July 22nd and 23rd saw the bi-annual Air Expo take place at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma WA. Weather throughout the weekend was changeable with bright sunshine on Saturday and low cloud and showers on Sunday.
As always, the Pacific Northwest’s largest airshow attracted a wide variety acts. Military highlights in the flying program included the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber 'Spirit of Ohio' and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Viper West from Hill AFB, UT flew a brief display before joining up with a P-51 Mustang for the Heritage Flight formation sequence. The show was closed on both days by the Thunderbirds who flew their full show on Saturday but were limited to their low show on Sunday by low cloud.
Civilian acts included the Smoke-n-Thunder Jet Car, and the Patriots Jet Team. The nearby Olympic Flight Museum put on a Vietnam re-enactment complete with UH-1 Huey, AH-1 Cobra and Cessna Bird dog. Sadly the A-1 Skyraider also due to take part went ‘tech’ on Sunday and landed without taking part in the display. Vicky Benzing and Greg ‘Wired’ Colyer in his T-33 also flew. Like many air shows, the weekend didn’t pass without a few hiccups. Saturday’s better weather and flybys by the B-2 & B-52 attracted an estimated 200,000 visitors. This large number resulted in excessively long lines for the on-base parking lot and then again for the bag checks at security. In an effort to overcome these lines the Air Force had provided free shuttles and parking at off base locations. Those that took advantage of these facilities saved quite a bit of time getting into the show. As already mentioned, the Sunday show was plagued by typical Pacific Northwest weather. The grey skies and rain caused the show to be halted at one point due to the low visibility and rain. One positive of all this moisture in the air was the large vapor clouds generated by the Rockwell B-1B Lancer as it ripped up the Tacoma skies. Even with bad weather there were still around 50,000 in attendance. The lower number meant that lines were to get in were far easier to get through.
Each day the show opened with a skydiver jumping out of the back of a C-17. Once the parachute was deployed a 300 square foot American Flag attached to the airman’s leg was unfurled. The entire decent was accompanied by a highly emotional rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.From there we had the ‘Herb and Ditto Airshows’ display. Herb flew his T-28 named ‘Ditto’ through an impressive display. Of note was the excellent smoke generation systems on each wingtip of the Trojan.Next up was Bill Braack in his Les Schwab Smoke-n-Thunder Jet Car in a race against John Klatt flying his Air National Guard sponsored Panzl S330. Bill would use the immense power of the car’s jet engine to win the race on both days. A police speed camera mounted at the end of the runway clocked the jet car at over 330 MPH just before the braking parachutes were released.
Greg Colyer was next in his T-33 ‘Ace Maker.’ Though forced to fly a low show on both days Greg flew an excellent program leaving sweeping smoke trails in his wake. It was then time for the first Military act of the day. The US Army ‘Golden Knights’ parachute display team jumped from their own Fokker F-27 Friendship. Once safely on the ground the Golden Knights were followed by the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III. The C-17A demo team for this year are stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and they flew one of their own aircraft across for the display.
The Patriots then taxied out, their six L-39’s looking sharp as always especially in Saturday's bright blue skies. These guys are always a pleasure to see at any show! On Saturday they were followed by flybys by the Buff and then the B-2 bombers. Both aircraft incorporated these airshow appearances as part of training missions from their respective home bases in Louisiana and Missouri.
Vicky Benzing would be next to take to the McChord skies with a display of high G aerobatics in her beautiful purple Vesto Extra 300S. From there the North American P-51 Mustang ‘Little Witch’ piloted by Lee Lauderback put on a very impressive display using the power of the Mustang’s Rolls Royce Merlin to great effect. Sadly, the amazing sound of this vintage engine was all but drowned out by the commentator and loud music! Lee was followed by a small taste of pre 2012 airshow with the always phenomenal F-16C Viper West Demonstration Team. The Viper is once again piloted by Garret ‘Mace’ Dover who is now in his second year of flying for the team. Lee would then join up with Mace to perform the always popular and thought provoking Heritage Flight sequence. Following the Heritage Flight Tim Weber went up in his Geico Extra 300 where he would also take on Bill Braack in the Smoke-n-Thunder Jet Car.
For many in the audience it was then time for the premier act of the day. For the first time since 2008 the United States Air Force Thunderbirds took to the skies over Joint Base Lewis-McChord. and as always fans were wowed by tight formations, knife edge passes and oh-so-close crossovers at show center. The sneak pass, as always caught members of the unsuspecting audience by surprise. This is the first of a four week tour for the Thunderbirds in the Northwestern United States Region ending with the team displaying in Anchorage Alaska.