An Airshow Pilot’s Vacation
I had two airshow appearances back-to-back. The first airshow appearance was in Reading, Pennsylvania from June 3 – 5, 2022, and the second airshow appearance was at Greenwood Lake, New Jersey from June 10 – 12, 2022. I made the decision to remain in Reading for the week following the airshow and then fly to Greenwood Lake on Thursday, June 9th. The trick in summer flying is to get airborne early before the thunderstorms begin. This rule applies even when the weather is dominated by a high-pressure system.
Looking at the surface prognostic charts, the weather in Virginia and Pennsylvania was going to be challenging on June 2nd and 3rd, so I made the decision to depart Falcon Field on Wednesday, June 1st. The plan was to arrive in Reading two days before the bad weather set in. This plan did not work in its entirety. However, the early departure worked to my advantage.
The Flight from Atlanta to Lynchburg
Arriving at Air Base, Georgia at about 8:45 a.m., I was surprised it took an hour and a half to pre-flight and pack the airplane; I did not get airborne until 10:15. In any case, I landed in Salisbury, North Carolina about 12:30 p.m., fueled the Kate, grabbed some lunch, and I was airborne within the hour. After departing Salisbury and establishing flight following with Air Traffic Control, as I flew toward Lynchburg I could see that there was deteriorating weather at Fort Royal and at Winchester, which was my next fuel stop. Then, just as I was flying over Lynchburg, I checked in with ATC and confirmed there was a thunderstorm six miles northwest of Charlottesville. The simple fact was the thunderstorm was going to get to Charlottesville before I did.
The controller gave me the tower frequency for Lynchburg, and the latest reported weather. I then landed at Lynchburg hoping that the thunderstorm over Charlottesville would pass and I could complete the trip that day. Unfortunately, after landing, a view of the NEXRAD Weather Radar display indicated that the weather over Charlottesville was worse that I expected. In fact, while I was checking weather at Charlottesville, a thunderstorm popped up northwest of Lynchburg.
At that point, I decided to get a cab to a local hotel and wait for a better day. Someone working at the Lynchburg Airport was kind enough to give me a ride to a local hotel that had a restaurant next door. So I settled in for the evening in Lynchburg, got dinner and went to bed.
Arising at 5:30 in the morning on June 2nd, I hoped to get airborne before the thunderstorms began. My plan was shattered when bands of thunderstorms were moving west to east along my projected flight path to Reading. I made the decision to stay in Lynchburg one more day since the weather forecast for Friday was becoming promising.
Again, arising at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, June 3rd, the weather gods were looking favorably upon my flight and I got to the Lynchburg Airport slightly after dawn. After checking the weather and getting the Kate loaded, I was airborne well before 10:00 a.m.
The flight to Reading was spectacular. I crossed the Shenandoah Mountain Range (with tops of 4,000 feet) at 5,500 feet and made my way past Winchester, Virginia, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and landed in Reading shortly after 11:00 a.m. The weather in Reading was cool, in the high 70’s. As I taxied in, a number of aircraft were running including the Curtis Helldiver and the Douglas Dauntless. In no time at all, the Kate was towed to her assigned parking spot, and I grabbed lunch at the Pavilion and got my pilot credentials and airshow passes.
After lunch, I met FAA inspectors who looked over my aircraft. Late in the afternoon, I drove to the hotel, got dinner and some rest with the expectation of flying in the airshow on Saturday. The hotel accommodations were very luxurious, the hotel was spotless and clean. Breakfast was provided each morning.
I drove Wes Stowers to the airport that morning and we arrived about 7:30. We wanted to get to the airport before the regimented vehicle traffic procedures took effect that would complicate and slow our travel to the airport. Upon our arrival, Wes made his way to the Dauntless, and I made my way to the Kate, and we performed our pre-flight inspections before the 9:00 briefing.
The briefing was conducted by Greg Witmer, the Airshow Boss. As usual, all of the contingencies were covered in terms of lost communications, in-flight emergencies, and the host of things that could plague an airshow or bring it to a stop. Our pilot credentials were checked by the FAA inspectors. We were briefed on the weather, the operational procedures for the airport, crash, fire and rescue, and security. The briefing was over about 10:00 a.m., and we were not scheduled to fly until about 1:45 p.m.
There was a massive crowd at Reading. I would not be surprised if there were 100,000 people in attendance. There were all sorts of displays, both of aircraft and military vehicles, including tanks. There was a considerable area occupied with tents and flea markets where you could buy anything from German uniforms to American combat gear and uniforms of every description.
In conjunction with our Pacific air battle, there would be a Marine firefight below us, complete with explosives. Rob Kreig was flying the replica Val, which was parked beside the Kate. About 1:00 p.m., our aircraft were removed from the display area to the flightlines for the performance. Engine start was about 1:30, and we taxied out shortly thereafter. The flight would consist of two Corsairs, the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, the Kate and the Val. The Curtiss Helldiver was broken.
We departed Runway 31 with a right-hand traffic pattern with Wes Stowers in the lead in the Dauntless, me number 2 in the Kate, Rob number 3 in the Val, and the Corsairs were 4 and 5. John Currenti flew one of the Corsairs.
Wes elected to make diving passes on the runway, and I did likewise. Because the Dauntless is faster than the Kate, I cut corners as Wes made his turns and used geometry to keep up with the Dauntless. For example, when Wes pushed over for his dive, I had him at my three o’clock and immediately turned toward the Dauntless. The result was the Kate ended up making its pass shortly after that of the Dauntless. The spacing was good. The Kate stayed pretty close to the Dauntless Dive Bomber throughout the airshow performance. After a number of passes, we landed and taxied in, and the flight was uneventful.
After our post-flight briefing, the Kate and Val were relocated to the display area, and I walked around the airshow to look at the various displays and the flea market. There was great flying going on throughout the day, including warbird aerobatics and flights by both transport aircraft and bombers. On the ground, there were parades by tanks and jeeps. The entire day was a terrific display of performances by accomplished pilots flying Second World War aircraft.
Sunday June 5th was essentially a carbon copy of Saturday, with the exception of the fact that the Commemorative Air Force Corsair had suffered a bird strike, and the aircraft was not available to fly.
Walking around the Reading Airshow during WWII Weekend is a remarkable visual experience. Aircraft, jeeps, cars, combat weapons, re-enactors in uniform, tents, and all sorts of displays covered acres of land. There were theatrical performances going on throughout the day. In short, it was a festival atmosphere that celebrated the achievements of our predecessors who defeated the Axis powers in WWII.
A Short Stay in Reading
During the Sunday flight, I noticed a malfunction in my airspeed indicator. I was fortunate to find a repair facility on the field in Reading that would rectify the problem. However, for the next several days, I spent my time going back and forth between the hotel and the repair facility as opposed to acting as a tourist.
By Thursday June 9th it was time to time to depart for Greenwood Lake, New Jersey. The wind was howling from the northwest at about 25 knots. I departed Runway 31 and turned eastward towards Allentown, Pennsylvania and then Greenwood Lake. The Kate was screaming along with a very quick groundspeed in fairly turbulent conditions. Arriving at Greenwood Lake, the wind was gusting to 18 knots with a right crosswind. Because the runway is only 3,700 feet long, I made it a point to nail 80 knots indicated airspeed on final. The conditions were very rough and turbulent. I had a right crosswind and had the runway centered when, just as I got below the trees, the velocity of the crosswind diminished. The Kate bounced a couple of times before it came to a stop. The wind was very gusty and the landing was challenging.
I met up with Buck Roetman and Gary Rower, and we all had dinner in a Japanese steakhouse where most of the pilots were in attendance, along with our Air Boss, “Cookie” Crum. We had a briefing on the morning of June 10th, and the airshow would not be over until after dark. It was going to be a long day.
The Greenwood Lake Show
Cookie Crum called the Airshow Briefing to order on the morning of June 10th. Besides the pilots, in attendance were ground personnel, fire fighters, the FAA, and local police. Cookie did an excellent job of briefing the day before us. However, the winds were still gusty. My mission was to get shot down by a P-40 and a P-51 Mustang. Those aircraft would be departing from New York and arrive over Greenwood Lake where I was orbiting waiting for the engagement to begin.
The briefing was as expected. It also included a briefing with our pyrotechnic personnel. Credentials were once again checked by the FAA, along with our aircraft. It was an interesting and also a long day. I elected to remain at the airport as opposed to going back to the hotel, since the distance from the hotel to the airport required about a 30- or 35-minute drive.
The Greenwood Lake show is a very interesting and intimate show. It is not a large area. The runway is only about 3,700 feet and is ensconced in mountainous and hilly terrain which features crystal clear lakes in the valleys. It is a beautiful area of the country. It is only about 20 or 30 miles northwest of Manhattan. I got airborne about 7:00 p.m. on June 10th and orbited to the south of the airport. As I did so, I could see the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. It was a remarkable sight.
As I orbited, Buck Roetman and Gary Rower were flying over the runway making smoke and the airport was partially obscured by the rings of smoke. Eventually, Cookie Crum called me in for some low passes, complete with duster turns where you fly down the runway, pull up abruptly, do a course reversal and keep the process flying in the opposite direction. Afterwards, I set up for a right downwind for Runway 24, and at that point, the Mustang and P-40 came into view as they attempted to find a shooting solution on my airplane. We then overflew the runway with the Allied aircraft in trail behind the Kate, I popped smoke and departed to the south.
There must have been some excellent photographs of the encounter between the Kate and the Allied Aircraft. In any case, I landed well after sunset, secured the Kate, then watched the remaining acts which included remarkable firework and aerobatic displays by Buck Roetman in his S2A Pitts and Gary Rower in his Stearman biplane.
In pitch black darkness, the aircraft were secured. Then Gary Rower and I set about a plan of going to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome the following morning, since the briefing for the airshow on Saturday would not begin until 2:00 p.m. And that is exactly what happened.
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum
True to our word, Gary Rower and I got together early the next morning and set off for upstate New York. We drove along the Hudson River and made our way to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum in Dutchess County. We were met there by Greg Koontz and other members of our party and received a tour of the vast array of First World War aircraft, hangars and artwork.
The displays were so vast, I was basically in a mode of visual and situational overload. There are all kinds of First World War aircraft and a vast array of replica First World War aircraft housed in a number of hangars. There were all kinds of paintings, artwork, and artifacts. I took extensive photographs of this visit to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum.
By 11:00 a.m., Gary and I were on our way back to New Jersey for the airshow briefing. We grabbed lunch along the way. I was surprised at the number of small airports in that area of the country which is quite hilly and mountainous. Most of those airports are fairly short with runways of 3,000 or 4,000 feet in length. In any case, we made our way back to the airport well before 2:00 p.m. and well before the briefing.
Once again, I would be flying near dusk. Buck Roetman and Gary Rower were flying later when the lighting conditions were much darker. The Saturday show featured a spectacular, purple sky. I took photographs that are simply stunning. As before, the show was over after dark. We made our way back to the hotel expecting to fly on Sunday.
Sunday morning June 12th dawned cloudy with overcast ceilings. Not everyone would perform that day. The decision was made that the Kate would not perform due to the low ceilings and poor visibility.
The Trip Back to Georgia
Monday June 13th featured overcast skies. However, the prospects of making it back to Georgia appeared to be promising. Buck and Gary took off before me. I was airborne around 9:30, and was gassing up in Winchester, Virginia at or before noon. In record time, I got the airplane refueled and grabbed some lunch, getting airborne in less than one hour.
The flight from Winchester to Salisbury, North Carolina was a bit challenging as the cumulus clouds continued to grow in height. I climbed to an attitude of 9,500 feet to get on top of the buildups. There was a thunderstorm along my flight path, and Air Traffic Control gave me an intersection to fly directly to and thereby circumnavigate the thunderstorm. I arrived in Salisbury about 3:00 p.m. I got the Kate gassed up, drank some water and was airborne flying to Atlanta by 4:00 p.m.
By now, the temperatures were very hot. I was flying at a low altitude to stay below the Class Bravo airspace around Charlotte, and I arrived at the Falcon Field Airport about 6:15 p.m. It had been a very long day. By the time I got the Kate unpacked and the canopy cover on, it was probably after 7:00 p.m. I was very tired and dehydrated. Driving home, I grabbed some dinner at a local restaurant and made it home that evening.
I reflected on my 13-day odyssey. It had been quite challenging; thunderstorms had prevented me from making it non-stop to Reading on the first day, and low weather had prevented me from flying in the Sunday show at Greenwood Lake. There had been overcast skies at the beginning of my flight from Greenwood Lake. I had to circumnavigate a thunderstorm flying into Salisbury, North Carolina. Finally, flying at low altitude below the clouds around Charlotte, I was being baked in the cockpit of the Kate.
While the flying was physiologically challenging, the vistas I enjoyed and surveyed during my flight were spectacular. While you must pay a price for some of the pleasure you receive flying in these old airplanes, the sights that you behold are astounding.
It is worth the effort.
Alan Armstrong is an aviation lawyer who practices law in Atlanta, Georgia. He appears in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers published by Martindale-Hubbell, is recognized in the 2022 Edition of Georgia’s Super Lawyers. An Airline Transport Pilot, he flies a replica Nakajima Type 97 “Kate” Bomber on the airshow circuit and appears in television interviews concerning flight operations, air disasters and aviation accidents.
COPYRIGHT 2022, ALAN ARMSTRONG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED