircraft, which both have substantial appeal to ardent aviation enthusiasts, could not fly on both days, leaving fans who attended on only one day deprived of at least one star performance. Additionally, the Remax parachute team was unable to jump on Sunday due to wind, but Mike Gallaway opened the show right on cue as a solo act before flying some ‘grudge match’ races with Bill Barrack’s jet car.

Wings over Houston has established itself a premier airshow site in the United States, not least thanks to its unusually large line up of warbirds in the flying display, some of which – like the Me262 – are very rarely seen elsewhere. Some have remarked on the pricing (general admission starts at $50, making it one of the pricier airshows around), while others still ahd remarks about the number of cancellations and the warbird line up, which was doubtless smaller than in previous years.

That being said, the team continues to do a great job putting together not just a varied flying and static display, but also running a slick and well-managed event. The airshow had plenty of free water on hand, a good choice of food vendors, interactive ground displays and its trademark ‘Heroes Tent’, which this year included Apollo 13’s Fred Haise and famed Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz. These rare chances to meet aviation greats add a certain aspect that is second to none.

Wings Over Houston returns on the 26th-27th October 2024, featuring the US Navy Blue Angels.