Behind the Scenes During the 2016 New York Air Show

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A lot of work and effort occurs before spectators view an air show – which usually lasts just a weekend. Realistically, for many of the larger air shows across the Northern Hemisphere, events within the event begin at least two or three days before the public arrives. During the New York Air Show, held over America’s Labor Day Weekend of 2016 at the Stewart International Airport, there was as much unseen activity leading up to the Saturday and Sunday shows, and even more after the daily flying ended, as there was in front of the crowd. Some events were public and some private; all of which became part of the show’s tapestry that was stitched over the weekend. These efforts by performers and air show producers often go unnoticed, but without these labors the show couldn’t and wouldn’t go on.

Thursday before the weekend show, it was Media Day aboard the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburg. Although physically located across the airport from where the air show would be flown, the base would be the Air Force Thunderbirds’ home-away-from-home during the weekend. Additionally, the host 105th Airlift Wing was bringing a new treat to the air show table, in the form of a first-time-ever locally flown C-17 flight demonstration. Members of local media got an opportunity to talk with two of the eight C-17 flight demonstration crewmembers, who explained what the aircraft would do during their routine, and what technological marvels are built into the jet that wouldn’t be seen. There was a detailed tour of one of their jets too, from the cargo deck to the cockpit.

As this media opportunity wound down, another of the Wing’s jets arrived mid-afternoon and unloaded an M1A2 Abrams tank from Fort Benning GA. The tank was part of the air show’s static display, and would be transported to nearby West Point Military Academy for a program after the show and holiday. The sight of the tank gingerly descending the cargo ramp, and then motoring off towards a taxiway was slightly unnerving, the large vehicle maneuvering in the vicinity of some giant aircraft!

The Air Force’s Thunderbirds, whose efforts leading up to the show were equally as impressive as their two air show performances, also arrived on Thursday. A C-17 Globemaster III departed Las Vegas NV’s Nellis AFB very early in the morning (a 5AM show time); aboard were the non-flying ground crew – officers and enlisted men and women who perform a wide range of duties, including crew chiefs, aircraft maintainers, Public Affairs personnel and even the Vice Commander of the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC), Brigadier General Paul Welch.

General Welch is the second in command of the USAFWC, the organization under which the Thunderbirds (officially known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron) fall. Explaining that he and other senior officers deploy with units under their command from time to time, he’d experience the hardships and the efforts needed by Air Force personnel to succeed in their missions. This includes flying “back seat” in front line fighters, bombers and transports, as well as with the Thunderbirds, which he did during the weekend. The General would also provide support for another important event later that afternoon.

The famous red, white and blue F-16s would follow this advance team to Stewart later in the day. The Thunderbirds’ C-17 joined Thunderbird 8, piloted by Advance Coordinator and Narrator Major Scott Petz, on the Stewart ramp. Major Petz, the squadron’s Executive Officer, Captain Angelina Urbina, and the Public Affairs personnel on the trip then took turns answering a group of assembled media representatives’ questions. A large part of the Thunderbirds’ mission is to represent the thousands of men and women in uniform. To get the word out about the diverse jobs performed by Air Force personnel, how better to do it than to fly a (very lucky) television journalist aboard an hour-long flight in an F-16! On this day, Albany’s NEWS10 reporter Rachel Yonkunas would be the lucky reporter, and by all accounts, she passed her media flight with flying colors – withstanding the nine-G turn and turning in both of her airsickness bags unused!

The majority of the F-16s arrived over the airport after the media flight departed, and the pilots completed a site survey by flying certain maneuvers to spot visual cues from above, as they’d look during the team’s flight demonstration. The sleek F-16s landed and taxied to their assigned spots; after the pilots dismounted, the ground crews went to work servicing and cleaning the jets. I got to speak with Major Alexander Goldfein, the team’s right wingman, known as Thunderbird 3. Among his duties during the weekend was planning and coordinating the next morning’s planned fly-by of the Statue of Liberty for a series of air-to-air and air-to-ground photos. He had done a similar plan during an earlier show in the year over Jones Beach, Long Island, and said that the two flights would follow similar routes, but flown in reverse.

Up until now it seemed like a usual deployment for the team, but just prior to Thunderbird 8 returning from its media flight, we were invited to join the assembled pilots and ground crew to witness the planeside promotion of a trio of Thunderbirds. Senior Airman Tabatha McCarthy, Technical Sargent Gregory Lynch and Captain Nicholas Eberling all received promotions. The Squadron Commander, Lt. Colonel Christopher Hammond, spoke eloquently of each Air Force member, and assisted by General Welch, then ceremoniously “punched on” the next rank on each team member’s shoulder.

Friday’s Thunderbirds activities included a 9:30 AM launch for the Statue of Liberty photo flight, an early afternoon full practice show, and then the squadron’s officers and selected air show managers would helicopter down to New York City, to ceremoniously ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange to finish out their day… the “Ambassadors In Blue” received a standing ovation when they arrived on the trading floor! Later that evening, some of the team made a short trip to the Angry Orchard (hard cider) facility to socialize with air show volunteers and the general public.

After flying the Air Show’s finale on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, team members spent plenty of time signing autographs and talking with spectators. Later on Saturday evening, a private reception was held in the 2D Aviation Detachment – the “Wings of West Point” hangar too. For the Thunderbirds who made the trip out east from their home at Nellis AFB, the New York Air Show was busy enough with public events, never mind having to do your primary job of insuring that the aerial display would take flight. Add to that, for some lucky team members, family and friends from nearby towns were able to visit with them in between team duties.

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The Thunderbirds Public Affairs Superintendent, Master Sargent Chrissy Best, spoke with me about many “behind the scenes” topics about the Thunderbirds, including a major assignment she manages, that of the renovation of the Thunderbirds’ Museum back at Nellis AFB. More than 60 years’ worth of history was put into storage recently, while the museum space is renovated. Recent flooding caused problems in the hangar, but MSgt. Best said that the project is on pace to reopen sometime in early 2017. History is important to the Squadron; she was replaced on a recent air show deployment at the last minute when the flooding occurred in the North Las Vegas area, and she worked hard to insure that the museum and its collections of gear, photos and mementoes were safeguarded.

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Another jet team present for the weekend was the U.S. Navy Hornet Tactical Demonstration Team. Flying the Boeing F/A-18C Hornet from VFA-106, Lieutenant Scott “MacGruber” Lindahl and a three-member ground crew launched the fighter daily. “MacGruber’s” “day job” is as an instructor pilot at NAS Oceana VA, but his highly visible weekend job was to present the Hornet’s mighty power and maneuverability to the public. The team of four Navy personnel also made numerous appearances at public events, such as the Angry Orchard reception on Friday evening before the weekend. The quartet were highly approachable and offered a wealth of knowledge and stories about subjects like aircraft carrier operations and how the Hornet fits into the civilian ATC system while flying. Plenty of autographs were signed too!

As we’ve already read, the New York Air Show offered a pair of public “meet and greet” events, on two evenings before the weekend air shows. Thursday evening, a “meet the performers” hour was paired with a reception for local sponsors at Billy Joe’s Ribworks, a restaurant on the Hudson River. Many civilian and military performers were on hand, and restaurant guests could strike up conversations with them from time to time. On Friday evening, the local Angry Orchard’s Innovation Cider House was the venue to another, more intimate party that was open to the public, for a small price. Samples of the locally-brewed hard cider and food were offered, and the sunset was beautiful. Again, many air show performers and team members were present and the relaxing atmosphere led to laughter and great conversation.

Friday was another day for interaction between local and international media, and the show performers, at the Stewart International Airport. Atlantic Aviation seemed to be the hub of activity in the morning, as the Thunderbirds had already departed for their Statue of Liberty flypast. After the B-25 Panchito departed with a lucky group of passengers, media was led onto the Fixed Base Operator’s ramp to the GEICO Skytypers SNJ-2s, which were available for photos. A few pilots and ground crew answered questions too. The local airline operators – Allegiant, Delta, Jet Blue and American, plus many corporate jets and general aviation planes continued to operate throughout the day near the ramp too. Kent Pietsch and his brightly painted Interstate Cadet were ready to give one lucky media representative a short flight around the airport; David Windmiller and Buck Roetman and their aerobatic planes were available for photos and to answer questions. Larry Labriola and his L-39 Albatross attracted attention too… this would be his first year out of the past five that he wouldn’t be heading west to the Reno Air Races, and Larry explained some of the requirements and skills needed to be included in the fastest motorsport in the world.

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Later, we were escorted across another part of the big ramp and awaited an Army UH-72A helicopter’s departure, carrying the West Point Parachute Team, who would make a practice jump to start off the afternoon practice session. As luck would have it, a trio of New York State Police helicopters were parked on the ramp and are based next to the Army’s detachment, sharing the adjacent hanger. These police helicopters would provide critical eyes in the sky during the weekend, helping with traffic control and security. All three were Bell-produced; one was a UH-1H Huey, another an upgraded Huey II, and the third was a newer Bell 407. Flight crews spoke with us, describing some of their capabilities and missions.

Helicopters were a big part of the New York Air Show, whether behind the scenes or out in front of the spectators. During the shows, the Coast Guard presented a rescue scenario using a Eurocopter MH-65D Dolphin based in Atlantic City during the show. A Navy MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter was on static display at the show, and crews described their specialized mine countermeasures mission of this large Sikorsky-built aircraft. The aforementioned New York State Police helicopters all flew in from and out to their operating areas on their assignments. And, for a personal thrill for spectators, Independent Helicopters offered rides throughout the morning and early afternoon, for a reasonable price. The Robinson R-44 helicopters carried three or 4 (weight dependent) passengers on a round-robin aerial tour of the valley area, and a great view of the air show grounds when arriving back to the north end of the show grounds. Kids of all ages almost skipped back to the gate after their flights; big smiles told of their excitement of, what was for many, their first helicopter flight.

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Although the New York Air Show was featured on Saturday and Sunday, there were public events on two days before the weekend too. For many of the performers, it was a four day show. Many commitments on the ground were equally important as those in the air. Public relations and advertising duties were transparent, as real people with handshakes and smiles showcased the attractiveness of flying and the convenience of the local Stewart International Airport. Lots of effort behind the scenes contributed to a show rich with opportunities to meet the performers, learn something new about aviation, and even participate with a flight during the show.

Thanks to those who made this “behind the scenes” missive possible: From the New York Air Show: Cathy Bassett, Chris Dirato, and Phillip Marro. From the Air Force Thunderbirds: Major Alexander Goldfein, Master Sargent Chrissy Best, and Captain Sara Harper. Plus, Brigadier General Paul Welch, the U.S. Navy Hornet Tactical Demonstration Team, the Atlantic Aviation ground and front desk crew, Heather Howley from Independent Helicopters, and a host of other unnamed, but not forgotten, individuals who added to the tapestry in Newburg, NY.

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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