REPORT: Thunder Over Cedar Creek Lake 2017

Thunder Over Cedar Creek is a very different type of airshow. It takes place in the afternoon and evening over Cedar Creek Lake just outside of Athens, Texas, with fans lining the shores both from their homes and Pinnacle Golf & Boat club and by boat on Cedar Creek Lake, which was open to VIP ticket holders. A substantial number of spectators also took to the water to watch from their boats. The show was started by Randy Ball, the primary fundraiser for the Cedar Creek Veterans Foundation and known around the US for his exciting MiG-17 displays.

The evening before the show the pilots gather for dinner and story-swapping along with some of the organizers, sponsors and ticket holders for the Pilots’ Party. Several of the performers have been doing this show for years and donate their usual show fees to the charities. During the party, reporter Jennifer Shields had the opportunity to interview a couple of the performers about their experience in the business. Beth Jenkins was set to fly a B-25 and was also offering flights to fans with donations supporting the charities. She told TIF that she had fallen in love with flying when her father took her up in a Grumman Cheetah for her 21st birthday. Jennifer then had a long conversation with Jacquie B, who launched her aerobatic career at age 50 after she got her first taste of aerobatics flying with a friend. She flies an Extra 300, but said she would love to have the chance to fly a DC-3, an aircraft her father built when he worked at McDonnell Douglas. She had advice for girls who want to get into what is still a male-dominated profession: be a damn good student, be good at what you do and they will respect you.

On the morning of the day of the show some of the pilots gathered at the Athens Airport to give fans a chance to see the aircraft up close and talk with the pilots. Unfortunately, just after 9:00, it started to rain. Within an hour a severe thunderstorm moved in and the aircraft were quickly moved into hangers. This gave Jennifer a chance to interview Conrad Jett (no kidding, that’s his name!) who was set to fly a N25-4 Stearman, an aircraft that was built from the ground up entirely of spare parts. It’s a stock Stearman in the original configuration with the 220 horsepower engine that was the primary trainer for airmen in WWII. Jett, who is a Commemorative Air Force volunteer pilot and operational B-52 pilot, describes it as extremely overbuilt and says it’s flying by the seat of the pants.

As show time approached the weather started to clear, but by this time the show organizers realized that they would not be able to bring in ticket holders to the VIP section set up at the Cedar Creek Country Club because the parking area was so saturated that it was unusable. So, the show was officially cancelled – sort of. Most of the pilots decided that since they were already there, they would go ahead and perform. Air boss Russell Royce briefed the pilots about the revamped line-up and advised pilots to use the lighted pool at the country club as a reference to line up to the box – that’s something you don’t hear every day! During the briefing, he discussed how the pilots would fly into and exit the box, holding patterns and emergency procedures. The pilots were asked if they could possibly do a flyby of a nearby home for children with special needs as a special treat for them.

We were lucky enough to enjoy the show from a private boat dock, sitting beside the air boss as he communicated with pilots coming from two different airfields (Athens and Tyler). Beth Jenkins in the B-25 Mitchell and Mike Anderson in a P-40 Warhawk started the show with several passes including some low flypasts and opposing manneuvers. This particular B-25 was built during the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, which marks its 75th anniversary this year. The B-25 carries a crew of 5 and has a range of about 1,300 miles with a maximum speed of about 275mph. The P-40 was the third most numerous American fighter of WWII with a top speed over 300mph thanks to its 1360 horsepower Allison V-1710 engine. It has an armament of six 50-caliber wing guns and can carry up to 1,500 pounds of bombs. Next up was the N2S-4 Stearman, piloted by Condrad Jett mentioned earlier. The Stearman is a beautiful and graceful plane, powered by a Continental R 670-5, 7 cylinder engine. There is nothing like the site of this plane silhouetted against the oranges and yellows of the western evening sky.

Following this, we were treated to not one, not two, but three planes in the sky. An A-1 Skyraider, an O-2 Skymaster and an L-19 Bird Dog. The L-19 was a last minute addition to the lineup; when a couple of the performers weren’t able to make it in, Conrad, the Stearman pilot, contacted a friend who flew in with the L-19. All three pilots gave us several passes providing views of both the tops and bottoms of the aircraft. The A-1 Skyraider saw service from the 1940s all the way up to the 1970s and was considered a workhorse during the Vietnam War. It saw service with the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force in addition to several foreign air arms. In addition to providing close ground support during the Vietnam War, Navy Skyraiders shot down two North Vietnamese Air Foce MiG-17 fighters. New To Thunder Over Cedar Creek Lake this year was a Cessna O-2 Skymaster. This aircraft is unique in that is has an engine in the front as well as in the back. The O-2 is the military version of the push-pull, twin engine Cessna 337, which was used for forward air control by the US military from the 1960s up until 2010. 20 examples were also used by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, where they served for two decades. The Bird Dog is another military example of a civilian Cessna design – the L-19 was based off a development of the popular Cessna 170 and was used in the liaison and observation role from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.

The aircraft were then joined by a Cessna A-37 Dragonfly piloted by Eric Stroud for some high speed passes over the lake to the thrill of the boaters. The A-37 is a light attack aircraft developed from the T-37 Tweet trainer, upgraded with stronger wings, a General Electric GAU-2B/A 7.62mm Gatling machine gun and larger, self-healing fuel tanks, hence also being known as the “Super Tweet”.

Next was something neither of us has ever seen (as well as a first for This is Flight), a downed airman demonstration provided by a Grumman HU-16 Albatross. A volunteer playing the airman was ferried out into the lake and left to float while holding a flare to guide the Albatross in. The Albatross did a few slow passes before landing on the water and maneuvering into place to rescue the downed airman. The lucky “victim” was an employee of the country club. This year was supposed to see two Albatrosses at the show, but unfortunately because of the weather, one was not able to make it in.

The Albatross stayed on the lake to allow Jacquie B to wow the crowd with some nifty aerobatics in her Extra 300. The skies had cleared by this time and she made full use of the entire aerobatic box. She threw in a few extra stunts that made it seem like she was having a great time and didn’t want to leave. With the downed airman safely on-board, the Albatross then took off and did a couple more passes before flying away into the setting sun. Stephen Covington continued the aerobatic theme in his Pitts Raptor, which is an aerobatic jewel. Its unique metallic paint job and zippy maneuverability really impressed the crowd. Stephen was a very busy pilot this weekend as he was scheduled to be at Athens Airport in the morning and then fly out to perform at another airshow before flying back for his evening performance at Cedar Creek Lake.

As the sun was setting Randy Ball was joined by two other MiG-17s in an impressive demonstration of speed. Yes, you read that correctly, THREE MiG-17s! This is the first time we have seen multiple MiGs and getting to see them kick in the afterburners against an evening sky was very impressive. Because of the unique venue the performances don’t happen across an airfield, and you feel they are close enough to see the pilots’ faces as they zip past. On the lowest  passes, you could even see the afterburners reflection on the water. As the website for the air show says: feel your bones shake when the afterburner lights up! That could not be any more true.

The finale timed to occur at sunset was the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team flying four AT-6 Texans. This team has been flying the “Pilot Makers” for over 25 years, demonstrating precision flying and aerobatic skill. The team demonstrated the precision and capabilities of this beautiful plane with loops, precision formations, twists and turns. The aircraft flown by Aeroshell are powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 AN-1 radial engines, the roar of which really contributes to the spectacle – the sound of these aircraft flying so close was amazing.

Thunder Over Cedar Creek Lake is a great little airshow that many people probably don’t know about. Its location provides opportunities for unique demonstrations and views not seen at a traditional airshow, and the hospitality from the airshow staff is second to none. Despite bad weather and some unfortunate scratches this show was definitely one we want to see again.

Jennifer Shields (text) and David Leadingham (text & photos) are based in Louisiana, USA. You can see more of David’s work at Leadingham Photography.