An Alpine Village Airshow: Small Town Charm Present in Abundance at Wings Over Northern Michigan 2019


Czech-Mate’s echelon right pass in revue… Not bad for a single team practice!

About an hour west of Traverse City, Gaylord is a small town in Northern Michigan best known for golfing, winter sports, and its “Alpine Village” aesthetic. The 2019 edition of Wings Over Northern Michigan marked the 10th consecutive year of airshows hosted at Gaylord Regional Airport, an admirable streak for any show much less one hosted in a quaint vacation town with a population under 4,000.

This year’s show had a solid lineup that spanned the aviation world from single ship aerobatic acts to warbirds, a civilian jet team, and even an appearance by a B-2 Spirit! The small town feel of the show stands in stark contrast to so many others, with far more manageable grounds, parking lots, and traffic compared to many of the more well known shows in the Midwest. Of course this comes at the expense of some of the “big show” features like a large static ramp, and the relatively small runway makes it difficult to draw some of the more well-known military demonstration teams, but Wings Over Northern Michigan really knows how to make the most of the facility they have available!

As a note to our readers, you may notice that this article is not up to the usual standards of coverage of the static displays that you’d expect from a PhotoRecon article. The primary reason for this is that I attended the show as the team photographer and a ground crew member for the Czech-Mate L-39 team. Accordingly, my time prior to the show’s beginning was spent assisting the pilots prepare the aircraft for their performance, wiring up onboard cameras, and working out some enhanced access photo opportunities of the flying displays rather than walking the ramp as I ordinarily would. I sincerely hope that the images of the flying display more than make up for the absence of “guest experience” type photos!

The show grounds opened to the public each morning with the promise of good weather come flying time. Saturday’s early showers lifted not long after the gates opened, and Sunday morning’s weather was just about perfect for an airshow with mild temperatures and sunshine being the order of the day. A big selling point of the show was an abundance of local food vendors in attendance to keep the masses fed with options spanning the culinary spectrum from Tex-Mex to Greek, Coffee to Slushees and beyond. Plenty of other groups of local interest were also in attendance, including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and craft vendors to help showcase the community to those who traveled from near and far to witness the show’s 10th anniversary.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local EAA chapter played a huge part in helping to put on the show, between an army of volunteers helping to keep the hot ramp clear, and offering up their facilities to host numerous airshow events. In addition, some of their members went way above and beyond to assist this photojournalist in acquiring a handheld aviation radio to help make some of the photos that accompany this article possible.

AM2 McDuffie runs through a series of preflight checks on the Growler

The static ramp was sparsely populated, primarily with small GA aircraft and a Cessna Caravan cargo aircraft that serves the airport. To make up for this, spectators were able to view the hot ramp quite easily from the publically accessible areas of the show. The Yankee Air Museum’s B-17 “Yankee Lady” and C-47 “Hairless Joe” were prominently featured near the crowd line in this area, as was Paul Wood’s A-4, a few of the other warbirds, and the aerobatic machines flown by Mike Vanknin and Skip Stewart. A bit further from the caution tape sat the 4 L-39 Albatros jets of the Michigan-based Czech-Mate Jet Team, and the EF-18G’s that took part in the Tailhook Legacy Flight to close out the show. In addition to warbird flight experiences aboard the Yankee Air Museum’s aircraft, the ShellCamino monster truck was on hand giving rides, as were a handful of Magnum Helicopter’s Robinson R-44s. When possible, it’s always great to have affordable flights available to patrons, as a brief taste of soaring above the show grounds might be all it takes to get a future aviator hooked on flying!

A topside pass of a B-2

The flying portion of the show kicked off both days with a series of fly-bys from a B-2 Spirit. The boomerang shaped stealth bomber made three passes over the field, showing the top and bottom sides and finishing with a flat pass. With only 20 such aircraft in service, it’s a treat to see one in action at a show. While I haven’t seen a B-2 in years, I never remembered seeing a topside photo pass with the aircraft. Perhaps the impending arrival of the B-21 has resulted in a bit looser restrictions on showing off America’s “Big Stick” first strike bomber.

As the sound of the B-2 faded into the distance, a puff of smoked marked the start of the high energy act by the one and only Skip Stewart. Beginning with a knife edge tail slide immediately after takeoff, Skip’s performance launched into a series of extreme maneuvers to rival any muscle biplane in the airshow world these days. With little resemblance to the original Pitts S-2S upon which Prometheus P2 is based, the red and black biplane tumbled, rolled, and looped through the box with an urgency that impressed even the most experienced airshow fans in attendance. Skip’s act wraps up with a series of maneuvers that sees him fly inches off the ground beneath a pair of ribbons, followed by an inverted ribbon cut, and a tailslide ribbon cut all centered around a single set of poles.

Cutting the ribbon with P2

PhotoRecon had the pleasure of witnessing this particular brand of precision flying from mere feet away, standing with the pole holders out on Gaylord’s Runway 09/27 as Prometheus sliced through the air in the skilled hands of Stewart three times per performance. With the aircraft being so close, a wide-angle lens was a necessity and a shutter speed had to be carefully selected to ensure the aircraft remained sharp despite the massive angular velocity, while still maintaining some amount of prop blur. Needless to say, it’s one of the more challenging types of airshow photography one can partake in!

Not satisfied to let Skip have all the low altitude fun, Darnell Racing’s Aftershock took to the taxiways and runways at Gaylord next. Aftershock, styled after a 1940s fire truck, is powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Bristol Viper turbines putting out over 24,000 horsepower that have pushed the truck to speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour in the hands of driver Mark Smith. New to Aftershock this year are a pair of telescoping “exhaust” stacks that spew flames vertically in addition to the fire and smoke coming from the Rolls-Royce power.

Aftershock brings the heat

Neal Darnell explained the challenge of creating the stacks for Aftershock, which need to retract to fit inside the team’s hauler to transit from show site to show site. Similar to the familiar routine of the Darnell’s Shockwave, Aftershock passes down the crowd line before smoking out the middle of the runway after which the truck makes a high speed run in preparation for the truck’s second performance of the day, where a drag race between Aftershock and P2 was slated to occur at Wings Over Northern Michigan.

In the spirit of Aftershock’s 1940s era styling, the trainer flight took to the skies. The formation was made up of Bruce Koch’s SNV-1 Valiant, one of four of the SNV-1 variants of the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator still flying. The WW2 era basic trainer resembles a fixed-gear variant of the venerable T-6/SNJ/Harvard and has a smaller streamlined cowling and lower horsepower than its North American Aviation cousin. Bruce’s Valiant is a common sight at formation training events in Michigan, and beautifully restored wearing the nose art of “California Girl”.

The L-19 popped really well against the low overcast that prevailed Saturday’s early flying

The SNV-1 was joined by Mike Weinfurter’s L-19 Bird Dog. First flown in the late 40s, the L-19 is an observation/liaison variant of the Cessna 170 that served in the Vietnam War, and had a solid reputation as a capable spotting aircraft that was able to take on numerous other roles including medevac, communications, and training. The orange aircraft is equipped with a pair of rockets under each wing to help drive home the fact that, while the aircraft resembles the ubiquitous Cessna light singles, this is very much a warbird, having been used to train Army forward air controllers near Ft. Rucker. The L-19 led the SNV-1 through a series of flat and photo formation passes before the formation split up, allowing for each plane to make solo passes and recovering.

Continuing with the warbirds, the Yankee Air Museum’s aircraft took to the skies over Northern Michigan. The polished silver B-17 “Yankee Lady” led her fleetmate, the recently painted C-47 “Hairless Joe” through a series of passes in front of the crowd at Gaylord. The sweet sound of radial engines rumbled over the crowd, as the aircraft brought history to life showing off two of the most recognizable aircraft from World War II.

Mike Vanknin throwing his Extra through another roll

Having performed in nearly all of the previous airshows at Gaylord Regional Airport, Mike Vaknin’s slot during the flying schedule was up next. Wearing a custom carbon fiber cowling that would look more at home on an Edge 540v3 weaving in and out of Red Bull Air Race pylons, Mike’s black and white Extra powered through a high-energy aerobatic routine with the crisp precision we’ve come to expect from unlimited class monoplanes in this day and age. Unfortunately a technical issue prevented Mike from flying during Sunday’s show, but if history is any indication, we’ll be seeing him in the skies over Northern Michigan again for the 2020 edition of the show!

The sound of four Saphir APUs soon filled the east end of the ramp, as startup procedures began for the Czech-Mate Jet Team. Minutes later, a full power runup of the Ivchenko AI-25 turbofans commenced just prior to the team taxiing out. The team is made up of four Aero L-39 Albatros jets based around Michigan, each one flown by an experienced formation-qualified aviator, and Gaylord was the debut performance for this particular iteration of the team.

Looks like the field will be IFR for a bit following this takeoff

Due to runway width, the team elected to take off in two elements, with the #4 jet taking off solo first, followed by 1-3 taking off together. Scott in Czech 4 performed a single turn after takeoff before sliding into the slot position of the diamond formation prior to the first pass. The team entered from behind the crowd with plumes of smoke trailing for all to see and began a series of passes and formation changes that showcased the skills of the pilots to hold tight positions in diamond, trail, and echelon.

The Czech-Mate diamond approaching for a flat pass

Following the formation portion of the show the team came in for an overhead break. Czech 2 and 4 landed, while Czech 1 and 3 performed missed approaches and re-entered the box for a series of aerobatic passes consistent with the prevailing weather conditions at the time. Throughout the weekend, both looping and rolling maneuvers were utilized in the demo in addition to a minimum radius turn. Based on the reaction from the crowd it seems the demo was well received, and one can only hope the team can make more show appearances in coming seasons!

Skip Stewart and Aftershock returned to the Gaylord flight line as the Russian turbines spun down. Mark Smith began to rile up the crowd with fireballs, smoke, and burner pops, while Skip taunted the World’s Fastest Firetruck with a series of low passes, even flying through Aftershock’s smoke multiple times. As Aftershock got into position on Runway 27, Skip flew P2 in a wide pattern heading back towards the truck. As Skip passed Aftershock in a tailslide, Crew Chief Neal Darnell dropped his arm, signaling Mark Smith to release the brakes and rocket down the runway. The speed and acceleration of Aftershock is truly incredible and P2 was soon left behind on the day’s races, though one can’t help but think there’s a lot more in Prometheus’ tank if Skip really wanted to give Aftershock a run for their money. Needless to say the race was one of the favorite moments for kids and casual airshow fans alike and made a solid impression on the organizers who signed up Darnell Racing’s Shockwave to attend next year’s show!

Despite the backlight, Paul Wood’s photo pass in the A-4 looked amazing!

The final acts of Wings Over Northern Michigan 2019 came as part of the US Navy’s Tailhook Legacy Flight program. Up first was a flight demonstration by the founder of the Warbird Heritage Foundation, Paul Wood, in a Douglas A-4B Skyhawk. It truly is a shame that the “Scooter” is not a more common sight at airshows, as the agile Cold War era attack jet puts on one heck of a demo. The aircraft flown at Gaylord was built in 1957, was decommissioned in the 80s, returned to flight status in 1989 with a museum prior to being grounded just a few years later and sent to the EAA Museum at Oshkosh. The jet was restored and returned to flight status in 2009 and has been flying airshows ever since. In Paul’s hands, the jet’s show sequence included a series of high performance maneuvers that kept the beautiful aircraft close to the crowd. Additional maneuvers brought the A-4 in low and slow, with a dirty pass showing off the plane’s lanky landing gear, speed brakes, and tailhook.

The Tailhook Legacy Flight with two iconic aircraft

Following the solo portion of the demo, the Skyhawk was joined by an EF-18G, the electronic warfare variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet that replaced the Navy’s EA-6B Prowlers. The visiting Growler was in town from NAS Whidbey Island and flown by VAQ-129. The Vikings are a Fleet Replacement Squadron (Similar to VFA-106 and -122), the Navy’s only Growler training squadron, and has helped train Australian EF-18G crews as well. The Tailhook Legacy Flight serves to display the proud heritage of Naval Aviation in a similar way to the USAF’s popular Heritage Flight program. The demo profile consisted of a series of formation passes including a photo pass, a hook down pass, and a break.

The EF-18G extracting a lot of vapor from the Northern Michigan skies

Following the break the A-4 recovered while the Growler flew a few solo maneuvers that included high speed flat and photo passes resulting in considerable amounts of vapor appearing over the wings of the jet. Rumor has it that the squadron is in the process of standing up an internal training program that may allow them to expand their participation in Legacy Flights in the future, and maybe even begin flying a more complete demo profile. With the recent announcement about the draw-back of TAC Demo performances in 2019, one can only hope that VAQ-129 can help pick up some of the slack, and bring a bit more noise as part of Tailhook Legacy Flights in the coming seasons!

As the weekend came to a close, the sun poked out from behind Sunday’s persistent overcast, bathing the grounds in a warm golden glow for departures. In 10 years Wings Over Northern Michigan has gone from a relatively unknown show to one capable of drawing support from military demo teams and some airshow industry legends. The hard work of the volunteers was surpassed only by the hospitality shown by Michigan’s “Alpine Village”, and it will be a pleasure to see what the next ten years may bring to Gaylord Regional Airport.

The Author preparing in the back seat of Czech 3 prior to Friday’s practice flight. Photo courtesy of Ms. Sandy Koch

The author would like to thank Shari, the EAA volunteers, and the entire Wings Over Northern Michigan team for helping ensure top notch access during the show as well as putting small town hospitality on full display for the weekend visitors. Additional thanks are owed to Air Boss Scott Duck, Skip Stewart, and Cari Miller for their assistance in ensuring the photos that accompany this article could be captured as intended. Finally, to Spanky, Pucker, V+12, and Scott of the Czech-Mate Jet Team, a heartfelt thank you for taking me under your wings (and in your back seats) to experience airshows from a perspective so few get to see. I’ll try to relax back there next time lest I end up with a new callsign so soon after being slapped with “#”!

Editor’s note:  After the completion of this edition of the Wings Over Northern Michigan air show, a Facebook announcement conveyed that this 2019 show would be the last show in this stretch. Mentioned in the posting was that the producers wanted to end on a “high note”, and by Mark’s account, they did just that.

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