REPORT: McConnell AFB Frontiers in Flight Airshow 2018

McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, saw their first air show in six years get off to a slow start due to uncooperative weather. Though I had arrived early on Friday to watch the practices, it was obvious that flying would be limited at best. Shortly after meeting an NCO from Public Affairs, we were informed that all flying was canceled for the day.

Saturday morning brought similar weather and questions about the ceiling. The announcer informed the crowd that a ceiling of at least 1000 feet was required for any flying and 1500 feet for the Thunderbirds.

The lack of flying allowed the crowd plenty of time to view the wide range of aircraft on static display. Giants like the C-5 Galaxy and the Boeing Dreamlifter sat alongside smaller aircraft such as a 1930s vintage Mignet “Pou-du-Cie” (Flying Flea), an early ultralight. Most of the usual static display aircraft you might expect at a US airshow of this size were present, including a B-52 Stratofortress, a C-17 Globemaster, F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-35A Lightnings. Perhaps the most unusual airplane on display was the Textron AirLand Scorpion. Although it looks like a cross between a T-38 Talon and an F-22, it is neither fighter nor trainer but a light attack aircraft.

By one o’clock, the cloud ceiling was hovering around the 100 foot mark, and a small handful of performers including Brian Correll, Kent Pietsch, and the Redline Airshows team were finally able to perform limited displays at around one o’clock. The announcer then called the crowd’s attention to a shadowy figure approaching through the cloud cover. The B-2A Spirit definitely looked the part as it seemed to materialize out of the clouds and made a single pass in front of the crowd. After the pass the announcer said that the B-2 pilot had reported an 800 foot ceiling which brought about another delay.

Later in the afternoon, Scott Francis and the wing walking team of Greg and Ashley Shelton were able to give low altitude shows but again were severely limited. By this time, even many of the most stubborn spectators had given up and left. The final act of the day was Tora Tora Tora, flying replica Zeros, Vals, and Kates (converted T-6 Texans), which look remarkably like the actual aircraft that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As this reenactment requires no high-altitude flying, they were able to put on their entire show. The “Japanese” airplanes make repeated passes down the runway accompanied by a well-timed pyrotechnic show. While the noise and confusion from the circling planes and accompanying explosions give at least a taste of what it would have been like to have been there on that Sunday morning in 1941, the noise made it hard to hear the narration at times.

On this Sunday morning, I found out that there had been a silver lining Friday’s cloudy conditions. The Thunderbirds’ VIP flight that had been postponed due to the weather was about to take place. Wichita police officer Alex Bieler was recognized for his actions that saved a woman’s life when he saw her run in flames from a burning building and used his hands to extinguish them. As the ground crew prepared him for the flight, he appeared slightly nervous but kept a smile on his face. Maj. Branden Felker, Advance Pilot and Narrator, served as his chauffeur for the flight. After hurtling the length of the runway just feet off the deck, Major Felker pulled up into a high G climb.

With the crowds now entering the show site, I had to head to Airshow Center to claim a my spot for the day. The show kicked off with a jump by the Patriot Parachute Team who had been brought in to replace the Army Golden Knights after the death of one of their team, Staff Sgt. Aliaksandr “Alex” Bahrytsevich, in a separate accident. Scott Francis accompanied the jump plane in his super nimble MXS and then gave a short preview of his upcoming performance.

By the time Brian Correll took to the air in his highly modified Pitts S2S, conditions were ideal for photographers, mostly blue sky with scattered white clouds. Correll put on a masterful flying display with hammerheads and tailslides aplenty. His performance was then “interrupted” by the familiar maroon and yellow Interstate Cadet of Kent Pietsch and his “I don’t know how to fly” act. After dropping parts along the runway and scraping a wingtip, he was once again able to land safely. He would return two more times, once to land atop a moving vehicle and again to do his beautiful deadstick routine.

Fans finally got to see a jet fly as Randy Ball put his MiG-17F through its paces. This ominous-looking plane produces a brilliant flame when its afterburner is engaged, which seemed to be the case for most of the demonstration.

McConnell then showcased two of their own as a KC-135 Stratotanker and a C-17 Globemaster performed a simulated refueling pass followed by the two lumbering heavyweights landed almost side on the twin runways. The C-17 also demonstrated its incredible stopping ability with thrust reversers, and even backed up a little.

The Redline Airshows team of Ken Rieder and wingman Jon Thocker then showed off their new airplanes: a pair of beautifully-painted RV-8s. Thocker explained that after eleven years of looking at the same paint scheme, he was ready for a change. After their flight, Thocker expressed amazement at the size of Sunday’s crowd, saying “that was the largest crowd density I’ve ever seen at an airshow”.

Jerry “Vlad” Conley then displayed his newest toy, Vampy “Too”; a de Havilland DH-115 Vampire, one of the first jet fighters. Vampy “Too” has a much bolder paint scheme than the team’s other Vampire and was very impressive against the scattered clouds & bright blue sky. Like all of these vintage jet acts, the maneuvers were limited to low-G rolls and photo passes.

While Tora Tora Tora had been very impressive under the heavy clouds on Saturday, the airplanes were even more stunning in the bright sunlight. By the time Scott Francis took off for his full show, however, the sun had moved almost overhead and would be a serious impairment to viewing the performers for the rest of the afternoon. Francis flies one of only twelve MXS aerobatic planes in existence. The aircraft is incredibly nimble, performing multiple snap rolls more than once that looked like the plane was out of control.

After another jump by the Patriots Parachute Team, the team of Greg and Ashley Shelton gave the crowd a glimpse of the past as Ashley started out riding the bracing between wings before climbing onto the top wing of their classic Stearman. She stayed there the rest of the flight through several maneuvers including a hammerhead turn.

Tim Tibo then showed off another early jet, a beautifully restored T-33 Shooting Star. Based on the Air Force’s first successful fighter jet, the P-80, the T-33 was the advanced trainer for many air forces for decades. Making several passes, Tibo gave the crowd a good look at the classic lines of this great old bird.

After a few passes by an A-10 Thunderbolt II (better known as the Warthog), it was time for the team most of the crowd had come to see. After the six pilots of the Thunderbirds marched out and were introduced, they began their customary ritual of donning their flight suits, boarding their aircraft, and getting strapped in, all synchronized almost perfectly with one another. At engine start and runup, the ground crew also go through carefully synchronized motions. When they finish their checks, the two ground crew of each plane march out in front and turn & face their pilot. Then the team leader, currently Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, taxied out followed by the rest of the team. As they depart, each pilot gestures to his ground crew, signaling the plane number and other more personal messages.

When the team flew, the sun had really become a problem, being directly behind the airplanes during much of their routine. Bad lighting did nothing to detract from their flying, however. The few signs of lack of practice time that were seen when they first resumed flying after the crash that claimed the life of #4, Maj. Stephen Del Bagno in April of this year were gone. The four planes of the diamond formation kept it tight and the timing on maneuvers like the aileron roll was very good.

One of the highlights of their routine was the high bomb burst cross. After climbing in tight formation, the four planes split in four directions ninety degrees apart. After flying away from each other while still at altitude, they then dive toward the ground and level out all aiming at a central meeting point over the runway. When they arrive at this spot close enough together to be caught with a zoom lens, it is always amazing. Another spectacular maneuver is their popular delta burst. Flying directly at the crowd all six planes suddenly break and separate with only #4, the slot position, continuing straight ahead over the crowd.

The personnel of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs team were extremely helpful and accomodating, especially 2nd Lt Daniel de La Fé and and Staff Sergeant David Bernal Del Agua. They really went out of their way to ensure all media folks got the best access possible. Thank you both and the rest of your crew.

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.