2002 NAS/JRB Willow Grove Open House and Air Fest

 

September 13-15, 2002

Airshow report written on September 15, 2002.

This is always the one airshow every year that I look forward to. NAS/JRB Willow Grove is only an hour away from where I live and this year was my ninth time attending the show, having attended the show each year since 1992. As with their past shows, they have had some of the best performers on the circuit and occasionally, a jet team. This year was no exception. The Thunderbirds were the highlight, followed by the Golden Knights, the F/A-18 Hornet, F-15 Eagle from Eglin AFB, a MAGTF demo, P-3C Orion flyby, and numerous civillian performers like Sean Tucker, Matt Chapman, the Red Barons, Frank Ryder, the Shockwave, Manfred Radius, Bill Leff, Allen Smith, Herb Baker, and Kirk Wicker's barnstorming. Friday's shows were mainly practice and arrival day for statics that didn't show up on Thursday and a twilight show that was open to the public.

While travelling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west towards Willow Grove, you could see the Thunderbirds practicing. Only when you got off the Turnpike, paid your toll (or EZ-PASS it), and get onto 611, you hear the Thunderbirds scream over you as they practice. I happened to be at Route 611 and Maple Avenue (the furthest south part of the base) when I caught the delta pass in review. That was the LOWEST I ever saw them practice! They practiced until around 4:45 PM with all six planes, then letting the solos land. The diamond performed a lot of their maneuvers, namely performing the arrowhead, the line-abreast loop/break, the bomb burst, and some bottom-up review passes numerous times. After all of the Thunderbirds landed, including #8, the runway and show area was open to arrivals.

I happened to be touring the static display during most of the arrivals, but what I did catch arriving was a T-6A Texan II from Randolph AFB, a CH-53E Super Stallion, AH-1W Super Cobra, Beechcraft Bonanza 35, Yak-52, T-28 Trojan, and an arrival show of another Pennsylvania ANG A-10 and a T-45 Goshawk.

Those aircraft joined some of the larger displays such as a Wisconsin ANG KC-135R Stratotanker, Berlin Airlift C-54 Skymaster, a C-130 Hercules from Willow Grove, a KC-130 from Stewart ANGB in New York, FedEX 727-200, C-9B Skytrain from VR-52 at Willow Grove, a UC-12B Huron from NAS Oceana or Willow Grove, two T-38 Talons - one from Vance AFB in Oklahoma and the other from Moody AFB in Georgia. Also from Vance AFB was a T-1A Jayhawk and from Columbus AFB in Mississippi - a T-37 Tweet. Helicopters were also abundant and included the Canadian version of the Sea King helicopter, an HH-60A Jayhawk, CH-47 Chinook, and the DVHAA's Huey as well as two other choppers they had in their hangar, along with their Me262, F9F Panther, S-2 Tracker, and FJ-3 Fury. Two P-3C Orions were on display. I believe they were both from Willow Grove, but I'm not too sure. Most of the private aircraft on display included a few Cessnas, a Piper, a pair of Katanas, a glider, The warbird statics included at least three T-34 Mentors, a TBM Avenger, a Staggerwing, Fw149, B-25J Mitchell Briefing Time, B-25J Mitchell Panchito (parked more towards the hot ramp), two SNJ Texans (one belonging to Kevin Russo), Harvard, two similar aircraft I can't identify, UC-78 Bobcat, and another twin-engine warbird I can't identify as I'm writing this.

Friday night was the night for the Thunderbirds Reception, held in Hangar 175. That was the performer's hangar and Frank Ryder had his Oreck XL Cyclone parked in there, as well as Kirk Wicker's Stearman, an A-4 Skyhawk, and Jim Beasley's P-51D Mustang Frenesi. I didn't take any part of it since it was during the twilight show but with my pass, I was able to take a peek at what they had there. There were literally enough seats there to fill up to 1,000 people, a private "concert", food included Hatfield meat, what looked like you could have a roast beef sandwich if you wanted to, the LARGEST cake I ever saw - all dedicated to the Thunderbirds. It must've been at least three feet wide by five feet in length! I didn't get it on video but I sure got a picture of it! It was big enough to feed 1,000 people! And there was a second cake that I didn't get to see. Drinks that were provided included a LOT of Coke, tons of bottles of Dasani water, and I think beer was also served.

Heading towards the hot ramp, you could see performers' planes like Matt Chapman's CAP231EX - with a new paint job and sponsor! Sean Tucker had his Oracle Challenger out on static display and I got a good look at it. What a plane! I don't know how long he's had it on the plane but I noticed that on the strut that he's got a US flag with Todd Beamer's "Let's Roll" on it as well. "Ditto", the T-28 Trojan flown by Herb Baker was also on display as well as Manfred Radius' Salto sailplane and a Piper Pawnee being used as the tow plane. The Golden Knights had their C-31 up close and the two F-15 demo planes were on display next to three F/A-18 Hornets from VMFA-321 at Andrews AFB. The single-ship demo Hornets included one from VFA-131 and the other from VFA-136. Several Cobras, a Huey, and Super Stallions were among the rest of the military on the hot ramp. Warbirds were also there as well, including a P-40 Warhawk, P-47D Thunderbolt, Bill Leff's AT-6 Texan, Ian Groom's Su-31, and the Shockwave jet truck. Panchito was in the area of the hot ramp as well as two F-16C Fighting Falcons from Cannon AFB in New Mexico.

The twilight show was advertised to officially start at 7:00 PM and there was some flying before then. Matt Chapman and Sean Tucker performed before that time as well as the P-47D Thunderbolt providing a few passes. Sean Tucker's practice performance (well, it really wasn't a practice since he was listed on the schedule to fly) included what appeared to be a new maneuver - a very low photo pass. He didn't do the triple ribbon cut, but that was okay. I was expecting that for the real show. Before the Golden Knights jumped, the Alpha Squadron's radio-controlled pilots took to the sky to demonstrate how well these little planes can fly. I love R/C planes... they're so cool and I even have one myself! The Golden Knights officially opened the airshow with a paradrop of their announcer followed by the mass exit. They didn't do a showline spread, however, each jumper showed the skills necessary to land on target. A civillian dressed in a Revolutionary War uniform performed a musket demonstration to honor those in the Armed Forces. The Shockwave was up next and he was challenged to a race by Bill Leff in his AT-6 Texan. I was actually looking forward to seeing the Super Shockwave perform but he was in Fitchburg and Shockwave was here. That was okay, since we still had a jet truck for the show! Bill Leff had his wing pyro flying off as he raced at low altitude against the Shockwave. I think Bill won, but I couldn't tell.

 

After the race, it was clear the unthinkable had happened. The entire length of runway that the race took place was on fire. The wind blew the smoke towards the crowd and fortunately, the fire crews were able to put it out in less than 45 minutes. That meant Bill had to stay in the air for the entire time. He had enough fuel to stay up for almost two hours but after the fire was put out, Bill went to perform his Starfire show. With pyro flying off the wingtips of the T-6, this was one of the most impressive displays I've ever seen. The choices of music for the performance was also very interesting and included the famous five-tone piece from Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as Great Balls of Fire and Lee Greenwood's famous patriotic song, to name a few. Rob Reider even included a pre-recorded CD to accompany the performance.

Manfred Radius provided another pyro show with his Salto sailplane. If you have never seen a night show before, it is a totally different experience. Manfred's show is totally different than Bill's in the fact that it's done in total silence. Ending the night show was a spectacular fireworks display that included patriotic songs like Neil Diamond's Coming to America, Those Cassions Go Rolling Along, and our national anthem, to name a few. The display was almost a constant grand finale, but when the grand finale came, it was the best fireworks display I've ever seen this year! It seemed as when you think the display was over, it wasn't. That situation just repeated itself for a bit of time. And when they did end, it was clear that this was the best display ever and it was time to head home. I was smart enough to continue taping because little did I know we were to have another pyrotechnic display - the wall of fire. Two small walls were lit up first, each perceived being about the length of the wingspan of one of the Thunderbird F-16s, but they were longer than that. The actual wall itself was about 2,000 feet long and warmed everyone up good! For a show that has put on just their second twilight show, this was a great show! I was off the base in less than twenty minutes and home, ready for the real airshow on Saturday.

On Saturday, gates had opened at 7:30 in the morning, much earlier than in past shows, but what I had gotten from security before parking, you weren't allowed to have ANY bags on base. I thought of it as a load of bull as I saw LOTS of purses and a good amount of camera bags too. I brought everything I had in my bag - the camcorder, my best friend's camera, 13 rolls of film (we used eight), my two disposable cameras, five 8mm tapes, five batteries, a pen, pad of paper, cell phone, and bottles of water. Luckily, as we got in, I went right up to a vendor and grabbed a plastic bag to put everything in. A P-3C Orion departed before I even got close to entering the base and other flying that took place (that I didn't get on video) was the warbird review which consisted of an O-2A Skymaster, L-5, P-40 Warhawk, and the B-25J Mitchell Panchito. Dan Dameo flew the P-40 and he flew a nice short aerobatic display in the P-40 plus a photo pass. One of the Red Baron pilots took a Stearman up for a special solo display. Sean Tucker went up and practiced before the Golden Knights' C-31 took off and set up for their show.

The Golden Knights performed a flag jump with the national anthem playing in the background and much appreciation from the crowd after the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Kirk Wicker circled the jumper at that time in his Stearman, as was the case last year. A ceremony by a dismounted Calvary performed a re-enactment of a salute using replica uniforms dating back to 1776. The Golden Knights performed a spectacular mass exit and formation meet-up, followed by a showline spread. After their C-31 landed, Kirk Wicker started his solo performance in his 450-horsepower Stearman known as the "Beast". Where I was shooting from, the one speaker near me was working intermittently and losing its connection every once in a while which got annoying. Kirk always puts on a great show with the Stearman and I always look forward to it and the wingwalking.

Allen Smith flew his L-39 next. His performance is getting closer to becoming simple aerobatics and not just flat passes. He's been a Willow Grove regular for as long as I can remember, flying at the show since at least 1995. As Allen taxied back to the hot ramp, a P-3C Orion from VP-64 took off to set up for its demonstration later on in the show. Bill Leff took off in his AT-6 Texan to perform his aerobatic routine. His plane has an amazing paint scheme that shines in the sunlight if in the right place. Bill flies one of the better AT-6 performances in the country and one of the few night performances in the plane.

Bill Leff then challenged Shockwave to a race and the winner was too close to call. I think Bill won this one, but I'm not sure. The F/A-18 Hornet from VFA-106 in NAS Oceana went up for its demonstration. The demonstration pilot used the VFA-136 plane that was on the hot ramp to perform his demonstration. This Hornet demonstration was even better than the demo at Frederick and much louder. The P-3 came back around to perform a flat pass with the bomb bay doors open at low altitude. A pyro display enhanced the display, however, this was all the P-3 would do. He landed, turned around on the runway, and showed the colors while taxing back to the main ramp of C-130s and P-3s on the other side of the base. I was disappointed in the performance since the last time the P-3 flew was in 1998 and he did more than one pass that year.

Herb Baker took Ditto, a T-28 Trojan, into the air for his performance. I'm not too much of a fan of it but it's an okay demonstration for the plane. You really can't do too much in terms of aerobatics with the plane. Manfred Radius took the stage next in his spectacular Salto sailplane aerobatic performance. His performance includes the only inverted ribbon cut with a glider in the world and it's spectacular. Kirk Wicker was up next with the wingwalking performance with Joanna Simpson. This had me confused. Announcer Gordon Bowman-Jones kept switching between that name and Jane Wicker (Kirk's wife and the real "beauty"). I'm not sure what happened to Jane, but I'm sure if something had happened, it would have been with one of her and Kirk's sons which would prevent her from attending. At least Kirk had a wingwalker...

What makes Willow Grove's show unique is a demonstration of military power through the use of the Marine Corps, the Air Force Reserve, and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. The MAGTF demo has been a staple at Willow Grove going back to at least 1997. This year's demonstration had rotary wing participation highlighted with one UH-1N Huey, two AH-1W Cobras, and two CH-53E Super Stallions. A C-130 Hercules from the 913th Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve at Willow Grove and a KC-130 Hercules from Stewart ANGB in New York provided the largest aircraft for the performance. VMFA-321 at Andrews AFB, Maryland provided three F/A-18 Hornets and the 111th Fighter Wing, PA ANG at Willow Grove provided four A-10 Warthogs. The Huey was called in to insert some Marines into the battleground while the Hornets were called in to deliver some firepower. The three Hornets came around one by one to drop some pyro bombs in two runs before letting the A-10s come in and do their job, simply exactly what the Hornets provided. The A-10s came in at a much smaller rate of interval than the Hornets, with a 3-second break between each attack. Two runs were provided by the A-10s before letting the Cobras escort the two CH-53s and let them insert more Marines into the battlefield. Immediately as the choppers left, the Hornets were back again to wreak havoc on the enemy on the ground. They performed two runs before letting the A-10s take over and having them destroy the airfield again. The A-10s performed two bombing runs before letting a CH-53 bring in a Humvee to the Marines.

An LAV provided some enemy fire along with Marines preparing the Humvee and the enemy using a Howitzer. The Hornets once again came back around to reduce the enemy to bits once again. In one run, the A-10s came back around to provide more punch in the form of bombs and the 30mm gattling gun. Gunfire exchanged on the ground between the enemy and the Marines before the AFRC C-130 came around and made a short-field landing, backing up, and demonstrating a takeoff within 2,000 feet. The KC-130 came around with the F/A-18s hanging off in an aerial refueling demonstration. The CH-53s returned to pick up the remaining Marines on the ground as the three Hornets came by in formation and broke to land. The four A-10s followed suit as they also broke to land. The KC-130 also landed after the A-10s cleared the runway as the C-130 made a flyby and break to land. A local Vietnam War chapter performed a regular duty to honor fallen war heroes as the helicopter parade of the Huey, Cobras, and Super Stallions flew by. The Golden Knights' C-31 took off to set up for their demonstration as the Alpha Squadron flew during "intermission". This was the time to take a break and get something to eat.

When the show got back underway, the Golden Knights were up. They were plagued with problems this time around from the start. Their announcer, firstly, had a bad microphone. He was cool about it, mentioning it to the crowd and about how the C-31 had to drop altitude to perform the rest of the show. The baton pass was done above the clouds and the break below the clouds. The cutaway maneuver was done at a lower altitude, as with the Golden Knight diamond. The diamond-track maneuver was not performed since it required the 12,500 feet of altitude to fully demonstrate. The five jumpers involved in the bomb burst had to deploy their 'chutes immediately as they left the C-31. Nevertheless, they performed a great show despite the cloud and technical problems.

Jim Beasley took the P-51D Mustang Frenesi up in the air to set up for the Heritage Flight later on in the show as Frank Ryder took the stage in the Oreck XL Cyclone. Frank's routine has been a regular at Willow Grove since at least 1997 and even though his performance isn't the most hardcore like Sean Tucker, Jim LeRoy, or Patty Wagstaff, it's one of the best performances using a one-of-a-kind plane. Jim Beasley came back to perform some aerobatics in the P-51D Mustang before the F-15 demonstration. I can say that the P-51 has flown at every airshow I've been to this year and I'm glad it has! Jim left the immediate show area to give the demonstration over to the USAF.

It was time for Capt. Lendy "Alamo" Renegar of the F-15 Eagle West Coast Demo Team to perform. I saw him fly at Dover and he literally took off at the end of the runway there, meaning there was no real takeoff demonstration. All you could see when he came by was a low and clean pass before climbing. At Willow Grove, this was a real demo. This F-15 demo, compared to the East Coast Demo, is tighter but not as aggressive as the East demo. It's the same routine flown with different music but heck, it's a great demo! Jim Beasley made a pass before Capt. Renegar could fly by and join up for the Heritage Flight. The formation made three photo passes, the fourth being the Heritage break, but not from behind as usual. The F-15 landed as Jim Beasley went on to "intercept" Capt. Renegar on landing from behind.

Ian Groom was up next in the FedEX Sukhoi Su-31. Ian's performance is fast-paced and he is the king of snap rolls. His record for the day I believe was 42 snap rolls, but it had to be more than fifty! Ian's performance is rated among one of the top performers in the country and the snap rolls prove it! Matt Chapman took off and teased the crowd for about three minutes before Shockwave came back around to challenge Matt to a race. When Shockwave made its way to the runway after the fire show, Matt literally avoided him and the ground by inches in what looked like a suicidal pass. It got everyone's attention! Matt somehow got a huge start on the race as Shockwave just sat there on the runway and gave the winner to Matt by a landslide.

Before Matt flew his performance, a hawk came by and performed a flyby before clearing the way for Matt. WCBS' own Harley Carnes, a pilot himself, provided the narration for Matt Chapman. Matt's performance is now enhanced in the fact that he has a sponsor - Subaru. The plane, a CAP231EX, is all painted up in the Subaru Baja scheme for airshows and it looks great. Add it to Matt's awesome performance (in my opinion, the best Delaware Valley airshow pilot) and you have a performance you'll love to see at a few airshows you'd go to. He's becoming a regular at Willow Grove and is a regular at his hometown airshow in New Garden, PA.

The Red Baron Stearman Squadron took to the sky and flew the best performance I've ever seen them fly. Their announcer did a great job with the show... even better than at Millville! I wonder if Jerry Van Kampen retired because he was the voice of the team. The sound of the four Stearmans is always a great sound to hear and listen to. To finish off the show before the Thunderbirds was Sean Tucker. I never get tired of watching his performance. In my opinion, he's the best of the best of civillian aerobatic pilots. His performance is full of original maneuvers and includes the most exciting of all, the triple ribbon cut. He has a new maneuver where he goes down low along the runway and does a photo pass. I actually like it because at some sites, you can never seem to grab the right shot of the top of the Oracle Challenger because of the sun.

A caravan of classic Ford Thunderbird cars brought in the demonstration pilots and the announcer for the team over to their aircraft. Lt. Col. McSpadden gave the oath of enlistment to a group of individuals who have wanted to join the United States Air Force. After he gave the oath, it was followed by the largest applause and cheering I have ever heard at any airshow this year! This year's airshow crowd was a great crowd and they pretty much applauded at everything. Earlier in the show the #2 Thunderbird F-16 was towed from the group of six planes to the hot ramp. I originally thought the plane was broken and they would get a spare, but it turned out that the pilot, Maj. Doug Larson, was sick and couldn't fly. The fact that he couldn't fly and the fact that increased threats of thunderstorms were coming made the Thunderbirds' performance situation unique. The absence of Maj. Larson was shown evidently in all of the diamond's formations, especially in the review passes. Instead of flying the delta formation, the Thunderbirds flew a stinger formation, something I've never seen before. The rain started to come down at this point and the team flew their closing stinger pass and break and the diamond broke to land along with the solos. That ended their performance as the rain came down harder and harder, preventing any kind of closing ground show for the Thunderbirds.

Overall Score: 9.75

Disappointments:

What NAS/JRB Willow Grove Did That Made it Unique

Demonstration Teams

Military Demonstrations

Civillian Demonstrations

Friday Night TENTATIVE Twilight Show Performers

Participating Organizations

Announcer: Gordon Bowman-Jones