El Paso 'Amigo Airsho' Report

Saturday 20th October - Sunday 21st October 2012

El Paso, famous in the UK for giving its name to a popular brand of Mexican food, it would surprise many should they hear that this city on the Mexican border also hosts a major annual airshow. Held at Fort Bliss airfield on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas since 1981; the annual two day 'Amigo Airsho' regularly attracts participants and performers from across the United States from both military and civilian circles. Many continental United States airshows have suffered in recent years with the significant reduction in military participation by the USAF however once again, the team behind the Amigo Airsho were successful in securing the USAF Thunderbirds demonstration team for this year's event. Not content with one military act, the team were also able to secure a flypast from a B-52H from Barksdale AFB on the first day of the event.

Andrew Evans reports from Texas for UK Airshow Review. Additional photos from the Paul Newbold & Chris Barkby.

The Amigo Airsho attracts a wide number of civilian display acts from throughout the United States such as the famous "drunken" act by Kyle Franklin in his Piper Super Cub. If you have never seen this display before, it is one to add to your must see list. While pretending to be a drunken thief, Kyle deliberately undertakes low stalls and clips the wings on the ground as part of his breathtaking display. Not to be outdone so close to the Mexico border, the US Border Patrol and Customs teams provided their own unique display for the crowds. Starting with a high speed pursuit of a car running the border, the demonstration peaked with a "dogfight" between the car and an Agency Helicopter with sharp shooters hanging out the windows. The demonstration ended with an Agency Huey deploying a strike team to apprehend the driver. Anyone ever thinking of running a border agency checkpoint should really see this demonstration. You won't think that again!

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Amigo Airsho for the enthusiast is the widely spaced static park. As expected being a US Army Base, the home team had a number of examples of based UH-60's and AH-64's available for the crowd to look at. In addition, the USAF and ANG helicopter assets included a very rare Huey. The static display at El Paso was very well supported by international participants most notably by the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Luftwaffe. The Canadians bought with them an array of three different types starting with their advanced trainer, the CT-156 Harvard II which is a leased version of the T-6 Texan II also operated by the USAF and USN. Next up was a rarely seen CT-155 Hawk representing the Lead In Fighter Training wings of the RCAF. Finally, the RCAF provided one of its CF-188A Hornets for static display. Unfortunately however, due to technical problems (believed to be a fuel leak) the Amigo team were not able to display the CF-188 to the public on the Sunday.

By far the largest static supporter was the Luftwaffe. Germany undertakes the vast majority of its military aircrew training in the United States and as a result stations aircraft such as their Tornado's at a number of bases around New Mexico and Texas. What many enthusiasts do not know is that, in addition to their European assets that are located in the US which include the Tornado and F-4F (soon to be joined/replaced by a wing of Eurofighters), the Luftwaffe have also purchased a number of T-38 Talon's from the USAF and operate them alongside the NATO training wing at Sheppard AFB. In addition, the Luftwaffe also have use of a number of T-6 Texan II's owned by the USAF as part of their training partnership. Unusually the Luftwaffe also had pilots on hand from their transport wings with what looked like a civilian Grob trainer in Lufthansa colours! Upon querying this unexpected sight, the pilots were only too happy to explain that Luftwaffe basic cargo pilot training is now conducted by Lufthansa in Arizona on their behalf before the pilots convert to either the C-160, A-310 or the upcoming A-400M.

It is very easy to write at length on all the unique features a foreign airshow has to offer however it is much easier to hear them from the "Horses Mouth" so to speak. Therefore, in partnership with another UK aviation webzine we interviewed Scott Butler the president of the Amigo Airsho Board. Here is what he had to say:

Scott, tell us a little about yourself and the Amigo Airsho.

"I'm the 2012 board president and have been involved with the Amigo Airsho since 1985. That was my first year at the airshow. The airshow has been going on for 31 years since 1981 and we have celebrated our 31st anniversary this year. I have been on the board for the past five years this is my first year as president."

Has the show been here for the past 31 years?

"We have used Fort Bliss as our site for 31 years. We did have to make a move to this current location five years ago because we had a new brigade come in of helicopters. It was a tough year but we made it and now we have this location and have had some infrastructure put in, but it is working out well and the attendance is up."

What sort of attendance figures are you are expecting over the weekend? Is it a two day show?

"It is a two day show on Saturday and Sunday. Sunday is always our bigger day of the weekend. Yesterday [Saturday] we had 37,500 people, today I am expecting somewhere around 44 to 46,000 which is about where we are at. So we are in about the 75 to 85,000 range for the two days. The other thing we do which is very special for us is that on Friday before the show actually starts we have our special guest show. That is where this year we bought out almost 1,000 special needs children from the school district here in El Paso and got them to come out here. We bussed them out to the field and they got to watch most of the show on Friday which is performed whilst they are practising."

You have the Thunderbirds this year. How often do you get display teams or is it a bit of a coup for you getting the Thunderbirds here for the show?

"Actually yes, we've been very lucky and blessed that we have had a jet team about 66% of the time we've been around. So two thirds of the years we've been here we have had a jet team. This year we are so proud to sponsor and host the US Air Force Thunderbirds, the last time we had them was in 2010 so it is great to have them back here. Also just to let you guys know, next year we have already been able to announce that October 12th and 13th will be the show in 2013 and that we will have the Canadian Snowbirds. They've already told us they are coming so we are very excited."

How many people have you got working for you?

"This weekend you will see the guys with red shirts out here and it is going to be somewhere between 350 and 400 volunteers. The Amigo Airsho as I said has been going on for 31 years now, we basically have two full time staff. We have a Director of Operations and we have our Executive Director, before the show we hire two College interns to help us out with things going on then. Other than that it is all volunteers and we could not do it without them. So basically the way we look at our show is that we have this pyramid of who makes the show happen. First of all it is the people of El Paso and the people that come out to visit us; our patrons that come, that is who we want to get out here and we have been very blessed and very lucky that we get them out. Our Sponsors, we couldn't do it without our Sponsors that help us and we just couldn't do it without them. Then finally our volunteers."

Does the show support any charities?

"We have talked before and in the past at the board about supporting one charity but we made the decision over the last 31 years that we are going to spread the money around. What you will see when walking around our show are a number of souvenir booths where you will see young kids and teenage children selling things. What happens is that we work with our vendors so that we can get School and Youth groups in to work in these booths and then they get a percentage of the takings. So all of that flows to either the School groups or the Youth groups throughout the city."

How long did it take you to plan the military aircraft to come to the show?

"We have already started working on 2013 but normally what happens is that in December we will go to ICAS in Las Vegas which you guys are familiar with I know. That is where we will try to plan out our display, our committee which takes care of putting the show together, which is the current president, the vice president as well as other board members will put together a show based on what we see at ICAS. A lot of what we try to is get some great acts which have been coming for many years but we always try to bring in something new and fresh. This year I was excited to get Skip Stewart in, we haven't had Skip here before and that was excellent. John Mohr has been here in the late 1980's, we hadn't had him since then so it was great to have him back. That's how the acts committee works and we'll start working on that as soon as this show is over. We'll all go to ICAS and start working on the 2013 show. As far as getting the military aircraft that too is about a year long process. We start making requests and you find with budget cuts and things like that it is not easy to get them. One of the things that I am most proud of this year is you will see as you walk round we actually have a lot of warbirds here and a lot of old aircraft from older military days. We haven't had those in several years, so we are very delighted to have those. A lot of our patrons in the past seemed to really enjoy that."

We see a lot of participation this year from the Luftwaffe, are there any plans in the future to try and get international participation in the flying display?

"We would love to, you might have seen if you went all the way down to the end, we had some statics in from Canada. We have a wonderful German contingent here and have had for years, they have been such a supporter of the airshow, we have enjoyed having them and we would continue to do that as well as others. We would love to do that, and I apologise for not knowing their name but I know there is a phenomenal jet team in your home country which we would love to see. We would love to see them and they'd be fantastic."

As this is a US Army base, what support do they give you for the show?

"They have been an absolutely great partner with us since 1981 there is no way that we could have this show anywhere else in El Paso, it just wouldn't work. As you may have known when you flew in yesterday our proximity is very close to El Paso International Airport. When the Thunderbirds fly we have to shut down airspace at the airport, they have been great to allow us to do that when we have a jet team. Fort Bliss, we just couldn't do it without them, this is where we have to be and they have been such a great partner. It is not easy too, we are a civilian run organisation having an airshow on a military base. It is not very common but it shows you the partnership that Fort Bliss has with the city of El Paso and how important that is. Obviously there is a lot of things we have to go through in order to do this, to give you an example when you came in today you may have seen we have an Army day set up outside the front gates. That is important for Fort Bliss and our community to know that people can come out and see the Army assets without actually having to come into our show, so there are some things out there for them to see as well."

Stepping away from the airshow, Fort Bliss itself is a massive facility spanning a large area of Texas and New Mexico and is home to the following units: 1st Armoured Division, 15th Sustainment Brigade, 212th Fires Brigade, 402nd Field Artillery Brigade, 5th Armoured Brigade, 32nd Army Air and Missile Defence Command, 11th Air Defence Artillery Brigade, Joint Task Force North, German Air Force Command USA/CAN, and the German Air Force Air Defence Centre. The Forts responsibilities include Armoured training, air defence and aerial operations. During normal day to day operations, the airfield plays host to a myriad of US Army assets ranging from many variants of CH-47 Chinooks and UH-60 Blackhawks up to the menacing and deadly AH-64D Apache Longbow. In addition to the US Army assets, El Paso is home to a small NASA facility which is the home base to one of the rarest of types, the Guppy.

Whilst the Amigo Airsho is not well known outside of the United States the unique surroundings of an Army base provide some excellent opportunities for the aviation enthusiast or casual spotter to experience, some of which cannot be found elsewhere. Next years event is scheduled for 12th and 13 October 2012 and the team are more than welcoming to foreign visitors and locals alike. Already confirmed are the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for more information if you are interested in attending. There are also excellent transport links into Texas and El Paso itself is just a short commuter flight from Dallas Fort Worth.

Who knows with such a public invite to the Red Arrows to appear from the president of the board, maybe they will take up the offer?

For more information on the Amigo Airsho, you can visit the official website or follow their facebook page.

Andrew, Paul and Chris would like to extend their thanks to the Amigo Airsho organising committee and the Fort Bliss Public Affairs Office for granting UK Airshow Review media access to their event. In particular special thanks must go to Deborah Zuloaga whose help was instrumental in making the visit a success, the escort team for their superb company and to Scott Butler for agreeing to be interviewed.