REVIEW: Thunder Over Louisville 2024


The Thunder Over Louisville Air Show and Fireworks kick off the Kentucky Derby Festival, a two-week-long party, leading up to the Kentucky Derby. What started decades ago as a fireworks show has morphed into a powerhouse 7-hour event that has something from everyone.

The show kicked off at 3pm with a four-ship of F-16C Fighting Falcons from the 180th Fighter Wing out of Toledo, OH. This first set of aircraft also sets one of the themes for the show; local ties. Lt Col Drew Hauber, a New Albany, Indiana native, leads the “Stingers”.

UPS Airlines, also based in Louisville, brought their newest aircraft, the 747-8F through the aerobatic box performing both a flaps down / gear down slow pass and a fast past. It is a wonderful showpiece as well as a workhorse with a max takeoff weight close to 1,000,000 lbs (453,500 kg). While the 747 is the newest addition to the UPS fleet, the MD-11F is currently being retired after decades of service; I’d love to see the MD make its way in front of the Thunder Over Louisville crowds next year. Talk about a sendoff!

Most of the military aircraft not from official demonstration teams will make flat passes from east to west, with the occasional west-to-east pass. The Indiana side is a smidge backlit but you are rewarded with aircraft top sides and a view of the Louisville Skyline for the fireworks. The official demonstration teams that can use all corners of the aerobatic box, particularly the northeast corner, help produce some great golden hour images. The first of these was the EA-18G Growler Airshow Team based out of NAS Whidbey Island, WA, making their presence undeniably known. This two-ship Team executed an extraordinarily photogenic flight profile, especially for those on the Indiana side, with the low passes seeming to favor that bank of the river.

The local Kentucky Air National Guard 123rd Airlift Wing brought their C-130J-30 Super Hercules, which we saw multiple times throughout the show with a few surprises. The Super Hercules served as a jumper platform twice, participated in a four-ship diamond flyby (new for this year), and – my favorite – performed a lengthy flare drop over the Ohio River. Jumpers from both the 123rd and the US Air Force “Wings of Blue” both participated thanks to a lift from the Super Hercules, with the 123rd jumpers landing in the Ohio River, which is not necessarily new, however, the river conditions were treacherous; the current was strong and the water was muddy. Wings of Blue, who were making their first appearance at Thunder Over Louisville, landed on terra firma on the Great South Lawn.

This brings us to several rotary assets, starting with a US Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon from MH-15, Nofolk, VA – one of my personal favorites. This large helicopter has a well-rounded capability of countermine, passenger and cargo duties. The Sea Dragon’s presence in the sky is massive. In years past, we saw this helicopter work both east and west sides of each shore, but this time, law enforcement boats anchored on the northeast side of the bridge seemingly prevented the usual low-level flybys. Next, UH-60s from the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade of the US Army, based in Frankford, KT, and the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in Louisville, teamed up to demonstrate an infiltration and exfiltration exercise in the Ohio River. This was one of “sportier” helicopter demos; while one Blackhawk was recovering the swimmers, another helo provided overwatch low to the water at high bank angles.

VAW-120 brought E-2C Hawkeyes based out of Norfolk NAS, Norfolk VASN for a two-ship flyby, followed by several civilian performers: Britt Lincoln in the Extra 300SC, with one of the most spirited aerobatic profiles of the day, and Louisville native Nick Coleman with his clipped wing Taylorcraft. Then, a return to military heavy metal with a B-52H Stratofortress from the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, LA, which graced the skies with several passes both in clean and dirty configurations. I don’t recall getting a flaps-down, gear-down pass from the BUFF in recent history.

Bourbon Flight consisted of two Yakovlev Yak-52s out of Bowman Field, Louisville. The team executed several sweeping passes along the Indiana and Kentucky shoreline. For Louisville locals, keep an eye out for these aircraft as it’s not uncommon to see them out and about. Their distinct paint schemes and aircraft shape make them easily recognizable.

USAF F-16 Viper Demo Team from the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, SC, brought the heat with the venerable F-16C Fighting Falcon. Louisville is a great place to demonstrate the nimbleness and agility of an aircraft given the unique constraints, with mid- and high-rise buildings on either side of the shore, and multiple bridges along with river with obstructions as high as 270ft. It’s a challenging environment but Capt. Taylor Hiester dealt with it with ease and showed the hundreds of thousands of people lining the shore what the F-16C is all about. She then formed up with P-51D “Happy Jack’s Go Buggy” for the USAF Heritage Flight. The P-51D would fly one solo pass after the Heritage Flight.

The 924th Fighter Group out of Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ brought two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in tight formation. Given this is the last year for the A-10 Demo team, I would have loved to have seen Louisville on the demonstration team schedule, but was happy to see the Hawg another time.

Thunder over Louisville welcomed multiple C-17s this year. Participating units include the 445th Airlift Wing based in Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, and the 97th Airlift Wing based out of Altus AFB, OK. The 445th has supported Thunder Over Louisville for many years and is always a welcome sight. New this year was a KC-135 Stratotanker C-17 Aerial refueling demonstration from Altus.

New to Thunder was the A400M from Lufttransportgeschwader 62 from Wunstorf, Germany. The German Air Force has been expanding its airshow commitments over the past few years and that has included several A400M appearances in the USA, tied into the squadron’s training activities.

The 14th Flying Training Wing out of Columbus AFB, MS, brought two T-1A Jayhawks to the show flying high, flat passes. The first pass was executed while in formation while the second was a high-speed pass.

Mr. Mulligan, a replica Howard DGA-6, flew at Thunder for the first time. I was unfamiliar with the aircraft and the story behind it but it’s rich in aviation history. This replica was built by Jim Younkin of Younkin Airshow fame and was flown by its owner, Doug Rozendaal of Mason City, IA.

Smoke On Aviation, a group of local pilots (some of whom even built their own aircraft) performed several passes in a nine-ship formation of Van’s RV kit planes over the crowds lining the shore. The group supports the community through outreach efforts and formation flights where you might not expect one.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773 based out of Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ, brought a UH-1Y Venom and two AH-1Z Cobra helicopters to Louisville. This trio flew many low passes in front of and along the crowd line and skyline. The head-on view from the Cobra is one that I’d only welcome at an air show – it is quite a mean-looking machine.

Jeff Gordon and his customised Carbon Cub, a perennial Thunder Over Louisville staple, are based out of Bowman Field, Louisville. Jeff does a great job demonstrating the capability of the aircraft; it is slow and graceful as he skims the floats just above the river’s surface, then punchy and powerful as he climbs over the tops of the bridges. The crowd waits in anticipation to see if he will fly under the bridge. Spoiler: He won’t, but it makes it fun anyway. Jeff’s flight sets the tempo for the rest of the night as the airshow starts to wind down and we prepare for fireworks.

As dusk turns into night, let’s take a break and talk about dress because it gets a little complicated. The key is to dress for multiple seasons. Given it is early spring in the Ohio Valley, the weather can be quite dramatic and often severe. We’ve lucked out many years in a row now to have great weather for the show as long as you keep in mind the temperature changes and wind. I usually tell people to bring clothes for three seasons. At the start of the show, I would have been fine in shorts and a T-shirt. By the end of the show, I had five layers on my upper body and a toboggan on my head. The wind and proximity to the cold river water have a chilling effect that is quite prominent as the sun goes down.

There were two more aerobatic acts after dark. The first was Jerry Kerby in his RV-8A “Wild Blue”, followed by Matt Younkin in the Beech 18. This was followed by the return of the drone show, which was a great compliment to the fireworks, and then the fireworks themselves. As one of North America’s largest firework shows, it continually exceeds expectations with results you can see, hear and feel. This was was no exception.

There are multiple options to enjoy Thunder Over Louisville, including free viewing locations along both sides of the Ohio River as well as paid, premium locations that include food and drink. My personal preference would be to seek out one of the paid locations. As someone with a young family, ease of access to amenities, a short walk, and the ability to come and go are important. With that being said, there are plenty of no or low-cost options with great viewing for both the airshow and fireworks.

Thunder Over Louisville is my “home” airshow. I have great memories dating back decades ago when I was a kid. Making great memories was no exception again this year.

Views for the show were provided courtesy of the Sheraton Louisville Riverside Hotel.