Rockford’s AirFest 2010 a success–see photos!
By Jon McGinty
In spite of threatening weather Saturday, July 31, the Rockford AirFest—Chicago-Rockford International Airport’s (RFD) annual airplane extravaganza—provided another action-filled weekend this year. According to Geoff Oman, AirFest 2010 coordinator, an estimated 100,000 people attended the event, now shortened to only two days.
“Some things went smoother this year,” says Oman. “For one thing, we fine-tuned our parking procedures, so we had most cars parked within seven minutes of entering the traffic pattern.”
This is the sixth year for the AirFest at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. A previous air show, titled Midwest Airfest, performed at RFD from 1986 to 1994. The current air show was begun in 2005 under the leadership of RFD Executive Director Bob O’Brien.
Each afternoon air show usually begins with the U.S. Army’s parachute team, the Golden Knights, descending into show center under their gold-and-black parafoil canopies. Sgt. Brandie Phillips, 23, has been a member of that team for a year-and-a-half. She joined the Army five years ago, went through airborne school at Ft. Benning, Ga., and became a member of the 101st Airborne Division’s parachute team. After completing about 450 jumps, she tried out for the Golden Knights, and made it last year. She is one of about 10 female members of the team.
“We train from January through March,” says Phillips. “The minimum commitment to the team is four years, but we have some members who have competed for 14 years, and completed over 13,000 jumps.”
The Knights perform between 30 and 40 demonstrations each season, jumping from their C-31A twin-engine aircraft to the awaiting crowds below. Smoke grenades attached to their ankles make it possible to follow their path during free fall and descent.
Sunday’s (Aug. 1) jump began at 12,500 feet above the airport, where the air is 30 to 40 degrees colder than the air near the ground. 120-mile-per-hour winds rush past the open doorways on either side of the fuselage, as jumpers stare intently at their moving target on the tarmac, awaiting the signal to leave the aircraft. Another female jumper clings to the wind-swept opening, cameras fastened to her helmet and a shutter release grasped tightly between her teeth. In moments, the jumpers pour through the opening, disappearing into the cloud-studded air beneath our wings. We return swiftly to the warm earth below.
This year’s headline performances were provided by the USAF Thunderbirds precision jet demonstration team, which flew their F-16 Fighting Falcons both Saturday and Sunday. Maj. John Baum, 34, pilots the No. 2 aircraft in the left wing position during their precision formation flights. Baum enlisted in the Air Force after high school, then used the G.I. Bill to attend college and obtain his bachelor’s of arts degree and master’s of arts degree in aviation.
“We practice and train new personnel from mid-November to mid-March at Nellis AF Base in Las Vegas,” says Baum. “That means sorties twice a day, every day.”
According to Baum, from more than 700,000 men and women in the Air Force, 40 to 50 pilots compete for two or three openings on the Thunderbirds team each year. They will perform at 73 air shows this season, throughout the United States and Canada. The aircraft they fly are fully capable fighters and could be deployed into combat, should a national emergency require it.
Lt. Matt Nieswand is a Navy pilot who flies the F/A-18 Super Hornet out of Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, N.C. His nine years in the Navy include two overseas deployments aboard the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt, flying ground support and convoy overwatch missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are flight instructors for pilots transitioning to the F/A-18 during the week, but fly as a demonstration team on the weekends,” says Nieswand.
When asked for advice to high school students contemplating a military career, he mentions the usual trio: get good grades, stay out of trouble, and be physically fit. Then, he adds: “Be involved in your life. The military is a life of service. The Navy is looking for active leaders, people who already have demonstrated they value that.”
One of the oldest, if not the largest, planes at AirFest 2010 was the B-52H Stratofortress, which flew from Barksdale AF Base near Shreveport, La., with its five-man crew. The long-range heavy jet bomber was built in 1961, 12 years before the oldest crew member was born.
His name is Capt. Greg Watson, 37, and he is one of two radar navigators aboard the plane. Inspired by stories of World War II from his grandfathers, Watson enlisted in the Air Force nine-and-a-half years ago.
“My job is to navigate the jet, keeping it on course and on time,” says Watson. “When we near the target, I configure the plane for weapons release, then use our offensive avionics to put the bombs on the target.”
Watson has been deployed overseas three times, once as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he and his crew supported U.S. ground troops by bombing enemy troop concentrations. While their plane was never hit, they were subjected to some anti-aircraft cannon and missile fire during some missions.
Watson is married with five children, and he is painfully aware of the sacrifices his family must endure as part of his profession.
“My wife is a saint,” says Watson. “I’m gone an awful lot, and with five kids, she definitely has her hands full. She’s tremendous!”
From the Aug. 4-10, 2010 issue
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