2016 Event Review

Thunder & Lightning over Arizona, March 12-13, 2016
Location: Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ
Admission: Free
Parking: Free, on site
Value: Excellent
Rating out of 10: 10

Joe "Rifle" Shetterly RV-8 Aerobatics

"Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future" has been the recurring theme for the biennial "Thunder & Lightning over Arizona" Open House and Air Show at Davis-Monthan AFB. The two-day event's aerial performances included warbirds, aerobatic aircraft, helicopter displays, a combat search and rescue demonstration, military tactical demos and culminated with the Thunderbirds. The ramp was filled with an equally broad and disparate selection of military aircraft on static display and the weather was perfect. All the ingredients for a terrific airshow to start off the 2016 season!

The gates opened promptly at 0900. Access to the base was handled very well, with parking close-in to the tarmac and security checks that were quick and efficient. Just inside the gate, visitors were greeted by a long line of US Air Force "heavies" : C-17 Globemaster III, KC-135R Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender, E-3 Sentry, TC-135W Rivet Joint, EC-130H Compass Call, B-1B Lancer, and C-5A Galaxy, almost all of which were open for tours. Most of the remaining aircraft on static display were housed under shade ramadas at show left. These included current military such as F-35A Lightning II, F-16C Fighting Falcon, F-15E Strike Eagle, A-10C Thunderbolt II, F/A-18F Super Hornet, MC-12W Liberty, T-1A Jayhawk, T-38 Talon and two Army helicopters, the AH-64 Apache and UH-72 Lakota. A few famous retired military aircraft, such as the F-4 Phantom II, were towed over from the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) "boneyard." It appears that the restrictions placed on military airshow participation imposed by the ongoing budget sequestration process are slowly being eased.

The flightline is very long and, except for some reserved areas such as the Flightline Club, Beer Garden and VIP pavilions, open for spectators. Unlike most airshows, folding chairs were not allowed through the gates, but rental chairs were available for a $5 fee. Some small bleachers were available free of charge, and shade was available either under the wings of the larger aircraft on display or under the protective ramadas for the smaller aircraft. A large "Kid's Zone" featured multiple bounce houses, plenty of portable toilets were distributed throughout the area, and free water was also available from military "Water Buffaloes." Lots of souvenir and food vendors were distributed throughout the grounds.
The show started promptly at 1100 with a jumper from the USAF Academy's Wings of Blue parachute team flying in the American flag. Several more members of the Wings of Blue then parachuted in, each bringing in a different service flag. They would perform once more later in the day, demonstrating their aerial skills with high speed maneuvers in freefall as well as precision canopy flight. The flying started with Jacquie Warda putting on a fabulous aerobatic performance in her beautifully painted Extra 300. Even though this was her first airshow of the season her maneuvers were all spot-on, especially the perfect slow roll down the length of the aerobatic box. Kent Pietsch put on the first of his three performances of the day, impersonating a complete novice invading the air space with his zany flying. He later landed on a pickup truck and demonstrated his complete mastery of energy management by killing the engine at 6,000 feet then bringing the aircraft to a stop on the runway with the spinner touching the outstretched hand of the airshow announcer. Other civilian acts included the Desert Rats Formation Team which performed a series of tight flybys in their four Nanchang CJ-6s. Joe "Rifle" Shetterly, formerly the A-10 West Demonstration Team pilot, put on an outstanding aerobatic display in his highly-polished RV-8, concluding with a race against Bill Braack in the Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car.

This show was one of only four where the Marine Corps' AV-8B was scheduled to perform this year. Major "Squeeze" Pasquale of VMA-311 "Tomcats" from MCAS Yuma put on a terrific show, powerfully demonstrating the broad range of the Harrier IIs aerial capabilities. Although the Harrier II entered service with the USMC over 30 years ago and is currently scheduled to be replaced by the F-35B Lightning II, it is still an extremely capable aircraft, able to take off and land vertically, hover like a helicopter, or fly at speeds approaching the speed of sound. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine (OAM) is the world's largest aviation and marine law enforcement organization with 83 locations throughout the U.S. Davis-Monthan is home to the largest air operations program within the OAM and is responsible for almost 20 percent of the OAM's total flight hours. The Customs and Border Patrol vehicle interdiction simulation demonstrated how a suspected smuggler would be apprehended. An agile Eurocopter AS 350 intercepted a speeding automobile at almost ground level, after which a UH-60 Blackhawk arrived on the scene. Officers fast-roped down to apprehend the suspect and turn him over to police officers who had been in fast pursuit in their squad cars.

Among its other responsibilities, Davis-Monthan is host to the 563d Rescue Group which is composed of the 48th Rescue Squadron (Pararescue), 55th Rescue Squadron (HH-60G Pavehawk) and 79th (HC-130J Combat King II) Rescue Squadron. Elements of these squadrons combined with four A-10s from the 355th Fighter Wing to put on an impressive display of combat and airpower capabilities with a simulated Combat Search and Rescue mission. Two parachutists jumped from a circling HC-130J Combat King II from the 79th RQS, playing the part of downed airmen. Four A-10s from the 357th Fighter Squadron were scrambled, with the Thunderbolt IIs taking off in section flights. An EC-130H Compass Call from the 41st Electronic Combat Squadron took off to disrupt enemy command and control communications. Two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the 55th Rescue Squadron carrying pararescuemen from the 48th RQS took off and joined up with the Combat King II and simulated an in-flight refueling. The four A-10s performed a number of strafing and bombing runs accompanied by pyrotechnics on the ground. With the area now secured, the two Pave Hawks flew in low and fast, flared to a stop and hovered as the rescue team fast-roped to the ground. The airmen were quickly hoisted to the hovering HH-60G, the rescue team was recovered and the Pave Hawks quickly departed the scene. A pass-in-review by the participating aircraft of the Desert Lightning Team ended the display.

One of the most sought-after tactical demonstrations at an airshow is the F-22 Raptor so it was a special treat that the team debuted its 2016 season at Davis-Monthan. New to the team this year is Maj Daniel "FFits" Dickinson, who masterfully demonstrated the awesome capabilities of this premiere fifth-generation air superiority fighter jet. The Raptor that he flew starred in the Transformers movie as the Decepticon Starscream. He completed his flight demonstration by joining up with Major General Tommy Williams, flying in the P-51D Mustang "Double Trouble two" for the Heritage Flight.

Then it was time for the headline act, the USAF Thunderbirds, to begin their aerial demonstration. On Saturday a brief swearing-in ceremony involving several dozen young volunteers preceded the flying. Astute observers had noticed that only five Fighting Falcons were lined up on the tarmac. Thunderbird #5, Capt. Nicholas Eberling, had suffered an injury which prevented him from performing in his role as Lead Solo. Nevertheless, the remaining Thunderbirds put on a very impressive five-ship demonstration featuring the rarely-seen Stinger formation. After the show and following a short debrief the team members came to the flightline to sign autographs and answer questions from the audience.

Air Boss Ralph Royce kept the flying action flowing smoothly and safely and Announcer Rob Reider kept the audience of 150,000 informed and entertained. We would like to express our thanks and sincere appreciation to the 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office for their outstanding hospitality and assistance during the Open House, in particular Capt Casey Osborne, 2d Lt Sydney Smith and TSgt Courtney Richardson. Additionally we would like to thank the show organizers, sponsors, participants and all the airmen at Davis-Monthan AFB for making this show such a success.

Performers included:

USAF Thunderbirds
F-22 Raptor Demo Team

USAF Heritage Flight: F-22 Raptor P-51D Mustang "Double Trouble two"

AV-8B Harrier II Demo Team, VMA-311 "Tomcats"

MCAS Yuma Desert Lightning Team Combat Search and Rescue Demonstration:

A-10C Thunderbolt II EC-130H Compass Call HC-130J Combat King II HH-60G Pave Hawk Pararescuemen

Customs and Border Patrol Vehicle Interdiction Demonstration Eurocopter AS 350 UH-60A Blackhawk

USAFA Wings of Blue Parachute Demonstration Team

Desert Rats, CJ-6 Formation

Joe "Rifle" Shetterly RV-8 Aerobatics

Bill Braack, Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car
Jacquie B Airshows Extra 300 Aerobatics
Kent Pietsch Interstate Cadet Aerobatics

Static displays included:

F-35A Lightning II
A-10C Thunderbolt II
B-1B Lancer “Star of Abilene II”
HC-130J Combat King II
EC-130H Compass Call
E-3 Sentry
C-17 Globemaster III
C-5A Galaxy
CV-22 Osprey
AH-64, US Army
UH-72A Lakota, US Army
F-16C Fighting Falcon
F-15E Strike Eagle
F/A-18F Super Hornet
KC-10 Extender
KC-135R Stratotanker
TC-135W Rivet Joint
T-38C Talon
MC-12W Liberty
T-1A Jayhawk
T-6A Texan II
MQ-1 Predator

Plus numerous aircraft from the “Boneyard”

Report and photography by Norman A. Graf for with additional images by Geoffrey Arnwine

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