By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Capacity, if not record crowds are expected for this year’s Memorial Day Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, Long Island, a combination of ideal weather and the US Air Force Thunderbirds headlining a crowd-pleasing lineup of aviation and aerobatic attractions.
The thrilling line-up also includes The United States Army Golden Knights Parachute Team will make their 17th appearance; the U.S. Navy F-35C Tac Demonstration Team; US Navy Growler (F-18 Super Hornet), the only electric attack aircraft; the U.S. Coast Guard, and the 106th Rescue Wing NY Air National Guard HC – 130 / HH 60 Demonstration Team.
We also get to witness the daring do of Jessy Panzer, a renowned female aerobatic pilot, flying for her second time at Jones Beach in a bi-plane; three of the American Air Power Museum’s flying fleet of Warbirds; the SUNY Farmingdale State College Flying Rams; Long Island’s own David Windmiller; and Mike Goulian, the most decorated aerobatic pilot in North America, and my personal favorite, the Skytypers who have been in every Jones Beach Air Show since 2004.
US Air Force Major Michelle Curran is aware that she is such an inspiration to women and girls everywhere – a role she embraces, along with her mission, as a member of the Thunderbirds demo team to “recruit, retain, inspire.” It is hard to say which she enjoys more – the look on a young girl’s face when she realizes that Curran was flying those death-defying maneuvers in her F-16 fighter jet, or the thrill of flying those death-defying maneuvers in her F-16 fighter jet, going from 1500 feet altitude straight up to 15,000 feet in a matter of seconds.
I got to watch the USAF Thunderbirds arrive at MacArthur Airport ahead of their headlining appearance at the Bethpage Air Show over Memorial Day Weekend at Jones Beach State Park, and then got to speak with the pilots. I confess that I have admired Michelle Curran, only the fifth woman (since 2005) to pilot one of the formidable F-16 jets, since I first saw her in the 2019 Bethpage Air Show, when she was the #6 (opposing solo) pilot. This year, she is the lead solo doing the daring-do maneuvers, where two opposing fighters come at each other at, like, 1200 mph. And she does it upside down (almost the equivalent of Ginger Rogers doing it backwards and in heels?). I couldn’t be more excited to meet her if she were Beyonce. And I am not alone.
“People come up and say ‘I’m so proud of you,’ – something your mother would say. It shows the impact we are having,” she says.
She reflects that last year, the personal contact with people was lacking, but the team did city- flyovers, honoring health workers, essential workers and first responders. People would send photos and such, showing how moved they were to see the flyover.
“it has been awesome to be part of that, to be in this position, in this time of history. I will look back.”
She reflects what it is like to be part of this very special team – there are 130 on the team.
“It’s like no other organization I have ever been a part of,” said Curran, who has been in the Air Force for 12 years. “I fly for them, not to let them down.”
But she adds, “And for all those little kids – they may not ever become a pilot, but they may think, ‘Maybe I can do that hard thing I didn’t think I could’.”
“Moms drag their daughter over, ‘She just flew!’ I makes them realize doors are open to them.”
The team flies in many countries and parts of the world where it is unthinkable for a woman to be a combat pilot. And she is aware of what seeing a woman in her role can mean. “I see that look on faces – that light bulb moment.”
She is the fifth woman to fly with the Thunderbirds (the first was in 2005). Just 2% of pilots are women. “We know each other – a sisterhood.”
It’s become more accepted, but she is aware of things that women have to “navigate” that men don’t even think about.
Curran is in her third year on the air force’s elite demonstration team – usually, the special assignment only lasts two years, but because of COVID-19, the tour is extended – and now is the lead solo pilot. The number of her jet, 5, and on her uniform, and the uniform of her crew (who are also women), are upside down, because in her role, she spends most of her time inverted, even as she makes that thrilling opposing pass.
We ask what it feels like to fly. Is she nervous at all? They practice so much, it is all quite routine, even the communications between pilots. “It’s all very professional in the air with the comm. No. 6 [the opposing solo] gives the challenge and the response, but I can hear his energy. When all six [of the Thunderbirds] come together, if the air is smooth, we’re all firing on all cyclinders, it’s a cool feeling. But when we’re down on the ground, and talk to each other, we might say, ‘Wow, we worked hard.’ Or ‘ We really crushed it.’”
“I do normal things in the morning. It hits me when I step out to the jets. Game on. There is a charge of adrenalin, but once I take off, it is just focus. I’m in my happy place. I know what I need to do. Focus.”
Her call sign is “Mace” (which she uses in her social media, @mace_curran)– and while she doesn’t reveal the secret to what is behind the nickname, she says it is a tradition in a fighter squadron to get a call sign they are mission qualified. “The whole squad gets together, talk about dumb mistakes – and then you get a call sign.” But the origin remains a secret.
Curran entered the Air Force in 2009 with a Reserve Officer Training Corps commission from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She completed the Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training in Columbus, Miss., and was assigned to the F-16 at Misawa Air Base, Japan. Curran has flown more than 1,500 hours in the F-16, including 163 combat hours over Afghanistan in support of operations Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel. Prior to the Thunderbirds, she was an F-16 Instructor Pilot and Flight Commander at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas.
I also get to chat with Maj. Zane Taylor, the right wing pilot flying the No. 3 jet.
He is the epitome of what the Thunderbirds are about. A native of Orlando, Florida, he reflects that he first saw the Thunderbirds when he was just four or five years old, and was so awed, he wanted to fly. “I knew it was something I wanted to do – not that the dream would come true but there are steps and I could do the best I could.”
He didn’t imagine then he would become one of the Thunderbirds, and even now, reflects “being proficient is one thing, but it takes luck and timing to get the F-16.”
The F-16, he says, is basically an “engine with wings” – it can fly at supersonic speed (though the FAA no longer allows it at air shows).
He reflects that he is ‘just a standard Air force fighter pilot, flying every day, multiple times a day to master maneuvers.” Except for the pretty paint and smoke, the maneuvers the Thunderbirds fly are the same for what are used in their combat training.
Like Curran, he says it is the team of 130 that make the Thunderbirds possible. “The plane doesn’t fly if just one doesn’t do their job.”
His call sign is “Strobe.” He wouldn’t give the back story of how he came to be called “Strobe’ either, except to say, “As a young pilot, I thought I knew what was going on. Most call signs are not flattering.”
Taylor is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he majored in Systems Engineering. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he served as an F-16 evaluator pilot, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. He has logged more than 1,700 flight hours, including more than 280 combat hours over Iraq and Syria in support of Operations Inherent Resolve.
He is in his third year on the Thunderbirds. He expects he will go back to a combat air squadron after this assignment is finished, and based on his age and experience, could become the director of operations.
He says that among his favorite things are riding roller coasters (he was looking forward to getting a ride on the Cyclone at Coney Island).
The other pilots include:
Col. John Caldwell is the Commander/Leader of the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron. In addition to flying the No. 1 jet, and leading all air demonstrations, he commands the 130-person squadron. He entered the Air Force in 2002 as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Caldwell graduated from the F-16 Replacement Training Unit at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., in 2005. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and has logged more than 3,100 flight hours with 667 hours of combat pilot experience. He is in his third season with the team and hails from Orlando, Fla.
Maj. Ian Lee is the Left Wing Pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 2 jet. He is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he double majored in Economics and Management. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he served as the Chief of Weapons and Tactics of the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and has logged more than 1,700 flight hours, including more than 470 combat hours in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He is in his first season with the team and hails from Cerritos, Calif.
Maj. Michael Brewer is the Slot Pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 4 jet. He is a 2005 graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, and commissioned from Officer Training School, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in 2010. Prior to commissioning, he flew as a commercial flight instructor, cargo pilot and airline pilot. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he served as an F-15E Instructor Pilot and Flight Commander of the 334th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. He has logged more than 5,800 total flight hours and 1,050 hours in the F-15E, including more than 315 combat hours over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve. He is in his third season with the team and hails from LaGrange, Ill.
Maj. Kyle Oliver is the Opposing Solo Pilot for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 6 jet. He majored in Communication Technology and Music and earned his commission in 2010 as a graduate of Ohio State University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he was an F-22 Instructor Pilot at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. He has logged more than 1,300 flight hours, including more than 230 hours of combat experience over Iraq and Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He is in his second season with the team and hails from Beavercreek, Ohio.
Lt. Col. Kevin DiFalco is the Director of Operations for the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, flying the No. 7 jet. He majored in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder and earned his commission in 2004 through the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. Prior to joining the Thunderbirds, he served as the Assistant Director of Operations of the 555th Fighter Squadron and Director of Operations for the 31st Operations Support Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons School, a 2016 and 2020 NASA Astronaut Air Force nominee and has logged over 1,900 hours of flight time, including more than 297 hours of combat pilot experience. He is in his second season with the team and hails from Fort Collins, Colo.
The Air Force’s official air demonstration team, designated the 3600th Air Demonstration Unit, was activated at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona in 1953. The unit adopted the name “Thunderbirds,” influenced in part by the strong Native American culture and folklore from the southwestern United States where Luke Air Force Base is located.
See more, including their schedule of performances, at the US Air Force Thunderbirds site, afthunderbirds.com.
Update:At this writing, the Bethpage Air Show was scheduled for Memorial Day, Monday, May 31. All tickets for Saturday and Sunday were to be honored.
The Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach State Park was canceled Saturday due to weather, the state Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation said in a statement. However, a livestream of Friday’s practice sessions – include footage from go-pros from the pilots and a Thunderbirds chase plane that shadowed the F-16s in their thrilling maneuvers – is airing on Saturday, 10-3 pm. It can be seen on WABC-TV, as well as on WABC’s Connected TV Apps on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, and Roku. The original plan was to livestream the rain date of Sunday, May 30, 2021. (It was not known whether Sunday’s show would also be canceled for weather).
The $10 event passes to the show can be returned in exchange for two free passes to visit any state park.
The show, which would have been the 17th at Jones Beach State Park, brought special excitement because of having been cancelled last year due to COVID-19, and the opportunity for crowds – albeit at 50 percent capacity – to gather again is a vital sign of the region’s return to normalcy. At this state park and many others around the state, free COVID-19 vaccines were being administered (with two-day passes to state parks as an additional incentive).
Here are photos from the practice performance including:
Show headliners the United States Air Force Thunderbirds returning to the Bethpage Air Show for their 8th appearance, performing some new maneuvers; the United States Army Golden Knights Parachute Team performing in their 15th Bethpage Air Show; the United States Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II, the first aircraft to be designed for close air support of ground forces (and built on Long Island); and the U.S. Coast Guard Search & Rescue Demonstration.
Civilian performers at this year’s Bethpage Air Show include the world-famous GEICO Skytypers and their flight squadron of six vintage WWII aircraft, the American Airpower Museum Warbirds, Long Island’s own David Windmiller, the Bayport Aerodrome Society, the SUNY Farmingdale State College Flying Rams who will fly seven of their 22 college-owned aircraft in a fly-by piloted by their top academic professional pilot performers, and Mike Goulian, North America’s most decorated aerobatic pilot.
An air show first, livestream viewers will be treated to a special inside look at performances. The GEICO Skytypers, the A-10 Thunderbolt, David Windmiller and Michael Goulian will have cameras on board their planes to provide viewers with an in-cockpit perspective, live, during the show. It’s these videos which will be streamed in place of Saturday’s performance.
At this writing, there was no decision on whether the Sunday performance would take place. Known to many as the Greatest Show on Long Island, the Bethpage Air Show was canceled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Show organizers instead held the first Bethpage Virtual Air Show which enabled fans to experience performances straight from the pilots’ cockpits.
The Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach is one of the largest and most respected air shows in the country. During the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds’ most recent headlining appearance in 2019, over 366,000 attended the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach.
The US Air Force Thunderbirds headlined the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, flying the thrilling red, white and blue F-16s. The event over Memorial Day Weekend, May 27 and 28, honors those who have died in service to the nation and veterans.
New this year was the Warrior Flight Team, a 501(c)(3) charity comprised of a team of all volunteers, which works to bring career opportunities to veterans. They brought two Soviet-era jets, built in Czechoslovakia (when they were put on the market, collectors could buy them for something like $75,000): Black Vandy 1 and Roman 86, raced around the sky at 560 mph showing precision flying and tactical maneuvers.
A personal favorite is the GEICO Skytypers Airshow Team, a flight squadron of six vintage WWII era U.S. Navy SNJ-2 trainers . The team performs a thrilling, low-altitude, precision-formation flying demonstration filling the sky and coming from all directions (even right at each other) to provide spectators a unique viewing experience while showcasing the tactics and maneuvers utilized during training during WWII.
The airshow traditionally kicks off with a ceremonial parachute drop by a representative of the US Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights, delivering the American flag to a tiny target on Jones Beach. The whole team then returns for a demonstration performance. They barrel out of their plane from an altitude of 12,500 ft, at a speed of 120 mph before pulling the cord to release their parachute; in one demonstration we see what happens when a chute fails at just 5,000 ft. (they have a spare chute). We learn that the parachutes they use, use the same aeronautical techniques as the original Wright Brothers plane in 1903.
The line-up also includes many returning favorites, as well as some new entries:
106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing deploys worldwide to provide combat search and rescue coverage for U.S. and allied forces – indeed, only last month they rescued the cargo ship Tamar. They are a World-Class Team of diverse, adaptable personnel recovery focused war fighters with a mission to provide worldwide Personnel Recovery, Combat Search and Rescue Capability, Expeditionary Combat Support, and Civil Search and Rescue Support to Federal and State authorities; since 9/11, they have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and East Africa. The 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing provides Personnel Recovery to the state of New York. They demonstrate how they parachute into all sorts of conditions – today into the water, and how they are recovered into helicopters that follow along the C-130 (which can refuel planes in flight; the wingspan of the C-130 is so enormous – it is actually the distance the Wright Brothers flew on their first famous flight). Just how dangerous this is was demonstrated the next day when a US Navy Seal tragically lost his life in a parachute demonstration on the Hudson River for Fleet Week NYC.
John Klatt Airshows and Jack Link’s Beef Jerky teamed up to create a one-of-a-kind plane, the Screamin’ Sasquatch, powered by dual powerplants: a Pratt & Whitney 985 Radial Engine and a General Electric CJ610 (J85) Jet Engine with 3,000 lbs of thrust. This system allows the plane to achieve feats other stunt planes are unable to do. During his performance, Ret. USAF Lt Colonel John Klatt experiences forces of plus and minus 4Gs, which means a 200 lb. man would weigh 800 lbs. He travels at 250 mph.Considering the ridiculous aerobatics Klatt performs in the plane, it is astonishing to learn that the plane is a Taperwing Waco made famous by the barnstormers of the 1920s and 1930s, and is based on a 1929 Waco, modified and “beefed up” big time.
A perennial favorite at Jones Beach is Sean D. Tucker, who performs impossible feats in a specially built, one-of-a-kind, most high-performance aerobatic aircraft in the world, the Oracle Bi-Plane. It is a fire-breathing monster with over 400 horsepower, weighs just over 1200 pounds,has a revolutionary set of wings that use 8 ailerons instead of 4, and responds to the slightest pressure on the control stick even at 300 mph. Sean flies the aircraft backwards, straight-down, tail-first at more than 100 mph. At points, he experiences 6 negative Gs. There he is, doing the inside outside loop; two consecutive Hammerhead stalls; the spiraling tower. More than half of Sean’s maneuvers are original and have never been duplicated by another aerobatic pilot. Amazingly, Sean started flying because he was afraid to fly, the long-time show announcer Rob Ryder notes.
David Windmiller, Long Island’s hometown hero (from Melville), thrills spectators in his Zivko Edge 540 aircraft, built especially for aerobatics, with seemingly impossible feats at speeds of up to 220 mph that keep his peers and his fans in awe. Windmiller has been flying since 14 year old, soloed at 16 year old and started aerobatic flying before he got his license and has accumulated 18,000 flight hours, including 8,000 doing aerobatics. He performs snap rolls, inverted flat spin (where the plane falls from the sky), 4 knife edge tumblers, inside-outside octogan loop.
Matt Chapman, flying for Embry Riddle, performs maneuvers in which he experiences as much as 9 positive Gs and 6 negative Gs. His Eagle 180 plane has parts from 3 countries. He’s also an American Airlines captain.
This year’s air show marked the return of the American Airpower Museum Warbirds, which present historic aircraft in a moving display.
SUNY Farmingdale Aerospace’s Flying Rams flew seven of their 22 college-owned aircraft in a fly-by piloted by their top academic Professional Pilot performers. The State University of New York (SUNY) Flight Center is a crown jewel of the SUNY system.
The Bayport Aerodrome Society, formed in 1972 is composed of aviation professionals, recreational pilots, and people interested in preserving aviation history. As a “living museum” they have a variety of antique aircraft flying on the field including Bi-Planes, Champs, and Cubs. This was their first time at the Bethpage Air Show. One of their pilots, flying the plane with “26” painted on it, is 90-year old pilot who served in World War II. Another of their Waco planes was flown by Anne Lindbergh (wife of Charles Lindbergh), and later, by Tom Cruise. These planes, made mainly of wood (to conserve steel for the war effort) were used as trainers.