Welcome to Michigan; COVID 19 Complications Force an Audible for USAF Demo Teams

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On an overcast Wednesday with humidity hanging heavily in the air, a McChord-based C-17 Globemaster touched down with a load of support personnel and equipment for the US Air Force’s Ambassadors in Blue, the Thunderbirds.

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An hour later, the 6 red, white, and blue F-16s touched down, joining the C-17, pulling into a precise line alongside the #8 jet that arrived the day prior to prepare for the team’s arrival. While this weekend’s airshow would be taking place in the skies over London, Ontario, Canada, these events transpired on American soil at Michigan’s Selfridge Air National Guard Base which will be home to many of Airshow London Skydrive’s performers for the weekend.

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Due to travel restrictions in place amidst the ongoing Coronavirus situation, questions were raised by Canadian authorities as to the necessity of having dozens of American personnel in town for an airshow. Not wanting to pass up one of just a handful of opportunities to perform for a live audience this year, a scheme was devised to have the Thunderbirds, along with all of the Air Force single ship demo teams, stage from Selfridge, just a few miles from the border between the United States and Canada so the performances could go on. The move to Michigan will allow the vast majority of the logistical footprint of the Thunderbirds and ACC demo teams to remain stateside, with only a bare bones team stepping foot into Canada to support the USAF’s presence at the show.

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Upon the team’s arrival, PhotoRecon.net had the privilege of speaking with MAJ Zane Taylor, pilot of Thunderbird 4. In his first season on the team MAJ Taylor was undoubtedly excited to have the opportunity to perform the demo for the public at just the fourth site this season. Speaking to him about some of the technical challenges of both this particular remote basing arrangement and the difficulties of trying to execute the Thunderbird’s mission in an era where airshows are all but extinct revealed that the team’s skill, pride, and professionalism were alive and well despite spending most of the year “cooped up” at Nellis/Indian Springs and Langley, far from the public eye. From fuel planning to support team logistics, air traffic control considerations to international borders, London stands out in a show season that has been anything but “normal”. With “Operation America Strong”, flyovers, and their first few shows (Wyoming, Ocean City, and New York) in the rearview mirror, London represents one of the team’s few remaining shows on the 2020 airshow calendar. Needless to say, after a year of dealing with COVID-19, MAJ Taylor and the Thunderbirds are looking forward to a more normal 2021 just as much, if not more, than even the most enthusiastic of airshow fans!

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In a season where airshows have been few and far between, London has already begun to stand out as a challenging site. As the crow flies, CYXU is located approximately 80 nautical miles from KMTC, and, as you know, sits on the other side of an international border in Ontario. In addition to the distance, the nearby Great Lakes can greatly impact weather patterns in the area, such that one airport can be low IFR while the other can be severe clear and perfect airshow conditions. All this will factor in to the team’s planning, as a “slick” F-16, the clean configuration flown by the Thunderbirds during airshows without external fuel tanks, are not known for their long legs, particularly when being flown down low with the afterburners engaged much of the performance. On top of a 160 mile round trip from the staging area to the show site, divert fields have to be taken into account for both weather and mechanical purposes, further complicating the fuel calculations for the show weekend. Picking the right transit altitude will also be critical, minimizing traffic and ATC concerns while simultaneously trying to optimize fuel burn to maximize the among of “Play Time” available to fly in the box. Rumor has it that some of the single ship performers may rely on tanker support from a KC-135 that will also be performing fly-bys at the show, but as of this writing it has not been confirmed. Even the Thunderbirds considered using this option, however, the complication of gassing up 6 aircraft during the short transit was deemed a less than ideal solution.

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The Thunderbirds’ Wednesday arrival in Michigan is a day earlier than the team would generally arrive for a show. Due to the added complications of this particular weekend, the early arrival was baked in to the schedule to allow for an extra day on site, namely two additional practice flights, to figure out the optimal solution for the show. MAJ Taylor stated that the most likely solution will be to remove a handful of maneuvers from the show, likely burner-heavy ones, with an eye on not deleting any of the fan favorites from the routine. As always, safety and maintaining a healthy fuel margin is the priority while putting on the best possible demonstration for the attendees at Airshow London’s “Skydrive”.

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While not an ideal situation, and certainly not without challenges, it’s clear that the airshow industry, from organizers to headline acts is doing everything they can to adapt to the crazy times we’re currently in. It will be interesting to read reports from the other side of the border and seeing how the teams manage the obstacles ahead of them this weekend, as they strive to bring a sense of normalcy to a time period that can be described as anything but normal.

The author would like to thank all those who made this article possible, Thunderbirds 4, 8, and 12, in addition to the 127th Wing Public Affairs Office for graciously granting PhotoRecon.net the access required to give readers a taste of what goes in to putting on an international airshow in an era of travel restrictions, social distancing, and drive-in viewing.

Here’re a few from Friday’s practice day operations from Selfridge, Michigan… don’t forget, the sold out weekend shows of Airshow London’s SKYDRIVE are in London, Ontario this Saturday and Sunday!

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