Most readers are probably aware that the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds suffered the tragic loss of their number four “slot” pilot Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno in a training accident on April 5th. Maj. Nick Krajicek, who flew this position the last two seasons for the team, has been brought back to fly this spot. Even though he has flown this slot position many times in airshows and practices over the last two years or more, this is still precise team flying that requires countless hours of practice to develop the split-second timing required, and even a veteran pilot needs time to reacquaint himself with the job.
Following an appearance at the United States Air Force Academy graduation and AirPower Over Hampton Roads the week before, the Thunderbirds made their second full air show appearance since the accident at Cannon Air Force Base’s 2018 Airshow, Space & Tech Fest: Air Commandos on the High Plains.
Friday’s practice was not open to the media as is often the case, so I took the opportunity to shoot the flying from just outside the perimeter fence. I had long wanted to shoot many of their maneuvers from a similar angle, and this spot was almost perfect. I positioned myself on what I calculated to be the approach path for maneuvers such as the low delta burst; from this position I was able to see and shoot that and other maneuvers from a totally different perspective.
Aircraft on static display included a Pilatus PC-12, a vintage TBM Avenger, an A-10 Warthog, a B-1 Lancer, C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster, an F-16 Fighting Falcon in its regular Air Force color scheme, a “new” T-6 Texan II trainer, a UH-60 Black Hawk and a T-38 Talon, as well as several Civil Air Patrol aircraft.
Following the flag jump by SOCOM Para Commandos, the jet fire truck Aftershock warmed up the crowd (literally) as it passed down the flight line. When driver Mark Smith hit the afterburners, the heat became momentarily uncomfortable.
The flying was kicked off by an MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This was followed by an impressive capability exercise by the 27th SOW involving a C-130 Hercules and a pair of CV-22 Ospreys. In a simulated pilot rescue, the C-130 inserted a team to protect the pilot and provide cover for extraction by a CV-22.
The aerobatic portion of the show began with the beautifully restored T-33 Shooting Star trainer flown by Fowler “Big Dog” Carey. As was pointed out by the announcer, the Thunderbirds never flew this particular aircraft, but it still looks great in this color scheme. Carey performed several passes, but maneuvers were limited to slow rolls giving the crowd a great look at the entire aircraft.
Next up was Gary Rower in his brilliantly painted Super Stearman. Rower really puts this classic plane through the paces, performing all the climbs and loops one would expect of a smaller aerobatic plane. His favorite maneuver appears to be the hammerhead, as he performed this several times and made it look easy. Rower was followed by an immaculately restored warbird, the A-26 “Lady Liberty”, which performed several slow passes for the crowd.
Greg Howell was next in his immaculate MiG-17. This is a virtual twin of the aircraft that many airshow fans in the U.S. have seen Randy Ball fly. One of the most impressive features of a performance by this aircraft is the incredible trail of fire created by the afterburner – it can be seen behind modern jets when the conditions are right, but this thing looks like a flamethrower in broad daylight. Howell put on an impressive show which featured the speed and power of this nimble little aircraft that gave US pilots of the day fits when it first appeared.
It was the next aircraft that first brought the Cannon airshow to my attention. Every year, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s demo team comes up with a visually stunning paint scheme for their CF-18 Hornet display jet. This year’s colors celebrate the 60th Anniversary of NORAD. Hornets always put on an astounding performance at airshows, and this brilliant paint scheme provided a real treat for the eyes against a partially clouded sky.
The one drawback to the show was the lack of humidity in the arid High Plains of eastern New Mexico. One of the highlights of most jet performances are the vortices and clouds of vapor visible during high-G and high-speed maneuvers, but this requires moisture in the air. Fortunately, this minor shortcoming really only applies to photographs and did nothing to diminish the show that Captain Stefan “Porcelain” Porteous put on for the crowd. As an added bonus, the crowd was treated to a scene reminiscent of “North by Northwest”, as Porteous taxied out with the Stearman of Gary Rower performing in the background.
Prior to the show, I had noticed that the Thunderbirds‘ two-seat trainer was sitting in the spot where number four – the aircraft flown by slot pilot Maj. Nick Krajicek – would normally occupy. This aircraft is Thunderbird number seven and is used to give VIP flights prior to airshows. When the team taxied out for their show, Major Krajicek was in the trainer which now bore the usual numeral “4” on the intake.
Since the closest I have ever come to flying an F-16 is sitting in one, I cannot comment on the difference that flying with that belly tank might cause, but Maj. Krajicek performed like the highly skilled veteran that he is. Most of the crowd probably never noticed the difference as the team put on a sharp performance. The timing was off by a fraction of a second during the bon ton roulle, but otherwise the team looked to be in mid-season form for most of the show.
During Friday’s practice, the timing of the low bomb burst across had been off noticeably. Following the final maneuver, the team rejoined to practice the high bomb burst and cross at least one more time. That dedication to their art was demonstrated by a near-perfect cross on Saturday.
The entire team deserves recognition, congratulations, and appreciation for their dedication and professionalism in getting back into the air following the tragic loss of Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno, but an extra pat on the back goes out to “Khan”, #4 Maj. Nick Krajicek, who made flying the ungainly looking two-seater look like a breeze. I salute you all.
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. The Author wishes to thank John Rebello of the Public Affairs office who provided great assistance, both before and after the airshow in clarifying various details for this account.