The Other Side of Thunder 2016

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The Skies over Detroit’s Willow Run International Airport (KYIP) are devoid once again of high performance fighters – of today and yesterday – once again. Thunder Over Michigan 2016 is in the rear view mirror and in the history books. Thunder 2016 had it all: Mustangs to Migs, Hueys to Hornets, and A10s to Avengers. The highlights were many, from high performance fighters such as the FA-18E/F Super Hornet to the F-22A Raptor, flying maneuvers that are hard to believe possible. The Breitling Jet Team put on a dazzling display of aerial artistry, flying the highly maneuverable L-39 Albatross.

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If these were not enough, add in the F-100 Super Sabre, Mig-17 Fresco, and the TA-4J Skyhawk, all of which kept the intensity and noise level very high. Not to be forgotten were the Yankee Air Museum’s B-25 Mitchell and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, that graced the skies on a daily basis.

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Many a story will be written, many a photo posted, and many a video watched – but there is also a different type of Thunder that goes relatively unnoticed. It is this type of Thunder that draws me to Willow Run year after year. In between all of the Warbird and Fast Jet action, several other classic aircraft also come and go. They were once the workhorses that flew passengers around the world in their heyday. Their passenger flying days now over; they fulfill an even greater need today. They keep American production lines and factories running. I am referring to the freighters and the airlines that fly them.

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These are not your common household airline names such as American, Delta, and United. We are talking about names such as USA Jet, Kalitta Charters II, Berry Aviation, Alliance, Northern Air Cargo, and TSM. These airlines, and many more, use Willow Run on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is a commercial airline spotters bonanza: Boeings, Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, Falcons, Lears, Shorts, Brasilias, and many more grace the ramps and runways. Two airlines call Willow Run home – those being Kalitta Charters II, and USA Jet.

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Kallita Charters II, with its’ rich history, has its’ base of operations on the west side of the field. Their fleet consists of Learjets and Falcon Jets in passenger, aeromedical and cargo configuration. Boeing 727s, 737s and Douglas DC9 Series 10 and 30 type aircraft round out their fleet. Kalitta also has a fleet of Boeing 747-200 and -400 type aircraft in regular scheduled service around the world. Kalitta has many different divisions including med flight, passenger charter, contract maintenance, and many more. Conrad “Connie” Kalitta started in the airline industry back in 1967.

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USA Jet has its’ base of operations on the east side of the field and is part of the Active Aero Group. USA Jet’s fleet also consists of Falcon Jets, Boeing 727s and Douglas DC9 Series 10 and 30 type aircraft, as well as McDonnell Douglas MD80 Freighters. Founded in 1994, USA Jet plays a vital part in the “One Stop Shop” concept that Active Aero offers its’ customers. USA Jet provides on demand charter service that compliments scheduled ground and expedited ground shipping options. Ironically it is the Active Aero ramp that Thunder Over Michigan uses for the yearly airshow.

Willow Run International Airport officially opened in 1942 and played a crucial and vital part during the Second World War effort. 8,685 B-24 Liberators rolled off the production line before shutting down in 1945. In 1946 Willow Run (which was named because of a small stream that flowed through the woods and farmland where the airport was built) became Detroit’s primary airport, with airlines moving from the – then overcrowded Detroit City Airport. Historic airlines such as Capital, TWA, Northwest Orient, and North Central Airlines moved into Willow Run. Not a jet was to be found at Willow Run; only piston power here – Convairs, Stratocruisers, Constellations, and Douglas types. Aircraft production would also return; from 1947 to 1953, C-119 Boxcars and C-123 Providers rolled off production lines.

Commercial Airline Service started to come to an end, when in 1958 all but United Airlines made the move to the present day Detroit International Airport. United Airlines was the last to leave in 1967. The days of commercial airline service to Willow Run were over. However, Willow Run Airport was re-born in time to the important freight airport it now is. Many airlines that have passed into the annals of aviation history called Willow Run home. American International, Murray Aviation, Trans Continental, and Zantop were all once based here.

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Today, Willow Run is still a vital cargo and business jet and prop airport. The accompanying photos from this year’s Thunder Over Michigan Airshow are just a small glimpse into the daily comings and goings of this historic airport. Thunder this year was another fantastic weekend of airliner type activity and photo opportunities. Oh, and there was the other Airshow that was pretty spectacular as well. Until next time “Blue Skies to all!”