When I got the opportunity to cover the two day air show at Offutt Air Force Base, I jumped at the chance. The last time I saw the Thunderbirds perform, they were flying T-38 Talons and I was still in the United States Air Force. It was a two-day show, and storms rolling through the area delayed the start of the Sunday program. That, and the fact that some of the acts performed multiple times each day, make a concise, brief report rather difficult.
I was met each day by the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) of media at a limited access gate. She escorted me to a parking spot near the flight line and drove me from there in a golf cart. I owe TSgt Rachelle Blake a huge thank you for her tremendous hospitality and helpfulness throughout the weekend. Since I bypassed the gates open to the public, I cannot comment on ease of entry or exit from the venue, but traffic appeared to be well managed
The layout of this public viewing area was the largest downside to the entire event. The area in front of the ramp on which the Thunderbirds were part was in a U shape with the barrier forming the bottom of the U. To the left, the view of the runway was obstructed by tents and awnings and emergency vehicles. The announcers were also located in this area. To the right, the view was blocked by the VIP area and vehicles associated with the Thunderbird team. Between the viewing area and the runway were the F-16s of the Thunderbirds. For aerial demonstrations, this was not a problem, but takeoffs and low passes were extremely difficult to view with this arrangement as the photo of Pietsch scraping his wingtip illustrates.
Before flying began, I had an opportunity to walk around and examine the impressive range of static displays. Though there were several great active military craft on hand, including a B-2 Spirit and two F-35s (I did have a nice chat with Major Will Andreotta, pilot of one of them), my favorites were the WWII-era warbirds. Though the B-25, A 26, and TBM Avenger did not perform, they did leave during Sunday’s show, so the crowd at least got to see them take off. For a more complete listing of static displays plus live links to the aerial performers’ sites, you can visit the Offutt AFB Open House link, but be advised that this link may be changed at a later date.
Flying began with drops by the Special Ops Para Commandos from a Chinook helicopter. The jump was well coordinated as smoke and chutes appeared simultaneously. The first fixed-wing display was by the flying Shetterly family. The father, Greg Shetterly, was piloting a compact Rihn DR107. Son Joe was in a silver RV-8. Both of these aircraft were home built. The other son, Jeff was in a classic T-6 Texan/SNJ (their site uses both designations for this aircraft). They performed individually, in duos, and all three at once while the mother narrated the show. She stressed the difficulty in orchestrating maneuvers such as loops given the drastic differences in flying characteristics of each of the planes. The Texan was skillfully piloted, but it seemed a lumbering horse compared to the other two agile planes. Joe and Greg put on the best portion of this performance flying tight formation doing loops and barrel rolls among other maneuvers.
As they were about to land, a yellow aircraft appeared to wander into the area. The announcer was able to contact this pilot on the radio who stated that he was just learning to fly and had an instruction manual with him. This was Kent Pietsch flying his 1942 Interstate Cadet. He ran a running commentary as he seemingly struggled to maintain control of his aircraft, at one point even dropping his instruction manual. Later, as he was climbing away from the crowd, his starboard aileron fell off and I just happened to catch a photo of this as it happened. After several aborted attempts to land, including one pass where he grazed the concrete with his port wing tip, he was able to get down safely much to the crowd’s delight. He was to return two more times on opening day.
Following the “inexperienced” Pietsch, the beautifully restored P-51D Mustang dubbed “Gunfighter”, flown by Larry Lumpkin did battle once again with the replica Japanese Mitsubishi Zero of Douglas Jackson. Once again, the Mustang was able to prevail and then did a few slow rolls and loops for the crowd. It’s always a thrill to watch a Mustang fly.
Next up was the Lima Lima Flight Team flying four of their usual six 1950s T-34 Mentor trainers – I was unable to ask the team why only four planes were present. This team is composed of very proficient pilots and they put on a very tight show. Often flying in the delta formation, they also performed as separate two plane units for some passes. One of the more popular maneuvers with the crowd was a head on pass with number four appearing to be on a collision course with number three who flares up at the last moment to ‘avert a crash’. They also performed a low-speed “dirty” pass by a two ship element with the gear down and full flaps. The other two aircraft then did a high-speed overtake timed so the pass occurred right in front of the crowd.
Kent Pietsch then returned for his signature act in which he lands atop a moving pickup truck and subsequently takes off again from the truck. As he was preparing to do this, Dan Buchanan, who was paralized in a flying accident in 1981, performed in his hang glider simultaneously. Pietsch appeared one more time performing a deadstick landing from approximately 4000 feet, putting on an amazing example of unpowered flight.
Then it was time for the high powered portion of the show to begin, starting with Randy Ball in a great looking MiG-17PF in Polish markings. Ball did several high-speed passes and a 360° maximum G turn. He frequently delighted the crowd with a long trail of flame as he passed by on afterburners. The pace then slowed momentarily as Matt Younkin performed a full display of aerobatic maneuvers in a very non-aerobatic airplane, a 1943 Beech 18/C45. This lumbering aircraft was quite impressive doing full loops and rolls and more.
An act which came close to stealing the limelight from the Thunderbirds was a US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet. The performance began with a dirty roll upon takeoff, retracting the landing gear as he rolled. The pilot performed several maneuvers such as a slow roll and a square loop, but the show stoppers were a high-speed knife edge pass and another level pass approaching Mach 1. Due to the high humidity, both of these passes produced large plumes of condensation.
Scott Francis then thrilled the crowd in his incredibly nimble MXS Racer. This plane has a roll rate of 500° per second and Francis showed this plane off to best advantage. He put on an amazing display of flying talent performing maneuvers such as the waterfall, cuban eight, zoom climbs, and a seemingly impossible 90° turn during a low pass down the runway.
Though the weather did not seem cooperative early, the Thunderbirds were able to put on their high show which includes more maneuvers than their low or flat shows. Once again, their performance was a pleasure to watch, but I must admit to being partial to this display team. As I am often unable to do, I was often able to catch the two opposing planes close together on several of their opposing passes such as in the opposing knife edge pass and the high bomb burst cross. Perhaps the most visually impressive maneuver was the delta burst with the formation approaching out of partly blue sky accentuated by dramatic cloud cover. As had the F/A-18 earlier, the F-16s also produced considerable amounts of condensation during many of their maneuvers. This always produces stunning photographs which greatly adds to an already enjoyable experience.
Sunday was delayed by thunderstorms rolling through the area early. In fact, the entire crowd had to take shelter for approximately one hour as the worst of these passed through the area. Once the all clear was given, TSgt Blake once again came to the rescue and drove me back to my viewing spot in her trusty golf cart. Many of the performances were repeats from Saturday but due to the delay, most of the opening acts were shortened to some extent. Kent Pietsch took to the air first to determine the lingering effects of the heavy cloud cover that was still in the area. He reported a good deal of turbulence and dramatically kissed the ground upon landing. He later reported difficulty executing his pickup truck landing, but managed to execute it successfully once again. The para-drop was eliminated as the ceiling was not high enough to perform this safely but by the time the jet performances went up, the clouds had cleared sufficiently for them to perform as they had on Saturday. If anything, even higher humidity made the condensation plumes even more dramatic than yesterday. One unexpected bonus was getting to watch the World War II warbirds depart during the middle of the show.
Once again, the F-18 and the Thunderbirds thrilled the crowd with breathtaking maneuvers and high-speed passes. The Thunderbirds seemed to be keeping a little more spacing between aircraft today, probably a result of residual turbulence.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable show at one of the most important bases in the US Air Force. When the flying ended, I was able to drive off the base quickly and since I was headed away from the city of Omaha, I dealt with virtually no traffic, something I have never experienced following an air show of any size before. Once again, I would like to extend my thanks to TSgt Blake for her warm hospitality in making this a very enjoyable event; one which I am already anticipating attending again.
Tim Passmore is a Vietnam-era veteran of the US Air Force and a lifelong aviation enthusiast. He also covers auto racing and musical events.