The Thunder Over Louisville airshow and fireworks display kicks off the two weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. For some, the fireworks are the main attraction. For others, the lure of fast and loud military jet aircraft or aerobatic performances are the draw. Regardless, huge crowds descend on Louisville Kentucky for this one-day event. Unlike most airshows that last the entire weekend, this airshow is Saturday only, but that doesn’t stop it from pulling in top-notch demonstration teams.
The United States Army Parachute Team, more commonly known as the Golden Knights, kicked off the airshow with a single jumper followed up by the rest of the team. The team lands just on the south side of Interstate 64 so seeing them touch terra firma for the landing is difficult from the Indiana side where I was located. After the jumpers are on the ground, the C-31A Troopship gets a chance to make a few passes through the air box.
Once the Golden Knights had cleared the box, four F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 180th Fighter Wing flew through in formation. Each aircraft proceeded to make a climbing pass in front of the crowds lining both sides of the river. Next up, a Kentucky Air National Guard C-130 Hercules made a fast pass before setting up to release jumpers. In the past, they released what appeared to be faux wooden crates full of gear over the river for a boat to pick up. My guess is that the river current made it too dangerous this year to release the crates within the designated air box, so they released jumpers with a landing site several thousand feet upstream.
Once the jumpers were below the height of the bridge, Billy Werth was cleared into the air box to start his performance in his Pitts SC-2. Billy knows how to make an entrance! He started his act smoke on with an inverted flat spin from several thousand feet above show center. If you’ve read my airshow reviews before, it’s pretty clear I have a slight bias to military jet aircraft. With that being said, I think everyone can appreciate the skill and practice required to execute Billy’s routine. Several times throughout the act, I would try to figure out the control inputs required to make the aircraft do what I just witnessed. By the time I gave up, Billy was four to five more maneuvers into his demonstration.
Billy’s Pitts has a wingspan around six meters (20 feet); the next aircraft was the exact opposite of the Pitts but just as great to see in action: a B-52 Stratofortress from the 93rd Bomb Squadron flew a dirty pass with flaps, slats and gear extended, followed by a clean pass with a simulated bomb drop call out to demonstrate what the onboard crew does during a bombing mission.
After the B-52 cleared the airspace, the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team were cleared to start their performance. The yellow aircraft popped against the prevailing blue skies and the roar of the radial engines is always a welcome sound. Their demonstration is dynamic and keeps the crowd entertained as the team flies both formation and solo components.
Like the Harvard, the next two aircraft also came from Canada and are used in a training role. A RCAF CT-155 Hawk flew a clean and dirty pass, followed by a RCAF CT-142 Gonzo, which flew similar flat passes in clean and dirty configurations. As you might imagine, the name Gonzo was earned by the long nose that houses radar equipment. The Royal Canadian Air Force also brought a pair of CF-18 Hornets to Thunder Over Louisville. While they didn’t fly an acrobatic demonstration, the CF-18 is always a welcome sight.
Next up was the KC Flight Formation Team, consisting of various models of Vans RV aircraft. The fact that a civilian could easily buy or build one of these aircraft adds a cool dynamic to their performance, but don’t let that take away from the skills required to fly their demonstration. Flying in formation – let alone one as large as eight aircraft – takes skill and practice. While they did rehearse on practice day, they didn’t reveal their entire act; towards the end of their Thunder Over Louisville performance, they turned on red and blue smoke from their wingtips along with the existing white smoke. Their performance was a nice surprise and visually appealing against the blue sky.
Immediately following the KC demonstration a C-17A Globemaster III out of Wright Patterson AFB wowed the crowd with a nice banking pass. The Globemaster was followed by a T-6 Texan II which made a single pass through the box. The C-17 was a tough act for the T-6 to follow for a relatively small but critical training aircraft.
The E-3 Sentry was up next. The E-3, also known as the AWACS, is unique in that it has a very large rotating radar above the fuselage. I really enjoyed watching both passes and I am happy to report the radar was rotating on both occasions.
For me the A-10 Thunderbolt II demonstration was the highlight of the show. While the A-10 has participated in the Heritage flight circuit over the years, the A-10 Demonstration Team was reactivated this year after a 7 year hiatus for the 2018 season. Thunder Over Louisville was the fourth performance of the team’s season. Louisville is the perfect venue to demonstration the Warthogs capability; the air box is slightly smaller than at larger shows and the backdrop of city and bridge accentuated the performance capabilities of the aircraft. Towards the end of the demonstration, the A-10 formed up with a P-51 for the Heritage Flight. Both birds were able to make several solo passes, but the P-51 did not perform a demonstration on its own.
Matt Younkin’s first performance of the day immediately followed the Heritage Flight. Matt really knows how to lay the smoke down in his Twin Beech 18. His performance is hard to describe in words other than “WOW!” He flies incredibly low, performing graceful rolls and loops.
A KC-135 Stratotanker from Grissom Air Force Base took over the box after Matt exited. The KC-135 flew flat passes as you would expect from a tanker but we got to see it up close with the boom down and in landing configuration. It was followed by a new UPS Boeing 747-8F, which was the largest aircraft ever to fly at Thunder Over Louisville. Despite being the longest commercial aircraft type in the world at 76 meters (250 feet) the 747-8 is also incredibly quiet
Once the 747-8F started back to the airport, four F-15 Eagles from the 355th Fighter Squadron entered the box. The F-15 is one loud aircraft and the crowd loved every second of their two passes. Whilst this may have left the crowd wanting more, Thunder Over Louisville has not seen F-15 participation in several years and it was nice to have the Eagle back.
Thunder Over Louisville attendees were in for a real treat next with the F/A-18 “Tac Demo” from the US Navy. Not only is the demo fantastic, it might be rare this year, with only four demonstrations approved for this season at the time of writing. I was thankful to see them here are they put on a great show, albeit not the team’s full aerobatic routine. The premise of the Tac Demo is to display the F/A-18’s flight envelope – I’ve seen several and the demonstration has yet to lose its luster.
An AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey demonstration came next. While polar opposites of the F/A-18 the audience could certainly grasp the utility of both helicopters during the demo. The AH-1 worked the river banks with several low pass ending with a quick assent while the Huey canvased the shoreline. The setting sun and skyline made for a beautiful backdrop. An MH-60 Seahawk helicopter followed the Cobra and Huey.
At this point the show transitioned to dusk and night performances with Billy Werth, the Canadian Harvards, KC Flight, and Matt Younkin all performing again. Matt’s performance in darkness was a sight to see. His aircraft is lit with numerous white and red lights that accent both his aircraft and the smoke.
I can’t talk Thunder Over Louisville without talking fireworks. Thunder Over Louisville is one of the largest fireworks displays in North America. Two barges are filled full of fireworks along with one of the bridges. It’s something to see, hear, and feel. My view for the airshow and fireworks was provided courtesy of Sheraton Louisville Riverside Hotel. The staff was very friendly and you are not going to find a more conveniently located hotel on the Indiana side for the festivities.
Want a private airshow? Too good to be true? I can’t quite promise you that, but I’ll let you in on Thunder Over Louisville practice day on the afternoon before the main event. My estimate is that only a few thousand people watch. When you compare it to the hundreds of thousands that line the banks on Saturday, practice day really is like a private air show, but here’s the catch: not all teams practice and the schedule is flexible. Don’t expect back-to-back demonstrations towards the end of practice, but I can assure you it is well worth your time.
Jacob Rutledge is an IT professional by day, aviation and photography enthusiast by night. Jacob keeps his eyes on the sky from the Midwest US.