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AirFest draws record crowd
By Jon McGinty
The Fifth Annual Rockford AirFest has come and gone (Aug. 21-23), but not without creating memorable impressions for airport personnel, visiting performers and the viewing public. This year’s attendance was an estimated record at 160,000 or more, well above last year’s figures, which were dampened by uncertain weather.
This year’s featured performer was the USAF’s F-22 Raptor, an air-superiority fighter aircraft of unequalled maneuverability. Saturday’s performance was cut short because of some technical difficulties, but Sunday, the Raptor showed it has all the right stuff. Although the jet weighs nearly 84,000 pounds when fully loaded, it executes maneuvers such as hammerhead turns, flat spins and snap rolls like a much smaller and lighter plane. And it’s very LOUD.
Another amazing performance was provided by Art Nalls in his civilian-owned Sea Harrier. The British-designed, land-anywhere jump jet flew high-speed passes, accompanied by spectacular ground explosions to simulate gunfire and bombing runs, all provided by Rich’s Incredible Pyro (RIP). The plane then decelerated to a hover above the runway, landed straight down, and took off straight up.
Nalls, a retired lieutenant colonel, has flown AV-8A Harriers in the Marine Corps for more than 1,000 hours, including 600 shipboard landings. Because of his experience (and his bank roll!), he was able to obtain a retired Harrier in England in 2006, and began flying it in air shows last October.
“It’s a fine airplane if handled right,” says Nalls, “but it can be very unforgiving. It took about 300 hours of military flight training before I could start to feel comfortable in the Harrier.”
According to Nalls, the Harrier burns about 1 gallon of fuel every two seconds, and has a limit of 2 1/2 minutes to complete a hover and land.
“That’s not a lot of time to sit and play around with the controls,” he adds.
In addition to performers, the AirFest included several static displays of civilian and military aircraft. U.S. Navy Chief Matthew Hindi (Espanola, N.M.) is an information systems technician onboard an E-6B Mercury, a big four-engine communications relay airplane. His plane and crew fly TACAMO missions out of Tinker AFB in Oklahoma.
“The name TACAMO comes from an admiral who was asked in 1963 to come up with a viable way for the military leadership to communicate with nuclear submarines,” says Hindi. “His response was, ‘OK, we’ll take charge and move out!’”
Since 1997, TACAMO aircraft have also assumed the role of the USAF “Looking Glass” missions to relay communications with nuclear bombers and missile silos. When communicating with subs, the plane flies circular patterns over the oceans, trailing a 2-mile or 5-mile-long wire antenna behind it.
“We’re a nuclear war survivable asset,” says Hindi, “since we can disperse up to 16 similar aircraft all over the country at one time.”
Lt. Col. Thom Pemberton (USAF) pilots the KC-135R Stratotanker out of Grissom AFB in Kokomo, Ind. A 1981 graduate of Rockford Guilford High School, this was the first time he has returned to Rockford for an air show.
“Our mission is in-flight refueling of jet aircraft,” says Pemberton. “We’re basically a big, flying gas station.”
Pemberton’s plane was built in 1961, making the basic airframe older than the pilot, but with many modernizing upgrades over the years. His unit refuels aircraft to extend their range or to lengthen their loiter time when engaged in combat air patrols. They also perform training missions for pilots and crews.
“Each type of plane we refuel has its own in-flight characteristics,” says Pemberton. “We can especially notice this when refueling the C-5 Galaxy or the B-2 Spirit bomber. Since they are so large, they create this big bow wave ahead of themselves, and we can feel it in the tanker when they come up behind us.”
Air Force Major Aaron Jacobs is a pilot in the B-1B Lancer strategic bomber and flies with the 28th Bomb Squadron out of Abilene, Texas.
“We mostly perform training missions,” says Jacobs. “We teach pilots and WSOs [weapons systems officers] how to fly and operate the B-1.”
When he earlier served with a combat squadron at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota, Jacobs was deployed in the Middle East. Although originally designed as a long-range strategic bomber, the B-1B has been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to drop conventional munitions for interdictions, close air support of ground troops and other tactical roles. Its variable-wing geometry was ably demonstrated at the AirFest by another B-1B flying low-speed passes with wings extended, and high-speed passes with wings swept back.
All pilots and performers we interviewed were much impressed with the people and facilities at RFD.
“This is a fantastic place to operate out of,” says Nalls. “It’s a great location, modern facilities, and the people here treat us just like family.”
from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue