Going Corsair Crazy at Thunder Over Michigan

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If the diversity of the Photo Pit patrons was anything to go by, Thunder Over Michigan’s reputation for being one of the world’s premier warbird-focused airshows remains alive and well. Among others, attendees came from all corners of the US in addition to overseas guests from as far away as Europe and New Zealand. Motivated by Thunder’s slot in the schedule just one week after Oshkosh, many airshow fans hopped from EAA’s legendary gathering to Southeast Michigan to take in the sights and sounds during the Yankee Air Museum’s annual show at historic Willow Run Airport.

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The theme for the 2019 Thunder Over Michigan airshow was “Corsair Crazy”; an attempt to host the largest gathering of the cranked wing fighter since the operational days in the 50s. In addition to the 11 Corsairs, over half a dozen Mustangs, and a pair of B-25s were on hand to round out the warbird portion of the flying program. No matter how you slice it, that’s quite the lineup of war-era planes, and doesn’t include the civilian and modern military flyers!

On the vast ramp, a wide variety of historic and modern aircraft were out on display. From South to North, a single line of aircraft included an RCAF CC-130J, two USAF ANG F-16s from Toledo, a Luftwaffe A400, a CH-47 and KC-135 from nearby Selfridge ANGB, a pair of USAF C-130s, another pair of Vipers courtesey of the Alabama Red Tails, a US Navy E-6B Mercury, and yet another C-130. The middle row featured two EF-18Gs from VAQ-129, and a smorgasbord of T-6 Texan II’s from the USAF and US Navy, bookended by two of the Yankee Air Museum’s current restoration projects. A number of smaller warbirds and some of the P-51s filled the east side of the ramp. On the hot ramp at the far north end of the grounds sat the 11 Corsairs in addition to some of the other performer’s aircraft.

As with previous years, the flying portion of the show was split up into two separate “Acts” separated by a two hour break. Despite the Thunderbirds’ absence, the showline they requested made a return, paralleling the 05/23 runways which greatly expands the spectator areas, and more importantly improves the light for the photographers among the crowd. The show’s photo pit was located at the extreme right end of the grounds up next to Taxiway G, affording the gathered shutterbugs a close up view of the vast majority of the performers as they started up and taxied out.

The first act of each day’s show was kicked off by the US Air Force T-6 Texan IIs, which were followed by Jim Tobul’s graceful solo aerobatic act in the Corsair Korean War Hero, and the Class of ‘45 act where Scott Yoak and the P-51 Quicksilver leads Korean War Hero on a series of passes reminiscent of a heritage flight. Following the Class of ’45, Tobul landed, and the first of the two World War II ground battle reenactments between German and Allied forces began in earnest at show center.

Not content to allow the ground troops to have all the fun, 7 P-51s (Old Crow, Gentleman Jim, Petie 2nd, Swamp Fox, Moonbeam McSwine, and Glamorous Glen III) started up and taxied out to join Quicksilver in the skies over Ypsilanti. Photographers in the photo pit were treated to the symphony of a synchronized preflight runup of 7 Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin V-12s just a few hundred feet away as the aircraft prepared for flight. Led into the air by Old Crow, with Quicksilver bringing up the rear of an initial pass from in front of the crowd, the Mustangs began a racetrack pattern, passing from showright to left in front of the crowd and circling back around behind the show line. With 8 of the legendary warbirds in the air, this resulted in a 10 minute period where a P-51 was performing a pass in front of the crowd every 10 seconds or so. To have so many opportunities to get photos of Mustangs in action was an amazing experience, though the suggestion to have physical therapists on hand to assist with sore shoulders in future years was floated to the show organizers come lunch time. Despite the struggle of holding big glass up for an extended time with effectively no breaks, it was absolutely well worth it given that the best light of the show belonged to the legendary North American P-51 Mustangs and their (Detroit Built) Packard Merlin engines! While the German forces had the upper hand at the end of Act 1’s battle, the afternoon’s engagement was still to come and would decide the winner of the battle for show center at Willow Run!

Mike Goulian’s turn in the box was next, as the sole modern aerobatic performance of the show. As always, Mike’s routine showed off his flying expertise and crisp style of aerobatics, along with the capabilities of the Extra 330SC that he currently uses for airshows. It never ceases to amaze how precisely Goulian’s tumbles in the Extra are, throwing them in the middle of sequences, yet still consistently starting and ending in a perfect attitude. In stark contrast to the misty overcast that was prevalent during the 2018 Thunder Over Michigan show, airshow fans and performers were treated to blue skies this year, allowing the trail of smoke from the Whelen and Alpina sponsored Extra to really pop for photos!

The closing part of the first act took the form of a trio formation of flybys from a two-ship of Mountain Home-based F-15E’s. Due to the lack of arresting gear at the show site, the Eagles staged out of nearby Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and treated the show crowds to the sound of freedom. The aircraft’s passes were in loose line abrest formation out over the runway, and featured afterburners and somewhat spirited overhead breaks, minus the landing gear and touchdown that one would normally perform after such a maneuver. The afterburners and modern jet noise were a great warm up for the afternoon’s performance by the Viper Demo Team!

The second half of the flying program was kicked off by Scott Yoak’s full aerobatic demo in the P-51 Quicksilver. In addition to the standard set of loops, rolls, and photo passes, Scooter’s signature 5 and 16 point rolls show off just how smooth and flawless an experienced pilot can appear when flying the legendary Mustang. Sunday’s edition of the show suffered due to a mechanical issue with the following act, and Scooter was all too happy to provide an extra few minutes of entertainment including some maneuvers that are not normally a part of his demo.

Up next was the Canadian Air Force’s CC-130J demonstration. The Canadian’s took the Herk up for a handful of passes showing off the surprising power and maneuverability of the most prevalent tactical airlifer in the western world. Seeing a fighter yanking and banking down low is one thing, but watching a 4-engined turboprop do it never gets old!

As the second half of the ground battle reenactment began, the B-25s “Yankee Warrior” and “Georgie’s Gal” took off to assist the allied troops. As the reenactors engaged below, the B-25s set up for a series of passes above the battlefield. Photo passes, and flat passes with and without the bomb bay doors opened were performed. While not as aggressively flown as the bombers were a few weeks prior at Toledo, their presence added an air of authenticity to the scene playing out below.

Following the battle, it was time to bring this show back to present day as the Viper Demo Team’s performance began. MAJ Garret Schmitz, Callsign: Toro, fired up the F-16 under the watchful eye of three of the team’s dedicated crew chiefs. PhotoRecon was able to witness and photograph the team’s preflight routine up close and personal. Even at shows like Thunder where the Viper isn’t staged right in front of the crowd, the ground routine was performed with the same crisp and professional style, with SSgt Trevor Griswold overseeing the startup, and SSgt Austin Dixon inspecting the jet during startup. With all systems go, Toro was marshaled out to the runway, and a salute and “Double Down” sign being thrown up between pilot and crew.

As the team would say, a rage-fest soon began as Toro began the demo with the aggressive bank and pull on takeoff. The next 12 minutes were full of noise, vapor, G’s and afterburner, along with the commentary of team superintendent MSgt Chris Schneider, talking us through each of the maneuvers performed by Maj Schmitz in the F-16. Schneider was assisted at show center by team NCOIC (Non-Comissioned Officer In Charge) TSgt Ryan Hutchinson, and TSgt Drew Wilson.

Following the Max Climb and Dedication Pass, Maj Schmitz rejoined off the right wing of Moonbeam McSwine. Off of Moonbeam’s left wing was another P-51, Glamorous Glen III forming a three ship Heritage Flight. While the sun had swung around and minimized the opportunity for quality images, seeing an additional warbird in formation with the F-16 was still a sight to behold.

With the Viper and Mustangs back on the ground, it was finally time for the headlining attraction of this year’s Thunder Over Michigan. A gathering of Corsairs from the WWII and Korea era that ended up consisting of 11 aircraft. The aircraft were on a ramp that had been open to the public in the morning, with the iconic naval fighter’s bent wings folded up, exposing the complex linkages to the outboard flaps and control surfaces for all to see. When their time to shine came, the ramp was cleared of spectators, and the pilots manned their aircraft. Upon a command from the flight lead, 11 Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engines fired up in unison, and once the engines were rumbling away, the aircraft lowered their wings together, once again on command from lead. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful and powerful display of WWII era airpower than a squadron’s worth of aircraft taking off and unfolding their wings in unison before taxiing out for a runup.

Following the impressive pre-flight routine, the 11 Corsairs took to the skies performing interval takeoffs. With all the aircraft airborne, a pair of four ship formations followed by a three ship approached show center from behind the crowd. Passing over centerpoint, the aircraft began to break off to the right and passed by the crowd from the right after 270 degrees of turn to start the low altitude exhibition of the legendary aircraft. After their first pass, the bent wing fighters peeled up high and left, to reposition behind the crowd for the racetrack pattern similar to the earlier P-51 passes.

Once again, photographers were in heaven, as a different Corsair passed by the crowd every 10-20 seconds for what seemed like hours (at least to those of us holding heavy lenses up the entire time!). The symphony of round engines, the sight of the aircraft banking and showing off down at low altitude, and the frequency of passes was magical, and served as an excellent way to headline a show that promised to be “Corsair Crazy”! Following a dirty pass from each aircraft, the pilots departed the immediate vicinity of Willow Run and formed up for a challenging line abreast pass. 11 Corsairs, with service spanning from WWII to Korea and beyond lined up wingtip to wingtip spanning the width of the crowd was a sight to behold, and one not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Once again, the 2019 edition of Thunder Over Michigan proved that when it comes to seeing warbirds in action, a summer weekend in Southeast Michigan should be on the bucket list for avgeeks. There are not many weekends that can claim to have 20 or more WWII era warbirds up and flying in airshows across the country, and Thunder made it happen at a single location! The 2020 edition of the show is going to take place on the 29th and 30th of August, and will feature the return of the US Navy Blue Angels among what is sure to be a healthy amount of vintage airpower to keep the history alive. Stay tuned!

The author would like to thank the entire 2019 Viper Demo Team for providing a look behind the scenes to share with the PhotoRecon readers! In addition, a debt of gratitude is owed to Steph Stricklen and Scott Buie with the Thunder Over Michigan media team for their assistance in helping make the photos that accompany this article happen!

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