Prose & Photography: Ryan Tykosh
Torrential rain, thunder, lightning, low ceilings: all in the forecast for the Virginia tidewater area the weekend of May 19th and 20th. In the midst of the gloomy forecast, many photographers and aviation enthusiasts were wrestling with the idea of cancelling their trek to the region, and most did just that. In a way, I see their reasoning. Why take the time to travel with the risk of a terrible weekend looming on the horizon? However, there is an old saying that states “the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward”. For myself and others who braved the elements, this statement could not have been any more truthful.
This weekend would be the 2018 edition of Airpower Over Hampton Roads, a bi-annual open house and airshow on board Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia. Joint Base Langley is well known as the home of the US Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing and its F-22 Raptors, but it also houses the NASA Langley Research Center which had several of its aircraft on display throughout the weekend. Being the headquarters of Air Combat Command, the base had an impressive array of US Air Force aircraft on hand for the public to enjoy up-close tours of. The base had just celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 2017, so it was the perfect time to open the doors to the public.
This years show was filled with uncertainty, not only with the gloomy forecast, but also whether headline performers of the event would be in attendance. Just over a month prior on April 4th, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds suffered a devastating tragedy when No. 4 pilot Maj. Stephen “Cajun” Del Bagno lost his life when his F-16 fighter jet crashed during a routine aerial demonstration training sortie near the Thunderbirds’ home base in Nevada. After a stand down for safety and mourning to honor Maj. Del Bagno, the Thunderbirds resumed flight training and recalled former slot pilot Maj. Nick Krajicek to take up the mantle once again. Every show on the Thunderbirds schedule from the time of the accident until just before the Langley show was to take place were cancelled due to re-training and certifying the rebuilt team for public displays, so there were many questions as to whether the team would perform for the ACC Headquarters base.
Those questions would be answered just a few days prior to the show, when a video announcement from the Commander/Leader of the team, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, went live on social media stating the team was indeed ready to return to public display flying and the 2018 season would resume at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. A collective sigh of relief could be felt as this announcement was much sooner than most expected. That being said, the weather was still a factor. With dense tropical moisture in place, there would be periods of heavy rain and storms throughout the weekend along with an abundance of humidity; hardly ideal for an airshow…or is it? While the threat of storms is a huge turn off for many show goers, the excess humidity can sometimes be a blessing. This is especially true when powerful and agile fighter aircraft like the F-22 Raptor are performing. The friction of the dense air flowing rapidly over the surfaces of such aircraft and shock waves created during high G-force and high speed maneuvering causes it to condense into a visible cloud like stream of air that honestly just looks impressive. Most of us in the aviation photography community simply refer to this anomaly as “vapes” or “fluff”. With this in mind, along with seeing many of my good friends in the aviation community, I took the gamble and made the 6 hour trek to Hampton Roads.
Upon arrival, I caught a glimpse of the Thunderbirds performing a full up practice demonstration over the base. After everything that had happened over the course of the last two months, it was an overwhelming feeling of pride and relief seeing the six red, white, and blue F-16C Fighting Falcons in the air. The display was crisp and smooth, the team looked like they hadn’t missed a beat during their down time! During several passes, that condensation vapor I mentioned earlier was clearly visible, and definitely got me excited for the upcoming weekend and what other impressive sights were to be seen.
The Friday before any show is typically a full rundown practice for the performers and crews, as well as a chance for media and military families to get a look at a preview of the weekend. There was to be a twilight show featuring aircraft adorned with pyrotechnics and fireworks at the conclusion, however the decision was made to cancel it due to the weather threat. Safety is always the most important factor in any airshow, and the decision to cancel the night flying was without a doubt the right choice as low clouds moved in following the practice demonstrations. The day was closed with one of the most visually stunning F-22 Raptor displays I’d ever seen, and rightfully so that it would be over the F-22 Demonstration Team’s home base at Langley. This is where the vapor phenomenon came in to play, as throughout the demonstration the jet appeared to be making its own weather with every pull and turn Major Paul “Loco” Lopez put it through. Truly a stunning sight to behold the United States Air Force’s most powerful and advanced stealth fighter aircraft carving through the menacing skies.
While Saturday’s show was called early due to relentless storms, Sunday would be the gem of the weekend. While the morning sky looked as though it would be a repeat of the past few days, by mid afternoon the skies cleared to reveal a perfectly clear stage for the Thunderbirds first public display since the accident.
The show was filled with an impressive mix of performers and aircraft representing various eras and designs. The day began with a performance by the well known B-25J Mitchell "Panchito". It’s always a pleasure to see this historic warbird with its growling radial engines put through its paces in a series of low altitude passes and narration highlighting the significance of this bomber in World War II. Following Panchito would be Bill Leff, however it would not be just any performance. This was to be Bill’s final airshow performance ever. Bill Leff and his polished silver and black T-6G Texan had become a mainstay of well known shows in the mid-Atlantic and midwest over the years, especially for his spectacular night pyrotechnic flight. It was bittersweet being on hand to witness his last ever airshow display while at the same time having the feeling settle in that this was indeed the end of an era.
Other performers throughout the day included Jacquie B in her star spangled Extra 300, the always impressive Rob Holland in the MX2 and Bill Stein in his strikingly painted Edge 540, including a dual formation flight of the two, Manfred Radius in the Salto sailplane and the Geico Skytypers. Matt Younkin soared through the blue skies in the twin engine Beech 18. I’ll admit, Matt is one of those performers I’ll just stop and watch as the sight and sound of that big twin Beech inverted overhead never gets old. Classic jets in attendance included the T-33 Shooting Star Ace Maker flown by Shaun “Buzz” Roessner in his first season as the east coast pilot for Ace Maker Airshows, and Randy W. Ball in the swept-wing fire breathing MiG-17F. The home team of Major Paul Lopez and the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team also left their mark on all in attendance with a powerful display of some of the super-maneuverable jets capabilities before being joined in the sky by Andrew McKenna and Jim Beasley in their P-51 Mustangs for the moving Heritage Flight formation. The US Army Golden Knights were unable to jump most of the weekend due to the cloud ceilings, but Sunday they were able to perform their full free fall display.
The USAF Thunderbirds closed things out with a phenomenal and moving performance, dedicating the Sunday show to their fallen comrade Major Del Bagno. The clouds cleared enough for a full high show by the Thunderbirds. As mentioned earlier, the team looked to have recovered well from their stand down and loss as the show was smooth and precise, a fitting representation of the skills and resolve of all airmen. I can’t think of a more fitting end to a great weekend in the Hampton Roads area.
As I hit the open road for home with the base in my rear view mirror, I couldn’t help but feel proud of these brave airmen I’d spent the weekend with and seen in action. These men and women put it all on the line to defend our freedoms for over 100 years, adapting to new technology and always showing the resolve and determination to move forward above all odds. That's what this show represented. With so many odds stacking up against them in the days preceding, both the Thunderbirds and the Langley team pressed on and made it all happen. In closing, I want to congratulate the team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis on a job well done and I wish the USAF Thunderbirds a safe and successful remainder of their season. I look forward to seeing what experiences await me the next time I set foot on base.
*Special Thank you to Mr. Jeffrey Hood, the 633rd Air Base Wing Public affairs team, the 1st Fighter wing, and all airmen involved with making our experience at Joint Base Langley Eustis truly memorable and making the show a success despite the odds!