Rockford's AirFest returns

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11236938548346.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112369394010350.jpg’, ‘Photos by Jon McGinty’, ‘Rockford AirFest drew more than 35,000 at the Greater Rockford Airport Aug. 5-7. TOP: "The Heritage of Flight Team"—modern F-15C fighter jet and P-51 Mustang, vintage fighter. BOTTOM: The Aeroshell Aerobatic trio pours on the smoke from their brightly painted AT-6 Texans.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11236961059179.jpg’, ”, ‘U.S. Jet Team in their French Fouga Magister, all-metal, twin-jet, mid-wing, fighter/trainer/light attack aircraft that is certified for single pilot operation.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112369639010710.jpg’, ”, ‘Wingwalker Tony Kazian crawls over this Super Stearman flown by Harvard pilot Dave Dacey.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11236965399127.jpg’, ‘All Rockford Airfest photos by Jon McGinty’, ‘The Lima Lima precision flight squadron prepares to take off in their mentor T-34 aircraft.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11236964589132.jpg’, ”, ‘Vlado Lenoch flies this immaculately restoredP-51 Mustang, a WWII vintage fighter.’);

After a decade of absence, the skies over Rockford’s resurgent airport were filled Aug. 5-7 with the throb of vintage piston engines, the roar of jets, and the oohs and aahs of an appreciative audience. Rockford AirFest has returned.

“We’re very pleased with the turnout,” said Bob O’Brien, executive director at the airport. “We are going to use this experience to put together [an air show] that’s going to bring in twice as many people next year, including a major jet team like the Air Force Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels.”

According to O’Brien, preliminary estimates are that more than 35,000 people attended the three-day event.

Although it drew the smallest crowd, Friday evening’s show was especially exciting, since several acts performed in twilight or after dark. The Lima Lima Squadron, a six-ship aerobatic flight team from Naperville, flew toward the crowd wing-tip to wing-tip with landing lights on, looking for all the world like an approaching starship. They fly Beech Mentor T-34s, a post-World War II trainer used by our Air Force and Navy. Their name comes from the call letters for their home airport, LL-10.

The pyrotechnics were also dramatic after dark, although a “wall of fire” several hundred feet long exploding in your face can get your attention quickly, even in broad daylight. Rich’s Incredible Pyro (RIP), owned by locals Rich and Dee Gibson, provided the “booms and burns.” Their award-winning teams travel all over the world to simulate bombing and gun runs for military aircraft at air shows.

Rich ran an air taxi service out of Rockford Airport for 30 years; Dee is a teacher for hearing impaired children in the Rockford schools. They use a “low-tech” combination of gasoline in garbage bag-lined boxes for burns, and sticks of dynamite for the booms. The whole thing is fired with primacord, a high explosive fuse that burns at 2,200 feet per second.

Local flyer Vlado Lenoch provided a last-minute substitution Friday in his prop-driven P-51 Mustang, when the scheduled pilot was delayed. Lenoch and F-15 demonstration pilot Major Jason Costello flew in tight formation as part of the Heritage Flight, representing 50 years of aviation history. The two planes were/are state-of-the-art fighter interceptors in the U.S. Air Force.

“I love being able to show the public what their tax dollars are paying for,” said Costello, “and to represent the training and professionalism of the men and women in uniform.” He is one of only two solo F-15 demo pilots in the country. Watching him accelerate straight up with full afterburners glowing behind was a sight not to be missed.

Johnny Kazian is a 73-year-old stunt man and wing-walker who performed at the last air show in Rockford in 1994. His 43-year career includes appearances in many TV shows and films, as well as air shows. He was Robert Redford’s double during the aerial sequences in The Great Waldo Pepper.

Now retired, Kazian returned to Rockford AirFest to announce for his son, Tony, who has followed in his father’s surefooted aerial footsteps and performs with veteran air show pilot, Dave Dacy, from Harvard, Ill., as he climbs around Dacy’s Super Stearman stunt plane.

“Tony was only 14 years old when I strapped him to a wing and took him on his first ride,” recalls Johnny. “I’m super proud of that young man. I wish I was a little younger—I’d be up there with him today.”

In addition to aerobatic routines, many aircraft were on static display for up-close viewing. Paul Van den Heuvel, an airline pilot for United, proudly displayed his restored Russian-built MiG-21 jet fighter. The 1973 plane served in the Polish Air Force for 19 years before coming to the U.S., and is based at Rockford Airport. Van den Heuvel is its second domestic owner.

“Well, I make the payments, anyway,” he says.

Having invested three times the original purchase price to restore the aircraft, Van den Heuvel has mixed emotions about selling it again. To defray some of the cost for gas, maintenance, storage and insurance, he sells rides in the two-seat trainer, and T-shirts with the aircraft emblazoned on them.

“Actually, the T-shirt is $3,000…the ride is free,” he quips.

Despite some problems with parking and bus transportation, the crowd seemed pleased with the air show’s vendors, layout and performers. Fewer military planes were on display than were promised, but they are always subject to last-minute availability.

“This [show] is not about making money,” said O’Brien. “This is about giving back something to the community for all the support they have shown us.”

The AirFest should not be confused with the Experimental Aircraft Association Annual Fly-In Convention, which took place at the Rockford Airport from 1954 until 1970, when it moved to Oshkosh, Wis.

Historically, the AirFest started in 1986 as the Rockford Airshow and then was called the Midwest AirFest, in an effort to get people to attend from the entire region. Finances, logics and attendance brought about the end of the Midwest AirFest in 1994.

Here’s hoping the reborn Rockford AirFest is back…to stay!

From the Aug. 10-16, 2005, issue

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