Power in the Pines Returns After Five Years

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Story and photos by Mike Colaner

As the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That is precisely what Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL) did when it returned with the Power in the Pines airshow on their third attempt in five years on May 20th and 21st, 2023. It wasn’t due to a lack of trying that prevented Power in the Pines, but rather real-world events such as COVID-19 and the base’s heavy involvement in the withdrawal, evacuation, and relocation of Afghanistan refugees.

In 2020, Power in the Pines was to feature a stellar line-up of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force A-10 Demonstration Team, and featuring both the U.S. Army Golden Knights and U.S. Navy Leap Frogs Parachute Demonstration Teams. In 2022, Team McGuire secured a fantastic line-up of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team.

Power in the Pines is traditionally a bi-annual airshow on Mother’s Day weekend. This year, it was moved a week later, which is excellent for the base and those in attendance.

Knowing how important it was to the community to open the base gates to the public and the supporting community was paramount to the JB MDL leadership. With that mindset, they were determined not to wait until 2024 to reunite the community after the five-year hiatus, even though the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were unavailable.

The U.S. Army Golden Knights Gold Team conducted the opening ceremony and a mass exit airshow later in the program. The weather was not cooperative for the weekend, with a rain out on Saturday and low ceilings on Sunday. The Golden Knights were limited by a cloud ceiling of six thousand feet, only half of what they would have liked. I was fortunate enough to have been offered a ride along in their C-147, a militarized version of the Bombardier (De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited) Dash 8. I was selected to ride along in this ultimate thrill ride next to the open jump door. Secured only with a lap belt to keep me and the other passengers in the aircraft as the Golden Knights walked freely past us to the open jump door. After multiple passes over the jump zone, the jump master signals this time we are going. The jump light changes from red to green and the team members are gone with a whoosh of air as they hit the slipstream and rear the aircraft. One by one, they jump, and before we know it, they are all gone, and the fourteen members of the Golden Knights present are now just three: the two pilots and the crew chief.

Power in the Pines was advertised as one of the last chances to see the Air Force’s greatest tanker, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extender. With only two KC-10 airframes remaining with the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) at JB MDL, a third KC-10 was brought in for static display from the 60th AMW based at Travis Air Force Base, California.

‘Big Sexy,’ as the KC-10 is affectionately known, was accompanied by the C-17 Globemaster III and KC-46 Pegasus in the 305th AMW fly-by parade. With the KC-10 leading the way with the flying boom extended, the C-17 moved into the pre-contact position for air-to-air refueling. The the305th AMW’s newest tanker acquisition, the KC-46, followed in the trail.

The KC-10 will be missed by the crews and fellow airmen that relied on her for refueling missions. The KC-10 was more than a tanker; it could also carry 75 people and nearly 170,000 pounds of cargo over an un-refueled distance of about 4,400 miles. Its fuel capacity is and remains unmatched. Capable of carrying 356,000 pounds of fuel, more than the KC-135 Stratotanker’s 202,800 pounds as well as its replacement, the KC-46 at 212,000 pounds. The last JB MDL KC-10 was flown west for retirement to the Davis Monthan boneyard on June 22. The Air Force’s only KC-10 unit, the 60th AMW, will continue to fly the KC-10 into 2024. The KC-10 crews proudly wore pencil tabs displaying 10>46 (10 is greater than 46).

The 108th Wing (WG) of the New Jersey Air National Guard (NJ ANG) also participated with their KC-135R Stratotanker. They put their newly unveiled ‘Princeton’ orange tiger KC-135 on static display and flew another low visibility aircraft in the airshow. While there wasn’t any public mention of it, this may have been one of the last times anyone will see an NJ ANG KC-135. The Air Force announced in March of 2022 that the 108th WG would become a KC-46 associate unit of the 305th AMW and replace the Air Force Reserve in that role. It was confirmed in publications and with the members of the 108th WG that their KC-135s would be transferred to other units by the end of September 2023.

U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City provided an MH-65E Dauphin search and rescue demonstration. Atlantic City received the first upgraded MH-65D models to the “E” configuration in October 2022. The avionics upgrades include enhanced search and rescue capabilities, including modern “glass cockpit” technology that increases pilot and aircrew situational awareness. The Dauphin upgrades also include reliability and capability improvements for the automatic flight control system, enhanced digital weather and surface radar, and multifunctional displays with more accurate fuel calculations. The Coast Guard plans to convert all 98 Dolphin helicopters to the MH-65E configuration by the end of 2024.

The U.S. Marine Corps 4th Marine Air Wing (4th MAW), 4th Marine Air Group (4th MAG), stationed here at JB MDL, conducted several demonstrations beginning with Marine Light Attack Squadron Seven Seven Three (HMLA 773), the Red Dogs. 

The Red Dogs demonstrated the capabilities of the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom. These aircraft are the latest model and direct descendants of Bell Helicopter icons, the AH-1 (Cobra) and the UH-1 Iroquois (Huey). These aircraft were developed in 1966 and 1961 and are still in service in various models worldwide. The Viper and Venom share 85 percent parts commonality, designed to significantly reduce life-cycle costs and the aircraft’s logistical footprint while increasing maintainability and deployability.

Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron Seven Seven Two (HMH 772) Hustlers of JB MDL were next up with their heavy lift beast, the CH-53E Super Stallion. First deployed in 1981 and still in active and reserve service, the Super Stallion demonstrated its sling load capability by hoisting an M1114 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, better known as the HUMVEE. The HUMVEE weighs 12,000 pounds, only one-third of the Super Stallions capabilities for sling loads.

Warbirds were represented by the Delaware Aviation Museums B-25J ‘Panchito’ and the Commemorative Air Forces C-47′ That’s all Brother.’ While Panchito is a wartime aircraft, it is displayed as a tribute aircraft; that’s all, Brother is the real deal. Over 75 years ago, That’s All Brother led the main airborne invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. This very plane led over 800 C-47s that dropped over 13,000 paratroopers into a battle that changed the course of mankind.

The New Jersey Army National Guard (NJ ANG) 1st Battalion / 150th Aviation Regiment AHB (Assault Helicopter Battalion) continued the helicopter sling load theme with ‘Bambi buckets.’ The NJ ArNG provided two UH-60M Blackhawks that conducted water drops over the airfield. These Bambi buckets can carry 2,600 gallons and have been called upon to assist the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service with wildfires near JB MDL this past spring.

The big surprise for this year was that the airshow was advertising a demonstration by the world’s only combat-proven, undefeated, and undisputed air-to-air dominance fighter, the F-15C Eagle. This demo was so special because there was no official F-15C demo since the West Coast F-15 Demonstration Team was deactivated in 2008. The demo was piloted by Major Kevin ‘Sajak’ Donovan of the 104th Fighter Wing (FW) of the Massachusetts Air National Guard (MA ANG), who in my opinion stole the show with an action-packed eight minutes of afterburner passes, minimum radius turns and max climb-outs. As enjoyable as it was, this may have been New Jersey’s last chance to have seen this demo. The Air Force announced weeks before Power in the Pines that the 104th FW is retiring their F-15 C/D Eagles and transitioning to the F-35A Lightning II.

Making their Power in The Pines debut was Rik Volker in his Sukhoi SU-26 and Patrick McAlee in his Extreme-Flight Pitts. Both aerobatic acts utilized the taxiway before the crowd for takeoffs and landings. If you had a keen eye, you might have spotted Natalia McAlee working the crowd line as Wonder Woman with her husband, Patrick. She hosts her own podcast, The Wonder Woman of Aviation. Taking off and landing from the taxiway directly in front of the crowd enhanced his aerobatic performance.

Warbird Thunder SNJ-2 formation aerobatic team is the latest flight team of longtime friends Chris “CT” Thomas and Mike “Buick” Eberhardt. The crowd may have recognized their aircraft as former GEICO Skytypers. The pilots were also both former members of the Skytypers. Chris “CT” Thomas spent seven years flying as the Right-Wing Pilot in the #2 position and an alternate #4 Slot Pilot. Mike “Buick” Eberhardt spent fifteen years with the Skytypers as well as being a former member of the Heavy Metal Jet Team (L-39), the Black Diamond Jet Team (L-39 & Mig-17), as a civilian A-4 Skyhawk demonstration pilot and a 747 Captain and Instructor for a large worldwide cargo airline. The two SNJs perform a beautiful and graceful formation aerobatics. The two aircraft performed formation loops, aileron rolls, barrel rolls, and Cuban Eights but also separate, bringing more excitement with opposing aerobatics before rejoining for the final maneuvers.

Not to be outdone by landing on a taxiway, the C-17 West Coast demonstration team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord also landed and then backed up on the same taxiway. While the aircraft flown for the demonstration was McGuire-based, the West Coast demonstration team operated the Globemaster III. The C-17 demo showcases the aircraft’s mobility and capabilities.

This year’s headliner was the U.S. Air Force F-16 Viper Demonstration Team featuring Captain Aimee Fiedler, callsign ‘Rebel.’ The F-16 Viper demo team has one of the best specially painted demo jet in the U.S. Air Force. Nicknamed ‘Venom,’ the black snake-scaled F-16 is ominous with its snake eyes and tail enveloping an F-16. Having seen the practice demo on Friday, it was apparent that Captain Fiedler added a wow element to enhance her demo on Sunday, with flares popping several times during her passes. 

The static displays were plentiful, with JB MDL units providing a C-12 Huron, C-17 Globemaster III, KC-10A Extender, KC-46A Pegasus, KC-135R Stratotanker, AH-1Z Viper, CH-53E Super Stallion, and UH-1Y Venom. Other aircraft on display included the NJ ANG 177th FW F-16C Fighting Falcon, AH-64D Apache Longbow, T-1 Jayhawk, T-38 Talon, C-130 T’ Hercules, Civil Air Patrol C-182 Skylane, C-172 Skyhawk, DC-3 Yukon Sourdough, the L-19/O-1′ bird dog’, PA-28′ Piper Archer’, and the Mooney M20J.

Tactical vehicles were also plentiful as well. The 25K Halvorsen and 60K Tunner are aircraft cargo loading / transporting platforms capable of lifting 25,000- and 60,000-pound palleted loads, respectively. Other vehicles on display included the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT), A4 Light Equipment Transporter (LET) M1126 Stryker, M1278 Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), Logistics Vehicle System Replacement (LVSR), and the R-11 refueling truck.

Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Lakehurst (NAWCAD LKE) showed a small sample of their work as part of the show’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) display. The NAWCAD LKE display included a 3D scanner and printer. At the same time, the Collaborative Research, Engineering, Analysis, and Training in Immersive Virtual Environments (CREATIVE) Laboratory allowed visitors to explore some of the augmented reality technology they use daily. One aircraft prominently featured as a static display at the show was the C-130T Hercules, which NAWCAD LKE has worked hard to support, including replacing support equipment and upgrading the plane’s GPS.

While many other airshows also returned this year from years of hiatus and cancellations, they paled in comparison to Team McGuire when it came to the preparation and execution of their airshows. From the start, I had excellent communications with the Public Affairs Office. Directions were clear and concise; you knew they had a plan and how to execute it. Their handling and operations have differed from many of the shows I have covered since 2020. Many of the PAOs and Airshow Directors never could train the next group of replacements, and they appear to be doing on-the-job training. Not so at JB MDL, and they deserve a congratulatory pat on the back for the excellent job they did.

Overall, Power in the Pines welcomed a crowd of approximately 85,000 over three days, which was only limited by the weather on Saturday. Even in the rain, the base welcomed visitors. It drew a respectable attendance of 10,000, enjoying the static displays, simulators, demonstrations such as 3D printing, and hands-on STEM activities on Saturday.

Power in the Pines looks to return to the bi-annual schedule and start scheduling for a 2025 show.

Thank you to Derek VanHorn and the JB MDL PAO for making this an event well worth attending. I look forward to being here in 2025!

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