Sunday, June 1, 2008

Angels and Knights over Nation's Capitol

Screaming in formation through the blue skies near the nation's capitol, the phenomenal U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Army's premier parachute team, the Golden Knights join a host of other aerial acrobatic performances at the 2008 Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Civilian and military planes vied for the crowd's attention throughout the day with spectacular air demonstrations and ground exhibits from bi-planes to the Air Force’s newest fighter the F-22 Raptor. The world famous Geico Skytypers, the only World War II civilian squadron flying in existence made quite an impression by spelling out “FRIENDS ALWAYS” in recognition of the United States, Great Britain, French and German effort to keep West Berlin free at the beginning of the Cold War. The team flys six T-6 Texan aircraft that were introduced in 1937 as a basic combat trainer plane. Other planes flying or on display included the huge B-52 Stratofortress long range bomber, the U2 Spy plane.

One of the planes I was interested in seeing was the Memphis Belle, a B-17F Flying Fortress that was the first WWII bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States. The crew and plane were immortilized in two films with the same name as the bomber, Memphis Belle. In fact it turns out the B-17F on display was the plane from the 1990 movie starring Matthew Modine and Bill Zane.

From the Ragged Edge comes Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Jill Long performing high energy aerobatics in a Pitts S2B, two seat bi-plane. Jill has been flying since was 16 and according to her bio has over 3000 hours of flight time. As the crowd was watching Sean Tucker go through his award winning performance LTC Long was standing behind her plane walking through her upcoming flight in deep concentration. Her
experience and daring was evident with her rolls, speed and dives.

Today’s technology was not only evident in the new aircraft but as part of the Air Show. I was impressed with the Jumbotron screens that were near center field and the excellent sound that could be heard clearly everywhere on the flight line. While pilots like John Klatt in his Air National Guard Staudacher S-300D hand crafted plane was doing acrobatics the audience could see him on screen live in the cockpit, telling the crowd what he was doing. This added a new dimension to the Air Show. Now instead of just watching the stunt plane do hammerhead turns and fall toward the earth in a spin, you can glance at the screen and see a close up of the pilot in the cockpit with the world spinning around him.
One of the precision flights of the day was the world’s only supersonic, civilian jet demonstration team, the Starfighters. These three F-104 Starfighters flew in tight formation with not much space between them.

The famous Airlift that saved the people of West Germany from the Soviet Union and becoming part of the communist bloc was honored at the air show with a flyby of the C-47 “Second Chance.” This WWII plane represents the C-47 and C-54 airplanes that flew supplies to over 2.2 million Berliners at what would become the beginning of the Cold War. Beginning in 1948, the airlift continued for eleven months when the Soviets agreed to lift the blockade. The airlift continued another four months until September 1949. At its peak the United States and Britain were flying over 5000 tons of supplies each day to Wes Berlin. Part of the opening remarks were by Colonel (Ret) Gail Halvorsen who was one of the original pilots of the airlift know as the “Candy Bomber”. He received his nickname for tying Hershey chocolate bars to little parachutes and dropping them over Berlin.

Closing out the days events was the much-anticipated Navy Blue Angels. From their first flight in 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida, the Blue Angels have been thrilling crowds around the world. To date it is estimated that over 400 million people have watched their demonstrations. Their performance lasted over an hour with solo flights, dogfights and precision formation flying ending with their trademark Fleur di Lis where all six jets move in unison only to split off into various directions like a blooming flower.

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