2003 NAS/JRB Willow Grove Open House and Air Fest

September 13-14, 2003

Airshow report written on September 15, 2003.

When I think of airshows held at NAS/JRB Willow Grove, I know right off the bat that it will be a good show. Willow Grove has the reputation for putting on a really good airshow even without the presence of a jet team. This year's airshow was no exception. This year marked several unique items worth mentioning for the airshow - it celebrated the 60th anniversary of the base as well as being able to bring in a handful of performers who have never performed at Willow Grove in the past. Those performers included the Canadian Harvards, Bill Reesman, the Firebirds, and the Split Image Aerobatic Team. Also included was a demonstration of one of Burt Rutan's uniquely designed Long EZ and a demonstration by the T-6A Texan II.

The static displays this year didn't seem as rigid as last year's but included some unique aircraft, to say the least. Regulars for the static display included two P-3C Orions - representing VP-64 and VP-66 based right at Willow Grove, a C-130 Hercules from the 913th Airlift Wing, a C-9 Skytrain from VR-52, a C-12N Huron based right at Willow Grove, a KC-130 Hercules from Stewart ANGB in New York, a Pennsylvania ANG A-10 Thunderbolt II, a CH-53E Super Stallion, an AH-1W Cobra, and a UH-1N Huey. Larger aircraft included an early model C-5B Galaxy (83-1285) from Dover AFB and a KC-10A Extender (84-0186) from McGuire AFB. TAW-5 and TAW-6 provided a pair of T-34C Mentors from both squadrons, while another 3 older T-34A/B Mentors were also scattered in the static display. Laughlin AFB in Texas brought in a T-1A Jayhawk, Columbus AFB in Mississippi brought in a T-37 Tweet, and Moody AFB in Georgia brought a T-38A Talon. An F/A-18 Hornet representing VFA-106 - the Gladiators, was the only Hornet on display. VMA-223 "Bulldogs" brought in an AV-8B Harrier II, along with the demo Harrier. There was no KC-135 and no F-16s as in previous years. Warbirds included a T-28 Trojan, Nanchang CJ-6A, B-25J Mitchells Briefing Time and Panchito, B-17G Flying Fortress Yankee Lady, North American Harvard, and a TBM Avenger. General aviation aircraft included a Cessna 152, Cessna 172, a Piper Cherokee 180, another Piper Cherokee, an IAR-823, a Grob G103 glider, and a couple more aircraft that I couldn't identify right off the spot.

With airshows, the best thing to have is a perfectly clear blue sky so that the show could be performed efficiently and in its entirety. However, Willow Grove is one of those show sites where you want to have some clouds in the most strategic spots, as lighting for photography sucks - no matter what time of day. Going back to weather, the entire week prior to the airshow had beautiful weather - often times some of those days had perfectly clear blue skies. As the weekend drew by, the weather worsened, becoming typical weekend weather on the East Coast - it must rain. And rain it did... Saturday's show was completely washed out, as the entire day was faced with drizzle, showers, steady rain, and downpours. It seemed as though the airshow wasn't meant to go on. The bad weather was actually caused by remnants of Tropical Depression Henri, which soaked Florida and had moved into the Atlantic and pretty much remained off the coast of the Carolinas until Thursday rolled in - and so did Henri. Friday was actually the day those remnants started to show their ugly side to the area. As I said, it rained all day Saturday (but when the rain stopped you could see patches of blue sky roll by, then rain again) and Sunday turned out to have better weather.

Announcer Gordon Bowman-Jones did a great job of keeping the crowd informed on Saturday and he even had a live interview during the show with Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay - the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. At one point during the afternoon, it got to the point where someone had to fly, and the Commanding Officer of Willow Grove decided he'd be the one to help give everyone attending their airplane fix. He and the XO jumped in the C-12 that was on static display and took to the sky to practice some Precision Radar Approaches. As they were in the air, they described everything in detail over the PA about what they were doing at the time and pointed out every little niche while in flight. They went around once and did a touch-and-go and came back around again and landed. I actually liked this for several reasons - it was a real learning experience, in terms of how IFR approaches are used and the fact that this was completely different than one would usually see at an airshow - as well as the C-12 being an aircraft hardly seen flying during an airshow. The conclusion of Saturday's show (or no-show, because of the weather) was the lighting off of unused pyrotechnics by Rod Gier's team of pyrotechnicans. Flying was called off around 3:35 PM, but at this time, there was a considerable amount of blue sky around the show area, but in the wrong spots. In fact, I came home under some patches of blue sky (and some showers) and started hoping that Sunday's show would have better weather.

I checked the weather for Sunday when I got up, and saw conflicting forecasts and basically hoped for the best. Getting over to Willow Grove again was no problem, as I had left my house at 6:15 in the morning so I could arrive before 7:30. I didn't speed all that much (even when I did, I was only going like five miles an hour over the speed limit), but somehow I got to the base in 54 minutes, which was a record for me. As I got set up and toured the static display again for better shots, the visibility dropped drastically because of fog moving in. The fog eventually moved out and gave way for great visibility. I actually took some time to tour one aircraft - the KC-10 Extender. I've been inside KC-10s before but this was the first time I had ever been down in the boomer's compartment. I must say - it is cramped, but it is a lot better than what KC-135 boomers are confined to. Stratotanker boom operators have to lie on their stomach and rest their chin on a chin rest and use their right hand to "fly" the boom into the receiving aircraft's receptacle. There is room for a second person to the right of the boomer for training or for photographic purposes. The KC-10's boom operator sits upright and looks out the back of the aircraft in that position. It's much more comfortable than a KC-135 (the pilots don't think its comfortable... I guess its because they've never been in a 135 before!) and the KC-10's boomer position gives more room for more people to move about. I believe you can fit five additional people down in there, but don't hold me to that. I do have to say that it was nice for them to have the APU running so that the entire plane could be cold inside!

The first performers to fly were members of the Alpha Squadron, an organization whose members own and fly radio controlled model aircraft. Three aircraft in particular that I was watching were a 40% scale CAP232, a Trainer, and a flying stop sign. I actually had my own R/C trainer and ever since I crashed it last year, I've lost interest in repairing it, but haven't lost interest in watching R/C aircraft fly. The Alpha Squadron had to stand down several times in the morning because of helicopter arrivals, namely a BK117 and an AS350BA operated by WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. The first performer to fly a full-scale aircraft was Matt Chapman, as he flew a teaser show. Providing announcing for Matt this weekend was Howdy McCann, as Matt couldn't get his regular announcer (does he still have Harley Carnes as his announcer?) for the show. That's okay... Howdy's a good announcer and his unique style adds to any aerobatic performance. Matt used this time to test out the ceilings, but 1,000 feet only let him to fly his flat show. However, midway through his performance, he was able to perform some vertical maneuvers and activate the wingtip smoke. As soon as he landed, it seemed like he flew his full performance plus a part of his teaser - that's if you look at it in terms of how much time he was up in the air.

Frank Ryder took his Oreck XL Cyclone up next for his teaser display. Frank is a staple at Willow Grove's show, as he's performed there every year since at least 1997 (that year he had the Super Chipmunk!). I still enjoy Frank's performance and with Doug McDaniel announcing, it helps even more. I don't think I'd enjoy Frank's performance if Doug wasn't announcing it... unless there's an exception but I can't think of one at the time I wrote this report. After Frank landed, two Corsairs took to the skies to perform a rather interesting aerobatic display. Flying the Black Sheep F4U-5 Corsair was Dale Snodgrass and in Skyboss was Dan Dameo. It's been quite some time since I last saw Skyboss because he now has a smoke system installed. Dale was the leader and Dan followed him with every maneuver that Snort flew - but Dan flew the majority of them at higher altitudes than Snort. Both pilots also flew opposing maneuvers, turning this performance into what seemed like "Dueling Corsairs". Towards the end of the performance, both Snort and Dameo joined up to fly some very nice formation flybys. Seeing two Corsairs in formation was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Willow Grove.

After the Corsairs landed and taxied off the runway, the two Pitts Specials owned and flown by the Split Image Aerobatic Team took to the air to begin their performance. Their performance at Willow Grove was their first, and I think it was the best performance I've ever seen them fly. They were also able to fly their full performance, as the Pitts is a small aircraft and it doesn't use a whole lot of ceiling to perform looping maneuvers. What I liked was Gordon using a sound effect for Ron Spencer's landing, saying it was a very loud landing. As their performed concluded, a Long EZ took to the air to fly a short demonstration. Supposedly there are two Long EZs in this performance, but I can't really complain since this was the first time I've ever seen one fly. It's a quiet airplane, but its uniqueness in design made the performance worth watching. The particular aircraft that flew is actually nicknamed "Fast Glass" and I'm not sure where that nickname came from. After he landed, the T-28 Trojan known as Ditto took to the sky. Its pilot, Herb Baker, have been a regular at Willow Grove since 2001 and while I'm not too impressed seeing one T-28 in the sky, seeing a single T-28 perform aerobatics is something you don't see everyday and the performance is starting to grow on me. Herb was also limited to what he could perform because by the time he was in the air, he had to put up with some lower clouds over the main aerobatic box.

After Herb & Ditto landed, the Firebirds took to the sky to fly their Extra 300 portion of the show. This is actually the original All American Firebirds performance back prior to when they debut the Delta Team in May 2003. The Firebirds had a lot more altitude to work with as most of their aerobatic box was scattered low clouds mixed in with blue sky. They flew a very nice performance and after they landed, they did a salute in front of show center that I really liked. It was time for lunch, as the Alpha Squadron took to the sky once again. This was the second year in a row that the schedule had some sort of lunch break. I like that feature because it allowed me to get a couple really expensive hamburgers from one of the Airshow Network booths. I dislike Airshow Network with a passion, but with the way they set things up with Willow Grove, they decided not to mess with the flight line setup and had it almost identical to last year's setup, albeit it did look a little smaller. Sure, they do have overpriced food, but with the situation I was in, I didn't mind paying $4 for a hamburger. My only problem was eating it (I had jaw surgery on August 14 and it had been a month since the surgery and I can't quite bite into a hamburger or a hot dog just yet). Oh yeah... the souvenir booths - they need more variety! I checked out each booth that they ran (with the exception of one booth who was selling sunglasses and the other selling high-end military-related caps and shirts) and they were selling the same exact merchandise in every booth! Every airshow should have at least one booth where spectators can buy plastic model kits and die-cast models (military or airliners).

After the lunch break, Allen Smith took to the sky in his L-39C Albatross. Allen was able to perform some vertical maneuvers but his performance didn't seem to be up to par as the last couple of times I've seen him - except for the fact that he had to abort his landing because he touched down too far down the runway than what he wanted. He came back around to land from the opposite direction. Allen has been a Willow Grove regular for as long as I can remember and I hope he comes back next year. After his landing, a Bell 407 from the Pennsylvania State Police made a pass down the taxiway and landed just outside of the hot ramp. After he cleared the area, Matt Chapman took to the skies to fly his second performance of the day. Howdy also took the mike at the same time as Matt gave a better performance this time around - mostly because he had the ceiling to perform it. There were still some low clouds but they were in the right areas and blue skies over a good portion of the aerobatic box. Unfortunately, I had some problems with the tape in the middle of his performance and it's pretty much unreadable after that. After Matt's performance, Bill Reesman took the Red Bull MiG-17 to the sky to fly his performance. The last time I saw him fly was at Miramar in 1999 and I was impressed with his performance then. I was still impressed with the performance, and I had forgotten how loud the MiG-17 really is - plus the fact that it has an afterburner! After Bill landed, the Split Image Team departed to head back to New Jersey. That was followed by the Golden Knights as their C-31 Friendship took to the sky to set up for their display a little later on in the day. Two Harvards took to the sky for an aerobatic display. In my opinion, this wasn't the best formation aerobatic display using AT-6/SNJ/Harvard aircraft, but it was nice to see Harvards in the air as I like the sound the particular species of warbirds make.

The Golden Knights took the stage next. It was nice to see the Golden Knights being more flexible with their performances now as they jumped from an altitude of 2,000 feet and performed a showline spread. I tell you - there's nothing like having a Golden Knight swoop from right above you and scare you. As their C-31 landed, it was time for the F-16 demonstration to take place. The F-16 demonstration was performed by the East Coast Viper Demo Team, whose pilot, Captain Ed Casey, is from Sparta, NJ. Even though this was a limited demonstration because of ceilings, this was the best F-16 demonstration I had ever seen. Also, the high humidity produced some great photo opportunities for those interested in vapor shots. What also made the performance worthwhile was that Capt. Casey didn't end the demonstration with the knife-edge pass - he also performed an aborted approach prior to his landing. It was at this time when it started to rain for about five minutes.

After Capt. Casey landed, it was time for another Air Force aircraft to take to the skies - the T-6A Texan II. This is the brand new Texan II East Coast Demo Team, based out of Moody AFB in Georgia. This was a very nice demonstration, but I was hoping that it would include some more vertical maneuvers. The T-6A is a very nice airplane and seeing one fly for the first time was a real treat for me, as I've always seemed to find one on display at most airshows I've attended. After the Texan II landed, it was time for the Firebirds to take to the sky once again - this time flying their Delta routine. For some reason, it seemed like the performance lasted forever because in many parts of the performance, I was hoping to see the three aircraft join up to fly formation aerobatics. Don't get me wrong - I like the Firebirds, but it seems as though I was more interested in seeing military aircraft over aerobatics. As they landed and taxied to give a salute, Allen Smith departed in his L-39 for suburban Pennsylvania.

Both Corsairs took to the skies once again, along with Herb Baker departing in the T-28, heading back for Wisconsin. Both Dan Dameo and Dale Snodgrass performed a flyby each as Dameo departed for Long Island and Snort took his Corsair through his trademark aerobatic display. I enjoy seeing Snort flying - no matter which aircraft it is that he's at the controls of. He is one of those pilots who is capable of taking an airplane and putting it through its paces and demonstrating that the aircraft is in his controls the entire time. Dale even demonstrated just how humid it was by showing the vapor trails coming off the wings once again.

After Snort landed, it was time for the premier military act at Willow Grove to take place - the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Demonstration, or MAGTF. This year's MAGTF included a pair of Cobras, a pair of CH-46 Sea Knights, a pair of CH-53E Super Stallions, three F/A-18 Hornets, and four A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. This year's MAGTF was significantly different because there were no C-130 assets because the 913th Airlift Wing has the majority of their C-130s deployed as well as the KC-130 assets in Newburgh, NY. The A-10s took off in two ships of two aircraft to set up for the performance. After a short delay, the three F/A-18 Hornets came in to drop their loads on the enemy before returning a second time to eliminate any more targets. As they exited the area, the four A-10 Warthogs from the PA ANG came in to drop in more reinforcements and come by a second time to bomb the area again. As they exited, the two Cobras came by to provide cover for the two CH-46s and two CH-53s to bring in more Marines to the enemy area. An ensuing battle was underway as the helicopters were waiting for clearance to depart as the Hornets came back to drop more ordinances on the battlefield. They came back around a second time to provide more cover prior to the arrival of the A-10s to provide even more cover as the helicopters waited to depart. The A-10s made one sweep of the target area prior to the departures of the CH-46s and the CH-53s, with the Cobras following behind them. The three F/A-18 Hornets came back around to drop their last set of bombs on the enemy. As the Hornets exited, the A-10s returned one last time to get rid of their excess ordinance before exiting. The final bombing run came from a lone F/A-18 Hornet that provided a napalm run and the result - a wall of fire. The four A-10 Warthogs formed up and broke to land over show center while the three F/A-18 Hornets departed for Andrews AFB. The Sea Knights and Super Stallions went to their parking spots on the hot ramp while the AH-1W Cobra made a pass down the flight line with the four A-10 Warthogs on the taxiway giving their salute to Willow Grove.

Immediately after the A-10s taxied by show center, Matt Chapman took to the air for the third time. I suppose I really wasn't interested in seeing Matt fly again, but I guess you can never get too much of any one act at any airshow. Matt flew a shortened version of his full display, as he had a good amount of altitude to work with. After Matt landed, it was time for the AV-8B Harrier to perform its demonstration. Whenever there's a Harrier demonstration, it's there just to test your hearing. The Harrier demonstration was actually flown by a local Marine who was from Bristol, PA - about 21 miles away from the show site. Instead of performing a vertical landing, he performed just how the Harrier can rapidly transition from hovering to regular flight. I was very pleased with this Harrier demonstration, as demos by this type of aircraft are very rare nowadays.

As the Harrier landed, the other AH-1W Cobra made a pass down the runway before departing. Frank Ryder took to the air next to fly his full performance and it wasn't anything special other than the usual great performance he's known for putting on. What I did notice in this performance - compared to the one he flew at Quonset Point was that Doug was actually in more of a serious mode than at Quonset. I don't see anything wrong with that, but thought it would be interesting to mention that. I bet he's gonna start throwing flame wars at me for saying that. After Frank landed, the four Harvards from the Canadian Harvards departed for Canada.

At this time, an F/A-18 Hornet from VFA-106 took off and made a surprise pass down the runway and departed for NAS Oceana, just prior to another Hornet from the same squadron to take to the skies to perform its demonstration. By this time, the aerobatic box that the Hornet required was virtually clear of clouds, making way for the pilot, Lt. Joe Alden, to fly his full show. This was by far the best Hornet demonstration I had ever seen. Sure, the demonstration is flown exactly like a Super Hornet demonstration, but the fact that he kept the Hornet really close to the crowd at all times and that the entire aircraft was covered in vapor for nearly 75% of the demonstration made the trip worthwhile. In fact, it was also noted that the demonstration was going to be extended so that we could get another high-speed pass in, with the help of the Mad Bomber providing a wall of fire. F/A-18 Hornet demonstrations have sure gotten better over the last two years and this was a prime example of just that.

As he landed and taxied towards the crowd, it was time for the B-2 Spirit to make its appearance over Willow Grove. This was one of the best set of flybys I've seen a B-2 perform. He performed three passes (actually, four, but the one pass was from a 45 degree angle) before departing to the north and heading home to Whiteman AFB. Once he cleared the airspace, it concluded the 2003 Willow Grove airshow.

I stayed around for about another hour hanging out with Gordon and the gang from Willow Grove while at the same time catching any departures. I happened to catch the T-34s leaving, the B-17 having problems starting up the #4 engine, Briefing Time aborting a takeoff, and the F-16 Demo Team departing Willow Grove. I had wanted to stick around a little longer to catch the KC-130 and the KC-10 departing, but the KC-10 takes forever to start up and get going. I decided to call it quits and head home.

I would like to thank Gordon for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime (as always), the Commanding Officer Captain Layne Smith, all of the performers, and even those people I met on base. It's a shame something like this only happens once a year at particular locations.


Overall Score: 9.25






What Made Willow Grove Unique:




Demonstration Teams

Tentative Military Demonstrations

Civillian Demonstrations

Participating Organizations

Announcer: Gordon Bowman-Jones