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2012 Air Shows
Thunder & Lightning over Arizona, Davis-Monthan AFB, April 14-15
Location: Tucson, AZ
Admission: FREE
Parking: FREE
Value: Excellent
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A-10C Thunderbolt II, 357th FS Davis-Monthan AFB
“Thunder & Lightning over Arizona” was the theme for this year’s biennial Open House at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. The weather on Saturday came close to making that a reality as the day dawned cold and rainy with high gusty winds. Nevertheless, the gates opened promptly at 08:30, and those who braved the weather were treated to an enormous expanse of tarmac filled with an impressive array of military aircraft on static display. The first day’s flying, scheduled to begin at 11:00, was delayed slightly since the Flag Jump had to be cancelled due to the high winds. Thereafter it was non-stop action except for a short break when a mercy-flight helicopter needed the airspace and a roughly half-hour break caused by the cancellation of several acts due to the high winds. Then it was time for the headline act, the USAF Thunderbirds, to take to the skies. By then the clouds had mostly cleared and the crowd enjoyed a high show with crystal clear blue skies. Sunday dawned bright and clear and the 100,000+ spectators (with some repeat visitors from the 30,000 the day before) were witness to a full schedule of performers.
Parking this year was on-base, so the problems encountered with public transit and shuttles during 2010’s “Aerospace and Arizona Days” were not an issue. Inbound traffic was halted around 2PM. Visitors were warned beforehand to expect to do a lot of walking, but pedicabs were available for those who tired. The very long flightline was open to visitors except for the Flight Line Club Chalet, the Air Boss’ and Announcers’ area, and the adjacent media pit. Unlike most airshows, folding chairs were not allowed through the gates, but 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 a climbing wall and 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, along with a number of rides, including flight simulators.
There was an incredible number of aircraft on static display. The “heavies” were arrayed on the north end of the field, and the first aircraft to meet most people was the Airborne Laser Test Bed YAL-1. This modified 747-400 was equipped with a megawatt class laser and was developed to test the concept of destroying tactical ballistic missiles in flight. The airframe has numerous infrared sensors to detect missile launches, and a large steerable turret in the nose contains adaptive optics which aims the main laser at the target. Despite successfully downing two missiles in flight, it was deemed not to be operationally viable and the program was cancelled in 2011; the final flight of YAL-1 occurring earlier this year. This was the first public appearance of the ALTB, and most likely the last, as it was already sealed and ready for transport to the 309 th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). Looming large, even next to a 747, was a C-5 Galaxy recently arrived from Wright-Patterson AFB; it too is destined for “The Boneyard.” The very rarely seen EC-130H “Compass Call” was also on display. Based at Davis-Monthan, the antenna-strewn Hercules provides an offensive electronic attack capability to the USAF. Other esoteric electronic warfare aircraft on display were the E-8C “J-STARS” and TC-135 “Rivet Joint”, both based on the Boeing 707. An EA-6B Prowler from VAQ-129, stationed at NAS Whidbey Island, represented the Navy’s electronic warfare capabilities. A number of helicopters from the various branches of the armed services then followed: US Army AH-64 “Apache”, USMC CH-53 “Super Stallion”, and USAF HH-60 “Pave Hawk.” Another very unusual large aircraft on the ramp was NASA’s Super Guppy, designed to transport large spacecraft components. Last of the big jets was a B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale AFB.
South of show center, and located under shade (and rain) ramadas, were the many tactical fighter jets and warbirds. Interspersed with the USAF F-22, F-16s, A-10s and Navy F/A-18s was a pair of RAF Tornados, training in the desert Southwest in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan. The crews seemed to be enjoying the British weather. But of course the main attraction of the Open House was the Airshow, and it opened with a rare treat. High winds had cancelled the flag drop, but by 11:30 the skies to the north had cleared just in time for the arrival of the B-2A stealth bomber out of Whiteman AFB. Celebrating the centennial of Arizona statehood was the “Spirit of Arizona.” The crowd was treated to three very nice passes, including a steep bank clearly showing the bat-shaped outline. Following almost immediately was the B-1B Lancer from Dyess AFB. Its three passes nicely demonstrated the swing-wing capabilities, transitioning from extended wings for slow flight to the fully swept configuration for its final fast pass with full afterburner. It was very interesting to see both aircraft in the clear blue skies to the north and then silhouetted against the dark and threatening skies to the south. The grey skies actually worked to their advantage as the details of the B-2 were visible, and the four afterburners of the B-1B glowed bright orange before the plane was completely swallowed up by the clouds. Neither bomber had been listed on the show schedule so the flybys were very pleasant surprises.
One of the many aerobatic demo was unique in that it featured a home-built kit airplane, a Van’s Aircraft RV-8, flown by Joe "Rifle" Shetterley. Airshow fans will recall that Capt Shetterley was the A-10 West demo pilot in 2010-11. It was a real treat to see him perform before the home-town crowd, putting the highly polished natural-metal airframe through a series of graceful rolls and loops.
Normally, the Thunderbirds would open their season at the Davis-Monthan Open House (or at Luke AFB in alternating years), but this year’s Centennial of Marine Aviation took them to the MCAS Yuma Airshow first (see review here). The skies had cleared sufficiently for the Thunderbirds to put on their high show and they were in fine form, crisply executing their synchronized maneuvers and crossing exactly at show center. Shooting directly into the sun makes photography difficult, so many of the spectators put down their cameras and simply watched in amazement. After the show and following a short debrief the team members came to the flightline to sign autographs and answer questions from the audience.
I would like to express my thanks and sincere appreciation to the 355 th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office for their hospitality and assistance during the Airshow. 1stLt Godfrey and 2dLt Ruckriegle did a good job of setting up and organizing the media access, and Airmen Cook and Washburn provided assistance during the day.

Performers included:

  • B-1B Lancer “Lil Chief”, 7th BW, Dyess AFB
  • B-2A Spirit “Spirit of Arizona”, 509th BW, Whiteman AFB
  • C-17 Globemaster III, 452 AMW, March ARB
  • A-10C Thunderbolt II, 357th FS Davis-Monthan AFB
  • F-16C Fighting Falcon, AZ ANG
  • HC-130P Hercules, 79th RQS Davis-Monthan AFB
  • HH-60G Pave Hawk, 55th RQS Davis-Monthan AFB
  • USMC Bulk Fuel Company Alpha CAF Blastards Pyro
  • MV-22 Osprey, VMM-166 "Sea Elk", MCAS Miramar
  • USAF Thunderbirds

Heritage Flight:

  • A-10 Thunderbolt II flown by Maj John "Beercan" Collier
  • P-51D Mustang “Live Bait” flown by Vlado Lenoch


  • Jeff Boerboon, Extra 330SC
  • Dan Buchanan, Hang Glider
  • Matt Chapman, Embry-Riddle CAP 580
  • Greg Colyer, T-33A “Ace Maker”
  • Desert Rats, CJ-6 Formation
  • Marcus Paine, Super Cub
  • Red Bull Air Force
  • ChuckAaron, MBB Helicopter
  • Extreme Parachute Team
  • Kirby Chambliss, Edge 540
  • Joe “Rifle” Shetterley, Raytheon RV-8
  • Tombstone Riders Wingwalking

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Heritage Flight with the A-10 and the P-51
B-2A Spirit 'Spirit of Arizona', 509th BW, Whiteman AFB
Airborne Laser Test Bed YAL-1
Joe 'Rifle' Shettreley in his RV-8
USAF Thunderbirds
Review and photography by Norman A. Graf for AIRSHOWSREVIEW LLC.
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