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2012 Air Shows
Air Expo at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, July 21 & 22, 2012
Location: McChord Field, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
Admission: FREE
Parking: On base plus off-base with free shuttle buses.
The first Air Expo at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) took place Saturday and Sunday, July 21 & 22. Prior to this year, the biennial airshow took place at McChord AFB, which has now been merged with the Army’s Fort Lewis. It was therefore appropriate that the stars of the show were the premier aerobatic teams from both services: the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron the Thunderbirds, and the U.S. Army Parachute Team the Golden Knights. Almost twenty additional aerial performers and a vast expanse of current and vintage aircraft and military vehicles on static display contributed to the stellar lineup. Five hours of flying were filled with seven aerobatic performances, two jet teams, appearances by all three of the USAF heavy bombers, tactical demos by Viper West and the C-17, a Vietnam-era helicopter display and CSAR demo, a USAF Heritage Flight, parachute demonstrations and, yes, even the jet car.
The gates opened at 0800 Saturday under gray skies. Visitors entering at the main gate experienced an inexplicable hour-long, stop-and-go drive to the parking area, a harbinger of things to come later in the day. Security checks were rigorous but fast and efficient, at least early in the day. Once past the entry control point, visitors were greeted by a McChord-based C-17 Globemaster III surrounded by a number of warbirds, current military aircraft, and Army ground vehicles. The Navy sent a resplendent T-45C Goshawk from NAS Meridian and an F-18F Super Hornet from VX-31 based at NAS China Lake. A NASA T-34 Mentor flew in from Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB. An F-16D from the Lone Star Gunfighters and an F-15C from the Redhawks represented the Air National Guard from Texas and Oregon, respectively. Warbirds included the B-17G “Sentimental Journey”, T-28 Trojan and AT-6 Texan, among others. The 28th Bomb Squadron from Dyess AFB sent two B-1B Lancer bombers, one of which was on static display. The McChord Air Museum had two large aircraft on display, a C-130 and a beautiful SA-10A Catalina. The Army had two Stryker Mobile Gun System vehicles on display, one sporting an enormous 105mm main gun. It is unusual to see these vehicles at all, let alone up close and in different variants. Several more Strykers and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle were on display around the grounds.
Another static display area was located at the north end of the viewing area, at airshow left. Here were found the large military aircraft such as the KC-10 from Travis AFB, a KC-135 from MacDill AFB, and an extremely rare AC-130H "Spectre Gunship" from Cannon AFB. Armed with a side-firing 105mm howitzer (the same as on the Stryker) and a 40mm Bofors gun, its awesome firepower and long loiter times put it in high demand in the skies above Afghanistan which is why it is so rarely seen on the airshow circuit. Two A-10s from Davis-Monthan AFB, which also provide close air support for ground troops, were parked nearby. NAS Whidbey Island sent two of its EA-18G Growler aircraft from VAQ-129. The rest of the tarmac was taken up by a wide variety of Army helicopters, most of which are based at JBLM: AH-64 Apache “Longbow”, CH-47 and MH-47G Chinook, LUH-72 Lakota, MH-60L Blackhawk and OH-58 Kiowa Warrior. There was barely enough time to view the static displays before the flying began.
The air show began with a parachutist from the 22 nd Special Tactics Squadron jumping from a C-17 and flying in the American flag. Herb Baker then performed in his T-28 Trojan “Ditto”, his wing-tip vortices coalescing to form smoke rings which he then flew through on his return passes. The distinctive "whomp, whomp, whomp" announced the arrival of the UH-1 Huey, which, along with the AH-1 Cobra, put on an amazing display of military flight maneuvers. Both helicopters are from the nearby Olympic Flight Museum. Greg “Wired” Colyer then showed what his T-33 “Ace Maker” is capable of, performing high loops, dirty passes and high speed passes down on the deck. This was followed by the C-17 tactical demonstration, performed by a Globemaster III from Hickam Field in Hawai’i. The slow speed dirty pass and the short-field landing capabilities of this huge cargo aircraft are particularly impressive. The civilian flying resumed with Vicky Benzing in her FESTO Extra 300. Flying under mostly leaden skies she nevertheless put on a brilliant display of aerobatic flying. Her Tucker-Upper is second only to that of the creator of that routine. The Golden Knights Gold Team then demonstrated the parachuting skills which have won them innumerable medals in international competitions. After departing their C-31A Troopship, pairs of jumpers joined up in vertical stacks to fly in the MIA/POW and Washington state flags while another pair locked legs and spiraled in completely vertically, separating at the last possible moment to land at show center. On Sunday, the Golden Knights went up with Medal Of Honor Recipient Staff Sargent Leroy A. Petry. Unfortunately Sunday’s low ceiling did not permit Sargent Petry to jump with the team. He received his Medal of Honor on July 12, 2011 for his heroic actions in combat in Afghanistan on May 26, 2008 where he saved the lives of two fellow soldiers and lost his right hand. Then, with a mighty roar the B-1B took to the skies flown by Major Jim "slac" Corrigan and his crew . Its first pass was at a low speed with wings swept forward, but the following two were swept-wing high-speed passes with lots of afterburner and vapor. What an amazing sight! With the next act already in the air, the Lancer, with gear extended, was forced to go around, performing a very rare dirty pass in front of the crowd. The Patriots jet team, which includes former members of the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and Snowbirds, put on an excellent six-jet demonstration, their synchronized colored smoke showing up equally well against the low ceiling or in the patches of clearing sky. An exciting new element of their display was a wall of fire as the delta formation flew by at low altitude. On Saturday only, spectators were treated to a fly-by of a B-52 from Minot AFB. Unfortunately only a single flat pass was allowed as part of the crew’s training mission, but it was still an amazing sight to see the over fifty year old aircraft in the air. The Stratofortress flight was the perfect segue to the next performance: the Vietnam-era Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) demonstration. An O-1 Bird Dog spotted the downed pilot and called in an A-1 Skyraider to provide close air support. Several passes by “The Proud American” protected the airman until the AH-1 Cobra gunship could appear on the scene. It provided suppressing fire while the UH-1 Huey came in fast, touched down briefly and lifted off with the rescued crewman. It was an amazing display of aerial coordination and flying skills. Then it was fast-forward to the present day as the B-2 Spirit appeared out of nowhere (again only on Saturday). Despite the announcer’s statement to the contrary, this was the “Spirit of Ohio” from Whiteman AFB on a training mission, making three passes which showed off both the futuristic planform and the narrow silhouette to good advantage. John Klatt then showed off the amazing aerobatic capabilities of the Air National Guard MXS, demonstrating why this airframe was such a favorite in the Red Bull Air Races. He was followed by Lee Lauderback, flying a more restrained routine in his P-51D Mustang “The Little Witch”. Then, in a rare 2012 airshow appearance, the F-16 Fighting Falcon from Viper West leapt from the runway. Captain Garrett "Mace" Dover wasted no time getting airborne, applying full afterburner and pulling vapor on his takeoff. Although short in comparison to tactical demos of the past, it was a blast to watch him turn and burn through his routine. He soon joined up with the waiting Mustang to begin the Heritage Flight. Three graceful passes by the two fighters from different eras flying in close formation ended with a cross in front of the crowd. Tim Weber turned in an impressive aerobatic performance. Although he started the season flying the MXS, his most recent two shows in Washington have been in his Extra 300.
Then it was time for the headline act, the Thunderbirds, returning for their first appearance in four years. On Saturday there was a rather long delay between taxiing out and finally taking off, which led many in the crowd to exit early in hopes of avoiding traffic. However, once the team took to the clearing skies they put on their high show, which, no matter how often one sees them perform, is always impressive. The white clouds and blue skies were a photographers delight, and majestic Mount Rainier finally appeared late in the day to provide a beautiful backdrop to the delta formation at the end of the show.
Photography at the air show is pleasurable: the aircraft on static display are not roped off, and the flying takes place reasonably close to the crowd line with all but the smallest aerobatic aircraft well within range with a 300mm lens. The north-south layout of the runway (16/34) means that the sun is behind you for the afternoon’s flying and on a clear day (but not on this weekend) Mount Rainier provides a stunning background. The long crowd line provided ample room to set up folding chairs, with hot ramps at both ends of the flightline providing action close to the spectators. Portable toilets were well distributed and provided in sufficient quantity that lines were short to nonexistent. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the food vendors, which seemed always to have long lines. Curiously enough, the lines at the beer stands were short and moved quickly, despite the excellent price of only $3 per pint. There was also a dedicated Kid’s Zone with the usual climbing wall, bounce houses, slides and other amusements. The only major downside to the weekend (other than the weather) was traffic management, especially exiting the airshow on Saturday. Many spectators who had parked on base spent hours in stopped traffic, and even those who had parked off-base waited in long lines for the shuttle buses. Organizers reacted by opening up more gates the next day which, perhaps also combined with the smaller number of attendees, resulted in much smoother traffic flow on Sunday.
The Air Expo is the Pacific Northwest’s largest airshow and organizers had expected a large turnout. However the thunderstorms during the preceding week and a forecast for continued poor weather through the weekend put a damper on the crowds. Saturday’s crowd was estimated at 100,000. Cooler temperatures and drizzle further reduced Sunday’s attendance to around 50,000. Reports of traffic backups and long waits to both enter and exit the base on Saturday may also have had an effect on the number of visitors. Although well short of the record 375,000 people set in 2008, the base plans to host the Air Expo again in two year’s time. See you there in 2014!
AirshowsReview would like to thank the JBLM Public Affairs Office, and in particular, Joe Piek, Bud McKay & Joe Kubistek, for their assistance during Thursday’s Thunderbirds arrival, Friday’s Media Day and during the show.

Performers included:

  • United States Air Force Thunderbirds
  • United States Army Golden Knights
  • 22nd Special Tactics Squadron Flag Jump
  • A-1 Skyraider, “The Proud American”
  • Greg Colyer T-33 Shooting Star "Ace Maker" Aerobatics
  • AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey Helicopter Demonstration
  • B-1B Lancer Tactical Demo
  • B-2 Spirit Flyover (Saturday only)
  • B-52H Stratofortress Flyover (Saturday only)
  • Bill Braack Smoke-n-Thunder Jet Car
  • C-17 Globemaster III Tactical Demonstration
  • Herb & Ditto T-28 Trojan Aerobatics
  • John Klatt Air National Guard MXS Aerobatics
  • Lee Lauderback P-51D Mustang "The Little Witch" Aerobatics
  • Patriots Jet Team
  • Tim Weber GEICO Extra 300 Aerobatics
  • Vicky Benzing FESTO Extra 300 Aerobatics
  • Vietnam War Combat Search And Rescue Demonstration: A-1 Skyraider, O-1 Bird Dog, AH-1 Cobra, UH-1 Huey
  • F-16 Fighting Falcon "Viper West" Tactical Demonstration
  • USAF Heritage Flight: P-51D Mustang “The Little Witch” & F-16 Fighting Falcon

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Report by Norman A. Graf with photography by Norman A Graf and R. von Puttkammer for AIRSHOWSREVIEW LLC
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