WORDS: JEREMY MEYERS | PHOTOS: NATHAN THOMPSON
The 2021 edition of the Wings over Houston airshow is in the books. It played host to numerous warbirds and a healthy number of modern military assets. I arrived on Wednesday, just missing the arrival of the NASA Super Guppy. Thursday arrivals included the F-22 Raptor Demo Team and the Thunderbirds, as well as the last-minute addition of a Navy E-6 Mercury for the static display, which circled within eyesight until the airspace opened after Thunderbird circle and arrival slot.
Later that evening, more statics arrived, including a pair of US Navy T-6C Texan II, a USAF T6 and T-1 from Columbus AFB both in heritage liveries, and the famed VAQ-209 Star Warriors with their EA-18G Growlers, including the squadron’s CAG bird with Darth Vader on the tail. NASA’s static display contributions included the Super Guppy, a T-38 Talon, the WB-57 Canberra and a Mars training vehicle for astronauts. Other statics included an F-15C Eagle from the 159th Fighter Wing Louisiana National Guard, an F-16 from the 148th Fighter Wing Oklahoma National Guard and an AH-64 Apache from the Texas Army National Guard. The static park was vast; perhaps partly due to the cancellation of the B-52 and C-17, there seemed to be plenty of empty space that could have been occupied, and only one aircraft, a CH-46 Sea Knight, was open to walk through.
Overall, the weather did not interrupt the flying display, except for high winds on Sunday, which prevented the Remax Parachute Team from jumping. Sunshine greeted the huge crowd that came out to enjoy Saturday’s show, with many people flocking to the warbird ramp to see many of the aircraft that would be flying later in the day, including B-17 “Texas Raiders”, Tora Tora Tora’s replica Japanese aircraft and several trainers from WWII. Just beyond the ramp area was where the RCAF Snowbirds and C-17 Demonstration Team were parked to the north. As such, the Snowbirds’ ground show was completely out of sight of the crowd.
Kicking things off was some flying by remote control models as the Remax parachute team climbed to altitude with local Debby Rihn Harvey and duo John and Shane McGillis departing to the hold area. The Remax team brought the Stars and Stripes to our national anthem following the Canadian national anthem in honor of their visit. Without missing a beat, father/son duo John and Shane dropped into the aerobatic box to display their skills, although their formation and solo routines seemed to lack the flare and high energy aerobatics of past performers like Sean Tucker and Mike Wiskus.
One of the biggest themes of this year’s show was the warbirds, many of which were provided by the Commemorative Air Force. There was an America Trains for War parade of training aircraft, including T-34 Mentors, T-6 Texans and more performing multiple lap style flypasts. As they broke to land a series of fighters, consisting of a P-40, P-51, P-63 and P-39, began to make their flypasts in the same manner. This was followed by the Arsenal of Democracy Parade, featuring an A-26 Invader, B-25 “Devil Dog” and B-17 “Texas Raiders”, which each made a few rounds. One additional warbird performer was a MiG-15, which performed a few passes but seemed out of place, and more of a filler act than anything.
Celebrating its 50th season was Tora Tora Tora, made even more explosive by their pyro team, and joined at Wings Over Houston by B-17 “Texas Raiders”, which is celebrating its 50th year being a part of a CAF wing.
One surprise during the flying display was the departure of the massive C-5 Galaxy. It departed in style, conducted a real-world training mission with Apaches from the Texas Guard onboard unit over the Gulf of Mexico, and returned to the airport about an hour later.
Another act celebrating its golden anniversary was our friends to the north, the Snowbirds. This year they are sporting a special paint with a gold banner and gold numbers on the tail which, in certain light, rather catch the eye. A particularly eye-catching moment came during their Battle of Britain maneuver, with all nine jets tracing smoke trails across the sky. In front of them, the Texas Flying Legends Museum’s Spitfire Mk.IX MK959 and the Pima Air & Space Museum’s Hurricane Mk.IIb BG974 passed by in formation before starting their routine. It would have been a rare catch for those who got the warbirds centered with the Snowbirds in the background. Sunday saw only 8 jets in the sky which makes for off centered formations but still a polished display. Houston was the last show on the road for the team in a triumphant return to airshows and in fitting tribute to Capt. Jenn Casey.
There were two modern fighters taking part in the flying display: the F/A-18 Super Hornet tactical demonstration from VFA-106 Gladiators and the USAF’s F-22 Raptor demonstration team with Maj. Joshua “Cabo” Gunderson at the helm. The Hornet demonstrations have been somewhat hit and miss at airshows in recent years, so it was nice to see a full aerobatic routine back on the circuit. The Hornet also performed a Tailhook Legacy Flight with a Grumman Wildcat, although engine problems grounded the Wildcat on Saturday. This consisted of three passes and an overhead break from behind, without the final high-speed flybys seen before.
The F-22 performed a similar Heritage Flight at the end of its display, although having so many warbirds on hand it was a bit disappointing to not see at least two warbirds with the F-22. Instead, it was accompanied by a lone P-51 Mustang on both days. Like the Snowbirds, both the F-22 and F/A-18 were parked beyond the VIP parking to the sound, so they were practically unseen on the ground.
Closing the show each day was the USAF Thunderbirds. In traditional Thunderbird style, the team put on their display of airpower and managed to set off several car alarms with some of the new afterburner passes from behind the crowd. The new routine, which is the first change to the Thunderbirds’ show in several decades, is still growing on me. Among other changes, they have cut down the time on the ground from previous years and yet seem to have gone away from showcasing the F-16 as much, so I am undecided on how I would rate it.
Attractions on the ground included a Heroes and Legends tent with several famous aviation names, including Gene Kranz from the Apollo missions. Information about it and its location was somewhat difficult to find, however. Similarly, the parking, free water stations and toilets could have been mapped better. That being said, I would certainly recommend the show; the hospitality was good and the hard work was evident. Wings Over Houston will return, headlined by the Blue Angels, in 2022.