Thunder Over Michigan is an air show that is held at Willow Run airport, just outside Detroit, every summer. It is organized by the Yankee Air Museum which is also based on the field. The museum suffered a major fire in 2004 and is in the process of rebuilding itself. While the show provides entertainment for the whole family, it differs from a number of shows in that it puts far more of a focus on the warbird scene. Consequently, while it is a major show for people in the area, it is also a very popular show for the enthusiasts. This year, I made my first trip to experience what Thunder has to offer.
The show has been running for over a decade now and has become firmly established as a focus for warbird activities. Differing themes have been introduced over the years with a gathering of B-17s one year bringing eight of the aircraft to the show. This year there was a tie in with the US Navy's Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA) events and a number of the CONA decorated aircraft were on static display. It had been hoped to gather a number of different F/A-18 Hornets from different units to make a "Hornet's Nest" but, as is so often the problem these days, operational and financial constraints meant that they could not attend. However, this should not detract from what was a great show.
The majority of airshows across the US bring together acts that are seen across the country from weekend to weekend and so have a relatively similar feel to them if you attend more than one show. This is no criticism of the individual shows. They provide an entertaining mix of performers and if you are only attending your local show each year, you will usually be pleased with what you get. However, if you are at a number of events, you will crave something a little different. Thunder is just such an event.
There were certainly some interesting types in the static line up with the US Navy bringing a great selection of aircraft. The warbirds were also in evidence, including quite a selection of vintage Navy aircraft in line with the CONA celebrations. There are also jet warbirds to see as well. An A-4 Skyhawk from the Warbird Heritage Foundation was on display and flew during the show, paired with a MiG-17 for part of its display. A MiG-21 was on static display but unfortunately could not fly during the show this time.
Another feature Thunder makes use of is ground displays. A number of battle reenactments were held in front of part of the crowd involving troops and vintage vehicles, all tied in with some air cover to enhance the battle feel. Additionally, some variety in the flying was also possible courtesy of a number of aircraft undertaking other operations that were integrated into the schedule, even if they weren't performing a full display. A locally based Convair 440 survey aircraft was an unusual sight and the Marine Corps had a V-22 that was conducting training from the field allowing the departure and return to be part of the show. A brief bow to the crowd was a nice addition, particularly if you were at the right end of the field.
USAF bomber attendance was also possible as part of training missions. At a number of US shows you may find a bomber making a pass or two as part of a longer mission. Several shows may be included in a single mission across a region - something that might only happen on one day of a two day show requiring a little planning ahead. Thunder managed to do particularly well and get two bombers in one go. A B-1B and a B-2A both did flybys. It was the first time I had seen a B-2 holding with a B-1 and would have made a great air to air shot!
The fast jets did make a showing in the flying display in the form of a USAF F-16C from Shaw AFB and the USN display team, the Blue Angels. This was the second time I had seen the Blues this year. The first was before they had the safety stand down and change of command. I had thought at the time they were a bit loose in their display and I guess that wasn't the only time. This time, though, they were very tight and I was pleased to see them back on form.
Unserviceability caused them some problems though. Fat Albert, the Marine Corps C-130 Hercules, did not fly its display that normally opens the Blues' routine. Also, the leader's jet went sick just before the display. The main display did go ahead with the leader flying jet number 3 and the two-seater being brought in to fill the space left. Unfortunately for those taking pictures, the two fast jet displays on the Saturday (when I was there) both seemed to be unlucky in their timing with a bit of cloud cover coming in. It didn't restrict them from a full height display but it did flatten out the light a lot.
The best of the weather on Saturday seemed to have been reserved for the warbirds and, with them being the stars of the show, maybe that is as it should be. The P-51s flew first with them providing top cover for one of the ground battles. Later we had a Navy display with Corsairs, a Helldiver, a Dauntless, a C-1 Trader and a PBY Catalina adding to the mix. The Corsairs were up again later, this time at the same time as two Mitsubishi Zeros. Again this provided top cover for some ground battles. The last of the old aircraft was an Ely-Curtiss Pusher replica to celebrate the earliest days of naval aviation. It certainly was a far more fragile looking aircraft than those that followed it 30 years later.
A couple of extra aircraft arrived during the afternoon with a Bearcat in Blue Angels colours and a PV2 Harpoon turning up. They were not integrated into the flying on Saturday. Whether they flew on Sunday, I don't know. If they did, it will only have enhanced an already interesting line up.
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