Thunder Over Michigan
Thunder Over Michigan is one of my favourite annual aviation events. Located at the Willow Run Airport (KYIP) in Ypsilanti, Michigan and organized by the Yankee Air Museum, their first show was in 1999 and our first visit was in 2003. Thunder has evolved a lot over the years to include military demonstration teams and civilian aerobatic acts but it still thrills its visitors as one of the top warbird shows in North America.
Every year the show organizers pick a theme that highlights an historical anniversary or specific aircraft which has lead to incredible shows featuring masses of B-25 Mitchells, B-17 Flying Fortresses or P-51 Mustangs, to name a few. Other times a single aircraft has made the show special, such as the F-4D Phantom, the F-100F Super Sabre or the J2F-6 Duck. Organizers are always looking for ways to improve and many of these changes have positively impacted photographers, like the new showline that parallels Runway 05R/23L or the Saturday night engine runs.
There was no show in 2020 so I spent some time reflecting on the history of the event at Checksix - the military aviation online magazine.
In 2019 we went 'Corsair Crazy' as Thunder was able to present a gathering of eleven Corsairs, one of the largest gatherings of this type of aircraft since the Korean War. By the time we arrived on Sunday August 4, the show had already enjoyed two successful days with beautiful weather and a night engine run featuring a B-25 and a Corsair under a clear starry sky. Even though we were only able to attend for one day, it was great to be among friends as we walked the static ramp in the morning and watched the flying program from the photo area. The afternoon weather cooperated in a way that I had previously never experienced, as storms seemed to develop all around the field but the airport remained in a bowl of sunshine and blue skies. The Corsairs were joined by a nice collection of P-51 Mustangs, a few B-25 Mitchells and the F-16 Viper Demo Team for what was arguably the best Thunder Over Michigan in recent years.
As always there was a wonderful collection of aircraft on display in 2018, and they had beautiful weather during their arrival on Friday August 24. Unfortunately, the weather was miserable for the rest of the weekend and neither day featured a full flying program. The best part of the show was the introduction of a Night Engine Run on Saturday night featuring the Tennessee Museum of Aviation P-47D Thunderbolt 'Hun Hunter XVI' and the Yankee Air Museum's B-17 'Yankee Lady' and C-47 'Hairless Joe'. Although it also rained during portions of this special event, especially while the spotlight was on the B-17, those in attendance left very satisfied and it should become a regular part of weekend activities going forward.
2017 featured the usual list of high quality acts that have become synonymous with Thunder Over Michigan. The Blue Angels headlined for the fifth time while the show also hosted the North American air show debut of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) Airbus A400M Atlas, which was on static display. The theme aircraft was the C-47 of which there were seven in attendance with six wearing D-Day stripes. Unfortunately, even though the Skytrains were able to fly during the show, weather prevented them from dropping the paratroopers they carried on board during the three show days. While there were plenty of other warbirds including an F-86 Sabre, P-51 Mustang C and D models, an F8F Bearcat and an AD-1 Skyraider, the most interesting aircraft at this show was a very simple looking Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk owned by the American Heritage Museum. In March of 1941, this aircraft was assigned to the 6th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group based on Oahu, Hawaii. A Landing incident in October forced it into a hangar to be repaired and it was still there on December 7th when the Japanese attacked. Not only is this aircraft the only remaining P-40B of the 131 that were produced but it is the only surviving airworthy American fighter from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Seventy years after the final B-24 was completed at the Ford Willow Run bomber plant, the location was once again turned into 'Bombertown, USA'. Bombers were everywhere with many marquee aircraft including Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's 'Mynarski' Lancaster, the Commemorative Air Force's B-29 Superfortress 'Fifi' and the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito from the Military Aviation Museum. It's easy to look at the contributions these planes made in the past but the focus at this event was also on the future as the fundraising efforts by the Yankee Air Museum, especially their record setting 'Rosie the Riveter' campaigns, were successful in saving a portion of the bomber plant to be used by the museum.
The fighters were not easily outdone as the show opened each day with a formation that featured a P-51B, two P-51Ds, a Corsair and a Spitfire. Also on display was a Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-8, another wonderful aircraft flown up from Jerry Yagen's collection in Virginia Beach.
In 2014, the warbirds gathered for the show were joined for the first time by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. Yet it was a couple of memorable formations that made the days at Thunder Over Michigan special. The show was opened with by an impressive collection of T-6 Texans, SNJs and Harvards flying as a twelve-ship formation. While not nearly as exciting as a Spitfire or Mustang, hundreds of thousands of pilots learned to fly in these aircraft before fighting in World War II and Korea and it has a special place in history. As an aspiring warbird pilot, it is also an aircraft that I hope to fly at some point too.
Later in the show five rare aircraft got together for a very impressive formation known as 'Victory Flight'. Although the group was not the most photogenic due to their spacing, the sight of Yankee Air Museum's B-17G 'Yankee Lady' leading P-38L Lightning 'Ruff Stuff', P-47D Thunderbolt 'Jacky's Revenge' and P-51D Mustangs 'Hell-er Bust' and 'Petie 2nd' was inspiring for many while emotional for some. More than just aircraft, the men these planes represent like Norbert Ruff, Edwin Heller and John Meyer accumulated fantastic combat records totalling hundreds of sorties over enemy territory. They are credited with dozens of aerial victories, including 3.5 MiG's destroyed by Heller in Korea and enemy aircraft destroyed by strafing ground targets, an inherently dangerous job. They are just a small example of the dedication and sacrifice that lead to Victory for the Allies.
Thunder Over Michigan 2013 - the year of the dreaded sequestration. US military participation was cut including the Thunderbirds scheduled performance leading to the decision to postpone the event from June until August. Even though it was a tough decision that was met with some initial criticism it was absolutely the correct action to take and resulted in a wonderful weekend honouring aircraft from the Vietnam War. The theme aircraft was the Douglas Skyraider of which four were able to attend including the AD-1 'Bad News' from the Warbird Heritage Museum in Waukegan, Illinois. The museum also contributed to the Vietnam commemoration with their beautiful Douglas A-4B Skyhawk. Finally, another aircraft from that era and a plane that is quickly becoming a favourite at Thunder, Dean Cutshall's F-100F Super Sabre returned after missing the previous two shows. Dean made up for his absence with a spirited arrival that included multiple options down Runway 09, the most photogenic runway at Willow Run, during the nicest weather of the weekend.
It was 'Mustang Mania' at Willow Run Airport on August 3, 4 and 5, 2012. More than a dozen Mustangs that included an A-36, P-51B, P-51C and of course a bunch of P-51Ds gathered to celebrate one of the most famous fighters of World War II. They were joined by everyone's favourite pair of P-47Ds from Tennessee, P-38L 'Ruff Stuff', B-29 Superfortress 'Fifi' and the most famous fighter from the Korean War, the F-86 Sabre. Yet with all of the incredible hardware that was on display in the air and on the ground the memory that stands out most clearly in my mind is from Sunday morning, hanging out in the photo tent among friends that we only see for a few days each year. Every weather app available was used along with many different approaches to appeal to the weather gods in an effort to move the unfavourable conditions through before showtime. Somehow it worked and lead to one of my favourite days I've enjoyed at this air show and some of the nicest photos I've taken.
Unfortunately I had to miss the 2011 show as I was working at the end of the world. Actually, it was only the end of the road in northern Ontario, Pickle Lake, but since it was so far removed from civilization it felt like the end of the world. Lucky my father was still able to attend and capture some of the highlights of the weekend celebrating the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. Please enjoy his work featuring US Navy aircraft from the past and present as well as the Texas Flying Legends Museum’s Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero and the Commemorative Air Force's Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero, the only two airworthy aircraft of this type in the world.
For the second time, 2005 being the first, air show organizers were able to present eight B-17s, this time to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first flight of Boeing Model 299, the prototype of the Flying Fortress. The B-17s weren't the only heavy metal in attendance as other bombers included a B-52H flyby from the 96th Bomb Squadron, multiple B-25s and the Collings Foundation B-24J 'Witchcraft'. The original war time 'Witchcraft' was a B-24H built by Ford on the other side of the airport at the Willow Run bomber plant. While not a bomber, freshly restored Eastern Air Lines Douglas DC-7B from the Historical Flight Foundation certainly counts as heavy metal. The aircraft was available for rides during the weekend and we enjoyed a trip around the local area in this wonderful piece of history.
'Little Friends' accompanied the 'Big Brothers' just as they had during World War II. There were a few fun formations during the flying display, but the most notable was the performance of The Horsemen Flight Team, the world's only P-51 Mustang formation aerobatic team. A final highlight worth recognizing was the presence of two very rare Vietnam-era fighters, and one that's not as rare. Dean Cutshall brought his beautiful F-100F Super Sabre from Ft Wayne, Indiana while Will Ward had his MiG-21 on display, next to his MiG-17.
This one was special for a lot of reasons, but I'm only going to write about the one aircraft that made this show extraordinary. The Collings Foundation brought their McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II to the event from it's home at Ellington Field in Houston. The Phantom is one of the most sought after aircraft by aviation enthusiasts and this rare appearance was thoroughly enjoyed by those in attendance. Of special note is the paint scheme worn by this aircraft honouring famed aviator and triple-ace Brigadier General Robin Olds. On January 2, 1967, then Colonel Olds led his pilots from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing on Operation Bolo, a mission replicating the tactics of F-105 Thunderchiefs in an attempt to lure North Vietnamese fighters in to a fight. The ruse was triumphantly successful as the group of Phantoms destroyed seven MiG-21's during the 12-minute engagement.
Unfortunately I had to miss this fantastic show as I was working my first flying job at Simpson Air in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. It wasn't a bad place to spend a summer as I added a few hundred hours to my logbook while flying over some incredible terrain in the Nahani National Park and enjoyed 24 hours of daylight for five weeks during the summer. Luckily, my dad was still able to attend this event so I got to enjoy the formation of four P-47 Thunderbolts and beautifully painted C-130H from the Ohio Air National Guard through his lens.
2007 brought a lot of changes to the show including layout and display pattern, but the soul of the show remained unchecked and featured the B-25 Mitchell as the theme aircraft. While there were many beautiful aircraft on display over the weekend such as multiple P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts and F4U Corsairs and individual examples of a P-40 Warhawk and F8F Bearcat, the overwhelming highlight were the Mitchells. Lined up along Runway 9L-27R, the gathering of fifteen Mitchells was the largest of the type since the filming of Catch-22, a movie that was released in 1970.
Thunder Over Michigan 2006 included a terrific variety of aircraft from World War II classics to the modern F-16 fighter. A privately owned T-2 Buckeye makes for an interesting inclusion in a vintage aircraft category, as the type had been recently retired from training service in the United States Navy but was still being flown for test purposes. Another former Navy training jet that flew a spirited display all three days was the TA-4 Skyhawk. Finally, Will Ward and his locally based MiG-17 tore up the sky and provided lots of burner. My favourite inclusions in the show were the British warbirds as multiple Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires from the Russell Aviation Group and Fighter Factory were joined by an Avro Lancaster. The best display of the weekend came early each morning when the P-47 Thunderbolts from the Tennessee Museum of Aviation performed simulated strafing passes on the Battle Reenactment taking place at the north end of the field.
While many aviation enthusiasts were starting to know of this Michigan Warbird show, the 2005 edition of Thunder Over Michigan may have been the one that made its mark on an international scale. Once again it stood out with special rare warbird appearances like the Messerschmitt Bf-109E, North American FJ-4B Fury and Grumman J2F-6 Duck, all of which are the only airworthy examples left of their type. The show also featured the only two flyable B-24 Liberators, but it was the other collection of heavy bombers that will forever be linked to this event. The gathering of eight Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses was a truly remarkable feat, especially considering there were only ten airworthy example in the world at the time. The mass taxi to the runway, group run-up and the missing-man finale was one of the most wonderful displays I have witnessed at an air show. The sound produced by thirty two Hornet radial engines was extraordinary making it hard to imagine being in Britain in 1943, 1944 or 1945 and watching hundreds fly east on a mission.