Five Things About: Thunder Over Michigan 2014

Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014

Five Things is our regular feature to review the airshows that we attend. You already know that the performers were great, so instead of recapping who flew what, we want to jump straight to the most notable moments or stories; things that would remain in your head on the drive home and for a long time afterward.

Airshow: Baltia Airlines Thunder Over Michigan
Location: Ypsilanti, MI
Date: 8/9/14-8/10/14

An Army of Rosies
Thunder Over Michigan is essentially a fundraiser for the Yankee Air Museum, which is based at the same Willow Run airport. Yankee lost their WWII-era hangar to a fire in 2004 and has been in rebuilding mode ever since. Originally the plan was for a large, new facility to be built on the east end of the airport in phases. One building was completed and currently serves as a temporary museum, but when the General Motors factory that produced B-24s in WWII came up for demolition, focus turned to saving it. The museum mounted the ‘Save the Bomber Plant’ campaign to raise the $8 million required to purchase a portion of the plant. The famous ‘Rosie the Riveter’ character, at one point portrayed by Rose Will Monroe, a worker at the plant (then owned by Ford) during the war, was enlisted heavily and hundreds of women dressed up as Rosie to draw attention to the cause. In fact, the museum secured a Guinness world record for the largest gathering of Rosie the Riveters (776 to be exact) at an event held earlier in the year, which even included 19 real WWII Rosies.

The campaign to save the plant was ultimately successful but much more money will be needed to refurbish the structure into a usable museum. Many of the record setting Rosies were on hand for the show and wandered the crowd posing for photos to raise money for the next steps toward a permanent and historical home for the museum.

USAF Thunderbirds - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014B-25 and B-17 - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014

Victory Flight
Thunder Over Michigan has always been an almost exclusively warbird show thanks to the association with the Yankee Air Museum. The show is renowned for its ability to pull in already rare warbirds and put them together in even more rare combinations. This year the highlight of the show was undoubtedly the ‘Victory Flight’, which saw YAM’s prized B-17 Flying Fortress “Yankee Lady” lead the P-38 Lightning “Ruff Stuff”, the P-47 Thunderbolt “Jacky’s Revenge”, and the P-51 Mustangs “Petie the 2nd” and “Hell-er Bust” in several close formation passes. Announcer Matt Jolley of Warbird Radio stirred up emotions in the crowd and loud cheers and applause followed the formation as it passed down the show line; a definite goosebumps moment. Following three formation passes, the aircraft split up and were joined by even more warbirds for individual flybys in dual racetrack patterns.

WWII Battle
Another unique staple of Thunder Over Michigan is the WWII ground battle reenactment that takes place twice each day. Originally held off to the side of the main show area in a soy bean field, the battle was moved several years ago to take place in front of the main crowd line. A large patch of grass is left to grow tall, and obstacles such as tank traps, dirt berms, and small trees are placed to provide some semblance of cover for the troops. The reenactors actually set up an encampment using period equipment near the show gates for the weekend and attendees can freely wander through it to meet them and see the gear up close. It is not uncommon to see reenactors in full military gear driving authentic WWII trucks and jeeps around town during the weekend – a very stunning sight to see! The stars of the show are definitely the tanks, and this year saw five M5 Stuarts standing against one German Hetzer tank destroyer. After each battle, the Stuarts lined up side by side to fire a volley salute from their main cannons.

Unfortunately the battle this year seemed to be a little less grand than previous years. Only the extreme ends of the battlefield were located near any general admission seating; the area where actual ‘fighting’ took place was entirely located in front of chalet tents. This is likely (and hopefully) a temporary result of the strained layout (more on that below) this year. Even more disappointing was the fact that none of the four ground battles over the weekend featured any air support. This has usually been one of the best parts of the entire show, with several aircraft (usually P-51s but occasionally other types) making extremely low and close flybys over the battle. The crowd faces due west at Thunder and so the morning flybys also provided the only opportunity for photographers to get good light on the aircraft before the sun moved overhead at noon. There’s no obvious reason for the lack of flybys, and they were even mentioned on the tentative schedule. Hopefully this too is a temporary thing.

WWII Battle - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014WWII Battle - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014

Show Layout
The greatest challenge that Thunder Over Michigan faces year after year is the layout. The organizers have done an admirable job in the face of many obstacles that are largely out of their control, but it ultimately hurts the show in some big ways. The layout of the show grounds is unusual in that the flying does not take place in line with a runway. The crowd line runs North to South along the edge of the large ‘East Ramp’. At the show-right corner of this area, one runway extends straight away from the crowd while a pair of runways angle off 45 degrees away from the crowd. The end result is that takeoffs, usually one of the loudest and most exciting parts of a show, are often so far away that they easily go completely unnoticed. When you combine the fact that takeoffs and landings are essentially non-events with the awkward taxi routes that the show is forced to use, there ends up being a significant amount of down time between acts.

The layout was even more tricky this year given that the airport is in the midst of a runway replacement project which has resulted in the creation of a tall cement plant and some large piles of gravel directly in front of the crowd line. This is the third year that this has been there, smack dab in the middle of everything. The presence of the USAF Thunderbirds also had a major impact, with a substantial area of ramp closed off. This eliminated one of the entry gates and access to the museum’s outdoor exhibit aircraft, as well as access to the area used for Huey rides last year. Instead, this year the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation helicopters (two Hueys and a Cobra) were located at the south end of the crowd area, which seemed to squish the general admission seating area at that end. Luckily the reduced space did not seem to be an issue because this year the paved ramp was not sterilized during the flying portion of the day as in years past, so folks could sit a bit further back than usual.

Overall there were actually very few hiccups layout wise despite the very significant changes compared to last year, and again the organizers deserve a lot of credit for that. Hopefully the new museum location will allow them to shift the show around the airport and solve these issues for good.

T-6 Texans - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014T-6 Texans - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014

Thunder Over Michigan has hosted the US Navy Blue Angels in 2007 and 2011, but 2014 was the first ever appearance by the Thunderbirds. Although Thunder has grown in recent years to become the premier show for the entire metro Detroit area, competing only with the Selfridge ANGB open house held every two or three years, long time fans of the show have been rightfully nervous that that the adaption of the show to a more general performer lineup would ruin the uniqueness of the event. The show is definitely aware of these fears, and seems to be finding a great balance between keeping the spotlight on the warbirds while also attracting the masses with aerobatic performers and military teams. The presence of a jet team is obviously a huge boost to ticket sales, and the crowd area was jam packed this year despite the steep $35 ticket price on top of $15 for parking. That is a lot of money that will go back to the Yankee Air Museum at this critical time, certainly thanks to the presence of the Thunderbirds.

Sadly, the Thunderbirds put on one of the most underwhelming performances in memory. The team refused to fly toward or over the large, 125-foot tall landfill that sits to show left, directly on the flight path. To avoid the landfill, the team instead flew over runway 5-23, the same one the Blues flew on in 2007. That year the show radically redid its layout to align the crowd line and that runway. This actually was a pretty good solution to many of the show’s problems but it has not been done again since. When the Blues visited again in 2011, they simply noted the dump’s location and performed on the regular North-South show line despite it. This year was the worst of both; the crowd line stayed at its normal location, but the Thunderbirds ended up flying their entire show on the runway; extremely far from the crowd and on a 45 degree angle. It was truly like watching from the parking lot of a normal show, and an extreme disappointment to anyone in the crowd who had seen the Thunderbirds perform before. Even the sneak passes were laughably far away.

Sunday was even worse, when the team seemed to give up on the show. Before the narrator even took the microphone, the jets were running and began taxiing. Once they reached the end of the runway, they skipped the traditional radio address to the crowd, and didn’t even check in on the radio before taking off one by one – no formation. Because of the crazy runway and show line configuration the team performed a remote opener each day, but on Sunday did not even bother to join into the delta for the normal opening break. Instead the diamond came overhead for its first pass while the solos circled away from the field. The rest of the performance was uneventful, but the break to landing was equally as strange as the opener with the diamond and solos making separate and plain pitch to landings with no attempt to form the delta.

B-24 Liberator - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014USAF Thunderbirds - Thunder Over Michigan Airshow 2014

It will be very interesting to see how the show changes when the US Navy Blue Angels come back to town on August 29th and 30th of next year. We’ll see you there!

– Ryan Sundheimer

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>