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2012 Air Shows
Tacoma Freedom Fair Airshow, July 4, 2012
Location: Ruston Way Waterfront, Tacoma, WA
Admission: Free. Suggested donations: $1 for kids under 18, $5 for adults, $10 for families.
Parking: Free on city streets, remote parking with shuttle buses for $5 all-day pass.
Value: Excellent
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What better way to celebrate Independence Day than with an airshow! The skies above Tacoma’s Commencement Bay were crystal clear and the temperatures were in the low 80’s, forming a perfect stage for the day’s flying. The announced lineup was stellar and the crowds began to form early in the day. Unlike many airshows, where orientation and practice flights take place on the day or days prior to the show, practice for Tacoma’s show takes place in the morning and almost all of the performers take advantage of the opportunity. For viewers who arrive early this translates into a double-header, essentially two full airshows back-to-back.
The flying takes place over the water, with aircraft staging from either the nearby Tacoma Narrows Airport or McChord Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. There are therefore no static displays (although see below for information on the Freedom Fair’s other airshow). The venue is almost perfect, with the sun behind you and most of the action accessible with a 300mm lens (although, as always, it’s a bit of a reach for the smaller aerobatic aircraft). Since the action takes place along the waterfront, there are numerous parks and plenty of space to set up chairs, blankets or tables to enjoy the show. The Fair’s associated International Marketplace provides a wide variety of dining opportunities, although many families bring coolers and barbecues and have a picnic. There are several restaurants with piers extending into the bay where one can dine; having your food and drinks delivered by waiters means not missing any of the action while standing in line.
The formal flying began at 2PM with Tim Weber diving into the show box in his GEICO Extra 300S. He really put the aircraft through its paces with a routine filled with tumbles, snap-rolls, tail slides and hammerheads. He was followed by Greg “Wired” Colyer in his T-33A “Ace Maker”. New to this year’s performance is the use of smoke, which adds an extra dimension to his flying by allowing viewers to see where he has been. The skies were so calm, and Greg’s flying so precise, that he was often flying back into his own smokestream. He made full use of the aerobatic box, with high speed passes down on the deck over the water interspersed with high loops and Cuban Eights. He ended the show with a slow, dirty pass followed by a high-speed photo pass low enough to have the hills across the bay as a backdrop.
Viewers were then treated to a flyby by a C-17A Globemaster III based at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Unfortunately it was not a full tactical demonstration, but the crew of the “Spirit of McChord” made the best of their one pass, transitioning from a dirty to clean configuration before powering out of the airspace. Vicky Benzing then thrilled the crowds with a very spirited aerobatic display in her Extra 300S. The metallic paint scheme was shown to good advantage in the bright blue skies: shifting from red to purple and reflecting the highlights from the waves below. Her tail-slide, Humpty-Bump and rolling horizontal circle were particularly impressive. It was nice to see two such different aerobatic displays with the same aircraft in such short succession. Vicky would come back later for a direct head-to-head fly-off with Tim.
Then, for the first time in Washington state, the F-22A Raptor put on a full tactical demonstration. The by-now deep blue skies formed a perfect backdrop for Maj Henry Schantz’s aerial artistry. Sashaying into the airbox with an opening approach reminiscent of Matt Younkin’s Elephant Waltz, "Schadow" soon left no doubt that this fifth-generation fighter has no equal. The afterburner employed during a good fraction of the demonstration glowed bright orange in the blue skies, and the tight loops and changes in direction and attitude coaxed a good amount of vapor out of the humid air, forming billowing clouds or tight wingtip vortices, depending on the specific aerobatic maneuver. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t opening and closing of the weapons bay flyby never fails to amaze the crowd. Similarly, the tail slide left the viewers gasping. The crystal clear skies provided no frame of reference to judge the aircraft’s movement, so it seemed to hang suspended in the sky. Only the movements of the horizontal stabilizers and flaperons belied the backward movement of the airplane. Upon completion of the tactical demonstration, Maj Schantz left to join up with Greg Anders flying the P-51D Mustang “Val-Halla” for the US Air Force Heritage Flight. The two fighters flying in formation dramatically demonstrated the incredible advances in technology which the past seventy years have seen. The pair performed the usual three passes, including the flight from behind the crowd ending in the cross at show center. A few individual passes with barrel rolls ended with an unusual reforming of the pair, exiting over the heads of the crowd.
Unfortunately, at this point in the airshow it became clear that a number of performers would not be appearing. Last minute budget cuts had necessitated the cutting of the Bell AH-1 Cobra & Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter demonstration and Bud Granley’s T-6 Texan aerobatics. Additionally, the pilot scheduled to fly the Commemorative Air Force’s B-17 “Sentimental Journey” was called back to work by the commercial airline for which he works. Tim Weber and Vicky Benzing graciously agreed to return to the skies and performed a very nice “dueling” aerobatics routine. Being able to stage such an impressive impromptu show is the sign of true professionalism and kudos are due to Tim, Vicky and the airboss for putting it together and pulling it off.
The closing act was the US Navy’s F/A-18F Super Hornet Tactical Demonstration. LT Borya "Borat" Celentano (pilot) and LT Jeremy "2-Cups" Ludwig (WSO) of VFA-122 "Flying Eagles" from NAS Lemoore tore up the skies. Except for the inverted Whisper Pass it was loud, and except for the High-Alpha pass it was fast, with lots of afterburner and vapor. The scheduled Tailhook Legacy Flight unfortunately also fell victim to last minute budget cuts, which prevented the AD-1 Skyraider from participating.
The Tacoma Airshow is just one element of the multi-day Freedom Fair, other attractions include the International Marketplace, a car show, multiple entertainment stages featuring a variety of music, all culminating in the Fireworks Extravaganza. Tacoma’s annual Fourth of July Freedom Fair actually includes two airshows as part of its multi-day celebrations. The other one, “Wings and Wheels”, now in its second year of existence, was held July 1 st at Tacoma Narrows Airport. As its name implies, it is a combination of air and car show, featuring fly-bys, chances to view the aircraft on static display and meet the performers.
For over thirty years the Freedom Fair has been organized and staged by the Tacoma Events Commission. Despite its official-sounding name it is a private, non-profit organization which has funded the activities through donations, over 70% of which have been in-kind in the form of police security, military support for the air show, and advertisement in the local print and electronic media. The food and music festival, air show and fireworks draw over 100,000 people to Tacoma’s waterfront every July 4, and the Freedom Fair has always been free. However, the struggling economy has severely affected the airshow industry country-wide, and particularly so in Tacoma.
Performers included:
  • F-22A Raptor Tactical Demonstration
  • USAF Heritage Flight - P-51D Mustang “Val-Halla” & F-22A Raptor
  • F/A-18F Super Hornet Tactical Demonstration VFA-122 “Flying Eagles”
  • Tim Weber GEICO Extra 300 Aerobatics
  • Vicky Benzing Extra 300 Aerobatics
  • Greg Colyer T-33 Shooting Star "Ace Maker" Aerobatics
  • C-17 Globemaster III Flyby

Rating: 8 out of 10 (due to last minute cancellations)

Report and photography by Norman A. Graf for AIRSHOWSREVIEW LLC
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