The 2020 New York International “Drive In” Air Show

Photos by the author, Bob Finch, Howard German and Kevin Burke

Due to continuing Covid-19 concerns, the August 29-30, 2020 New York International Air Show moved from its usual show site for the past five years, Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, to Orange County Airport about ten miles away.

Located in Montgomery, NY and surrounded by the Wallkill River, rolling hills and green farm pastures; Orange County Airport (KMGJ) encompasses 596 acres in the heart of the Hudson Valley. The airport has a storied history dating to WWII. With a need for additional U.S. Army training facilities, the Orange County airfield, along with sites in Ulster and Dutchess Counties, opened as an auxiliary field to nearby Stewart Airport. These airfields were used to train West Point cadets to fly with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Fast forward to July 17, 1960 when the airport hosted a two-mile race course called the ‘Empire State 200.’ Unfortunately, only 5,000 fans attended and the unsuccessful one-time event was to be the only NASCAR race ever held in the Hudson Valley. In 1963, Orange County took over ownership and operation of the airport.

New York International Air Show photo

In order to comply with the New York State Health Department, the 2020 show had to adopt a ‘drive-in’ format. Just three weeks prior to the event, the show’s promoters worked with Orange County government officials to create and submit a plan for New York Governor Cuomo’s approval. In order to comply with CDC social distancing guidelines, Orange County DPW and Parks Commissioners staff painted nearly 55 miles of lines, spread out over a half-mile wide area on 200 acres, on the airport’s grass infield. These lines created approximately 2,000 clearly defined boxes, providing for individual car-side viewing areas, protecting the public, while still allowing for an enjoyable air show experience. Unfortunately, the weather prognosticators guessed wrong about impending storms and the Saturday show was needlessly canceled. Saturday ticket holders were invited back Sunday, creating a need for more hurriedly painted boxes.

With George Cline Air Bossing, the show opened with a Mike Wiscus ‘teaser,’ playing of the National Anthem and American Flag jump by a West Point USMA Lakota Helicopter(EPIC). Wiscus in his Lucas Oil Pitts Special, returned later for his ‘three dimensional flying’ performance. Mike’s routine is unique to each show venue depending on atmospheric conditions, the terrain and generally how he feels like flying the show.

With smoke on, Mike dipped below the far tree line, skimming along the Wallkill River in his Mosquito pass. Other exciting civilian acts were performed by Scott Francis MXS aircraft and Scarsdale, New York’s own Larry Labriola’s L-39.

With a season of little flying, the Farmingdale, NY based GEICO Skytypers were elated to be back in the air. Their 2020 flying program was developed by Lead Solo #5 Steve “SkyKing” Salmirs. Steve incorporated his Air Force background when designing a routine that emphasized the six-ship’s formation breaks and rejoins. Salmirs’ goal was to bring it up close and personal to the crowd as artistry in motion. Their noticeably new display was refreshingly exciting!

The four-hour air show was highlighted by an all-star U.S. Air Force line-up, including the F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II Demo Teams along with a Heritage Flight and grand finale performance by the Thunderbirds.

Representing the USAF Air Combat Command, the F-22 and F-35A Demonstration Teams exhibited the unique aerial capabilities of the Air Force’s newest 5th generation multi-role stealth fighters. Commanding their respective demonstration teams for 2020 and 2021 were; F-22 Raptor pilot Major Joshua “Cabo” Gunderson (1st FW, Langley AFB, VA) and F-35A Lightning II Captain Kristin “Beo” Wolfe (388th FW, Hill AFB, UT).

After Major Gunderson’s F-22 demo and prior to her F-35A performance, Captain Wolfe led the Air Force Heritage Flight formation of the two advanced fighters along with two P-51 Mustangs; highlighting the history of the US Air Force. A total of 45 minutes flying in all.

When introducing the final act, Airshow One announcer Larry Strain asked everyone to, “Honk your horns for the Thunderbirds.” The team began their low-show performance from behind the crowd, flying precise lines and tight formations that included three sneak passes and concluded with the ‘Delta Burst.’ Orange County, NY was the Thunderbirds first ever ‘drive-in’ air show.

The entire day had a county fair atmosphere. The audience could even tune in and listen to the pilot’s radio transmissions on a one-watt FM radio frequency (88.1) on their car’s audio. Everyone was respectful of the unusual situation and left the field trash free. Due to the large volume of vehicles and in order to ensure everyone’s safety, there was an abundance of First Responders (Medical, Police and Fire personnel) on hand; proudly representing a multitude of nearby communities.

Bryan Lilley, Chairman of the New York International Air Show, thanked Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus and his incredible team’s support for making the show possible. The 2020 drive-in air show was hugely successful in this era of social distancing.

The 2021 show is scheduled to return to Stewart International Airport on August 28-29 .

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