Thunder Over Michigan Report

Saturday 4th August - Sunday 5th August 2012

Seen by many to be one of North America's finest warbird airshows, Thunder over Michigan is organised by the Yankee Air Museum and held annually at Willow Run. With the 2012 theme being "Mustang Mania" and promises of over twenty-five or so P-51's present at the event, it looked like a classic.

Peter Reoch headed across the pond to report for UKAR, with additional photography from Trevor Reoch.

In the months leading up to Thunder over Michigan, there was great excitement on American internet forums as to the selection of the theme for the show being "Mustang Mania" and indeed the airshow team themselves added fuel to the fire with bold statements, advocating a gathering of 30 or so P-51's from across the country. The final count on the weekend was somewhat less than that, with 14 present in total. Though many people labelled the total of 14 "disappointing" I still think getting that amount of aircraft together is very impressive and the total did include the newly restored A-36 "Baby Carmen", P-51B "Old Crow" and P-51C "Tuskegee Airmen".

Eleven of the Mustangs present were showcased in the air daily, providing 'air support' for the afternoon battle re-enactment, with two race track patterns being flown over the battlefield. In a clever move, half-way through the display the aircraft switched which track they were flying, so that the aircraft that were previously further away from the crowd were now on the closer pattern and vise-versa. A simple move but very effective to allow the paying public to get a good look at all the airframes that were in the air. Seeing multiple 'Stangs flying very low and very fast will never cease to be an amazing sight. After the battle, the aircraft joined up into formations to complete two flypasts, though personally I think a bit more could have been made of this as it was a very short and simple affair - a wasted opportunity for something really special I think. The honour of providing the solo Mustang routine fell to Vlado Lenoch, who put on an immaculate display in "Moonbeam McSwine" - featuring beautifully flown manoeuvres to show the aircraft's agility combined with low, fast passes to show the Mustangs more brutish side.

The flying display contained a number of WWII trainer types, among which a pair of PT-17's, PT-19, BT-13 and a number of Texans, including four brightly coloured examples from Canadian Havard Association. Other warbirds included the newly restored B-25J "Georgie's Gal" (previously Martha Jean) which flew with the B-25 "Yankee Warrior". Sadly the third Mitchell that was due to join the formation, B-25J "Briefing Time", remained on the ground all weekend for unknown reasons. The B-17G "Yankee Lady" took part in the display over the weekend, but was seen flying almost constantly all weekend offering passenger flights. The Yankee Air Museum said they were fully booked for rides in the Flying Fortress nearly two weeks before the airshow weekend which shows how popular the flights are. Another heavy at the show which was busy flying passengers across the weekend was the glorious B-29A Superfortress "FiFi". Star of the show for many, the crew from the Commemorative Air Force also put FiFi through her paces as part of a stunning solo display (without passengers of course)! The P-38 "RUFF STUFF" rounded off the warbird element of the flying displays with a very aggressive display with plenty of topside to please the photographers in the crowd.

The static display (when compared to images of previous years) seemed very sparse, with both civilian and military attendance down. In fact the sole US Air Force support for the show came in the shape of a T-6A Texan II from Randolph AFB. Navy support for the show was slightly better with an Aggressor F-5E Tiger II from NAS Fallon and three Super Hornets from NAS Oceana. The Yankee Air Museums TC-47B was on the static display, along with a National DC-8 and USA Jet DC-9 which all operate from Willow Run.

The timetable of the show is certainly very different to what you'd expect from a 'normal' airshow, with two larger scale battle re-enactments taking place daily, one before the flying display and one in the middle of the afternoon display. Both battles are pretty similar, featuring a dozen or so military vehicles and a large number of re-enactors. This year the scenario was based upon the battle for Arnhem bridge with air support coming from a pair of P-47 Thunderbolts for the morning battle, and in the afternoon from numerous P-51 Mustangs. Another difference is the fact the displays don't really 'flow' from one act to the next like we're used to in the UK. One display will finish and land, and then they'll think about getting the next item ready which causes some rather long pauses in the flying display, these gaps were made worse on the Sunday when cancelled items were not filled in for.

The only military participation in the flying display came in the shape of two helicopter role demonstrations. (US Navy) HSC-28 provided a MH-60S Nighthawk which performed a basic demonstration of the helicopters capabilities, though for most of the 'display' the helicopter was repositioning well away from the crowd and most manoeuvres were very sedate, but a welcome addition nevertheless. The US Coast Guard provided a HH-65C Dauphin solo display, coming from nearby CGAS Detroit. The search and rescue demonstration looked promising on Saturday as the crew ran in low and fast perform performing some impressive turns to set up for a hover. Unfortunately the aircraft then developed an inflight problem and carried out a safe emergency landing but was not airworthy for its display on Sunday.

The heavier metal for the flying display came in the shape of F-86F Sabre "Smokey" and the star attraction for many - Art Nalls Sea Harrier FA2. The display on Saturday was a very special event for the team at Nalls Aviation, as it was the Sea Harrier's 100th flight in the US and to celebrate the aircraft had special decals applied on the tail for the weekend. Lt. Col. Art Nalls USMC (Retired) put on an awesome display, showing the speed and power of the Sea Harrier with a couple of low and fast passes but also showing it's manoeuvrability and finishing with a hover landing. To hear Art's thoughts on flying the legendary SHAR, download the latest UKAR Display Frequency Podcast.

There's lots of little things that made Thunder over Michigan an enjoyable experience; $10 for a scissor-lift ride to provide aerial photo opportunities, no obstructions to the aircraft, the friendliness of the crews and the high quality and low pricing of the food at the event. But there were also the little simple things that distract from the enjoyment of the show, the farce with static aircraft on Sunday morning being the major factor for me. All the warbirds were hangared on the far side of the airfield on Saturday night, but on Sunday morning there seemed there was no urgency to get them back over for the public to see. Infact some of the aircraft never made it at all. This meant anyone visiting on Sunday only would not have been able to witness all 14 Mustangs lined up on the tarmac together. Small effort, huge impact. Looking at the show overall it's certainly an event I'd attend again if I was in the area, but not something I'd make a huge effort to attend unless there were some real standout items in the line-up.