I know I’ve harped on about the weather a lot this summer, and especially about the thunderstorms, but before you all run away screaming, let me just say that this isn’t a weather related post! But it does involve thunder in the air, but of a good kind, the kind of thunder generated by propellers and piston engines as eight, yes eight!, B17 Flying Fortress WWII bombers took to the skies at the same time creating more than a little Thunder Over Michigan. Yes, this post is all about the fantastic air display we went to last weekend, and I have so much to show you and so much to tell you that it’s going to be a two parter!, and if I can’t pare the photos down any more it might even turn in to a three part post! I warn you now, this is an incredibly photo heavy post, and I make no excuses or apologies for that.
Andrew and I have been fixtures at this display for quite a number of years, we’ve been to other air displays both here and in England but this one is etched in to our hearts and we hate to miss it, we’ve even cut a holiday a day short so we could make it back to Detroit for one of the days of the show (it’s a two day event), and I already know the dates of next years show too! The charm of Thunder Over Michigan is really quite simple, it attracts a huge number of piston engined planes and it has a worthy reputation of a “warbird show”. Sure it has jets too, sometimes some really interesting ones from the 50’s and 60’s and there’s always the modern F16 Fighting Falcon and F18 Hornet to thrill the crowd with their power and speed. And every other year they also manage to snag the Blue Angels Navy Display team, also flying F18’s, which bolsters the attendance figures quite significantly, but for Andrew and I it’s always about the props and the pistons!
The show is held at Willow Run airport, about 20 minutes South of us, which in itself has a tremendous war time history. It was a Ford engine production plant given over to the production of the B24 Liberator bomber during WWII, the famous “bomber an hour” plant where for the first time on US soil Japanese production techniques were utilised in the building of the planes. The most significant of which was Takt Time, which controlled the output depending on the input requirements. Takt Time dictates that if a customer places an order for an item at a rate of one a day, then your production output has to be one a day to meet demand, or in laymans terms, you can take 8 hours to build that item. If two customers order the item your production times do not double, they half, so in order to meet demand you now have to produce two items a day, so the items can now take no longer than 4 hours to build, otherwise you won’t meet demand. The demand placed on the Willow Run plant meant a completed B24 bomber had to roll off the production line every single hour! They said it couldn’t be done, they said it was impossible, but all the nay sayers were proved wrong in spectacular fashion. The Liberator has four engines, so that meant each one had to be built in just 15 minutes, two wings at half an hour each and so on! Quite, quite amazing. And do you know who built these planes? America was by this time heavily involved in the war effort, many of her young men had signed up, just as in the UK, and just as in the UK it was the women who manned the factories and the women of America who built the B24, one hour at a time, 8,700 of them in total.
Enough of the history, on to the photos! I’ve decided that the first post will be all the “other” aircraft present, I’ll save all the B17 shots for the second post. It’s quite a feat to see the eight of them parked on the runway and eight in the air at the same time as it represents exactly half of all B17’s left flying in the world today! There are others undergoing restoration by dedicated groups of volunteers, but each plane takes an incredible amount of cash and an amazing 9 years to restore!
So, the cute photo first! I always try to find a cute angle for at least one of my shots and I found it this year on a 1942 Beechcraft:
Looks a bit startled does it not? I think I must have caught it napping!
And the fun shot too, this is the highly polished nose cone of a Texan, a two seater training plane used extensively during and after WWII.
These two pictures are of a quite rare DC-7 passenger plane from the 1950’s, one of the first large scale production planes to carry paying passengers around the States, Canada and the Carribbean. 50% of them were bought by Eastern Airlines operating out of Miami, very few of them survive. This one made two one hour flights each day carrying fare paying show goers, I would have been one of them had I had $300 to spare! The old engines required “pre-oiling” before firing up properly and I did wonder what those fare paying passengers thought of the torrents of blue smoke belching out of each engine on start up! Bet there were a fair few wishing they could get off!
Ah, the Harvards and Texans, here are some of my favourite planes. Two seater trainers built and used extensively during and after WWII by North American Aviation. Essentially they’re exactly the same planes but they were known by different names by the different countries and military organizations who bought them. They were known as T6 Texans by the USAF, SNJ’s by the US Navy and Harvards by the British and Commonwealth countries. The yellow ones here are a Canadian Display Team, hence the RAF insignia on the side, so they’re called Harvards, and the aluminium/multicoloured ones are the Screaming Rebels Display Team from the US so they’re known as Texans! Got that!
Yep, I bet she does!
Staying with the prop planes I hope you all know what theses are right? Tell me you do!! Lol. These are typically Andrew’s favourite planes the P-51 Mustang, also designed and built by North American Aviation in just a staggering 117 days after a frantic plea for a fast, capable, fighter plane and bomber escort from the Ministry of Defence and The Royal Air Force. The plane utilizes the now legendary Rolls Royce Merlin engine and its sound is like nothing you’ll ever hear, I can pick out an airborne Mustang before I get a good visual such is the distinctive note of its single engine. They are an incredible piece of machinery, there’s no doubt about that.
The planes for this event come from far and wide, from all over the US and Canada too, it’s amazing what turns up here! I have absolutely no idea what this next one is but it’s paint job was interesting to say the least, really gives the game away don’t you think?
And staying with the same general region, there was this one from Poland too, again, I don’t remember what it was but I was rather struck with the paint job! The metal bracket wouldn’t be there for flight, it was just to keep the tail fin steady.
An Air Force C130 Hercules, an amazing beastie and such an incredible, hard working one too. There are Hercs on every continent on this earth, from the deserts of Africa to a National Geographic outpost in the Antarctic, they are the unsung heroes of the aviation world, the work horses, and what beautiful heavy horses they are too! Here’s Andrew modeling one of the four engines on this plane:
Now here’s a jet engined plane we both love, the Russian built MIG, active and quite dominant during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This little baby is super fast with a glowing red afterburner, and it very maneuverable too, it normally flies during the afternoon but for some reason this year it stayed on the ground, at least on the day that we visited. Last year they did a superb re-enactment of a ‘Vietnam era ground battle including US support from a Huey helicopter, and just when you though that America had won the day again, in came the enemy MIG! But the US was not done yet and called on an amazing Phantom jet to see off the MIG! Quite a display!
As much as I love the prop planes I had to laugh when I saw that the MIG now has “Props Are For Boats!” emblazoned down one wing! As all of these plane are relatively rare I’m sure they all do the show circuits together and I’m pretty sure they’re likely to be all good friends, despite what they write on their planes!
This was rather wild too, an F100, one of the very first jet powered fighter planes. But it had a very dubious reputation, lots of test pilots and military officials just didn’t like the look of the test and wind tunnel data, in fact some test pilots refused to fly it, their fears becoming reality more than once as the jets proved through violent crashes and loss of life that they were not yet fully airworthy. This one though did fly for us later in the day, I’m sure they’re all as safe as houses now, those that are left that is:
The flying display kicked off at 12 Noon exactly in typical understated American fashion with the Misty Blues, an all female sky diving team based here in Ann Arbor Michigan. And as an invited singer started on the first bars of The Star Spangled Banner, the lead diver unfurled a huge American flag while the crowd went nuts. I can’t imagine the windage dragging against her. About 10ft from the ground she jettisoned the flag and came in to land perfectly on her mark.
The three Mustangs were up first followed by the F16 Fighting Falcon display. While the Falcon was still airborne it was joined by two of the three Mustangs in what is know as The Heritage Flight, a small display of aircraft from WWII to modern times saluting the sacrifices made by many for the freedom and safety of the rest of us. While these passes are being made you could here a pin drop in the crowd, it’s an incredibly moving moment and there’s more than a few sniffles to be heard. It doesn’t help that they play a piece of music called We Remember, a very poignant track written especially for this flight. I’ve linked the song name if you’d like to listen to it, it actually links to a video of one of the very first Heritage Flights and they have it interspersed with real flying footage from WWII, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m one of those folks sniffling away and trying desperately to swallow down the lump in my throat. Both my brothers served in The Royal Air Force and as a teenager I visited them on base both in the UK and in Germany, I think this is what started my love affair with the skies.
After all the emotion of The Heritage Flight, the Harvards and Texans take to the air with their display of formation flying and multicoloured smoke. Another one of the reasons that I like these planes is that they fly slow enough to get decent photos, and the smoke just adds to the atmosphere.
And now we have the ground/air battle. I haven’t told you about this yet but this show also hosts the largest WWII re-enactment seen anywhere in the US and every year they re-stage an allied battle against the Germans with troops, vehicles, tanks, motorbikes, armoured cars, anti aircraft guns and an amazing amount of personnel. The battle rages with the guns blazing and the troops moving back and for, each trying to push the other line further back. There are wounded with medics attending to them and shouts and orders and then the German tanks move in and the Allies are now surrounded. But a distress call has already been placed and while the Germans are busy with their prisoners and their machinery they fail to notice the two incoming Mustangs who attack with a vengeance, scattering the enemy and immobilizing their equipment.
After that it’s all over bar the shouting as the US troops come in from behind to save the day, completely cutting off the German retreat and turning the tables on them. It’s quite a spectacular show and it got better in the afternoon when the B17’s also took to the skies and under the protection of the Mustangs they flew in low and slow with their bomb doors open simulating a bombing raid over enemy territory. But I’ll save all of that, and all the other B17 photos for another day.