The Wendover Air Show
I was wandering into the local grocery when I noticed a small poster on their bulletin board. Wendover Air show in just a few days! I guess in the past they had current military aircraft on display, but this year would only be vintage WWII and acrobatic aircraft. Good enough for me. Even though the first successful day of land speed record runs would begin the same day, I decided to take my chances and see the air show instead.
I packed up the trusty Aurora and its trailer with camera and videocam equipment bags, water, and my vintage lawn chair, and biked the eight miles to the historic Wendover airfield. The air show volunteers even let me park my Evelo Aurora Pack Mule in the special $10 parking right by the entrance gate, for free! Score! That let me tour the grounds with only the stuff I needed at the moment, a major help.
I say historic Wendover airfield because it was hastily set up during WWII to train bomber crews, and became an ultra-security facility involved in training for the first carrier-based bombing of Japan, as well as the delivery aspect of the atom bombs dropped later. That involved a heap of methodical testing and problem solving, as well as finding out what mods would be needed to load, carry, and release the things. The military had picked Wendover specifically because of its remote location (it then had only 80 people in town), and the relative ease of enforcing security. Once the war finally ended, the airfield changed hands frequently, changed names, and what was left was finally offloaded to the town of Wendover, Utah.
It’s now a small public airport, despite having something like a 5,000′ runway. And it gets some traffic from private aircraft, more than you’d think, probably because of the casinos in West Wendover, Nevada next door. It is fully functional, yet is a relic in need of restoration. A surprising number of WWII hangers, storage buildings and crew bunkhouses are still standing. This facility positively bristles with a sense of time and history, and the decay of 70-plus years only magnifies it.
A couple of buildings have been restored, one of them being a storage building used to keep the then-new Norden bombsights secure. It’s a fairly nondescript wood shack, except for a gas-engine backup generator inside, along with several walk-in safes where the bombsights were stored on shelves. Yep, they had to be signed for, taken out and installed, then removed and checked back in once the bomber stopped rolling. Each bombardier took a vow to do his best to destroy his Norden sight in the event that it seemed possible that it might fall into the hands of the Germans. Why? It was by far the most accurate bombsight in existence, decreasing the need for saturation bombing and the extra risks of loss that caused. Fully mechanical in nature, it had the ability to compensate for just about every variable a moving aircraft might encounter, and so was astoundingly complex. One look gave me a newfound respect for the people who had to operate it. I can tell you, they had to be bright and having a good day, and do it all under high pressure.
Besides the acrobatic aircraft that took to the air that day, several WWII fighters, trainers, and a bomber took off as well to buzz the field. The fighters interested me the most, of course. Looked at from our nostalgic perspective, we tend to assume that pilots just climbed in, took off, and wheeled around in the air to play shoot-’em-up in their big, fast fighters. Not so. I’ve seen training manuals for a couple, and it’s quite a different story. Fighters represented the cutting edge of aircraft technology, designed and developed in a rush in order to get them into production and into the war as quickly as possible. They represented all the best as far as was known, but all exhibited bad manners in one area or another, and could turn around and bite you if you failed to appreciate their eccentricities, the holes in their developments that had to be left unaddressed.
They were purpose-designed, with no time to iron out all their failings. The term now used is “performance envelope”, which represented all of the combinations of factors that the aircraft was known to be able to perform within. To fall outside of the performance envelope in any way was to risk disaster, the equivalent of a one-car crash. Testing during development generally showed what the flight characteristics and limits were, the pilots were then trained in how to avoid the known problems, and the very few unknown problems yet to be discovered would have to be found during missions and addressed in future production.
Hours and hours in a trainer aircraft like the PT-17 developed the needed basic skills, but the huge jump to the highest-performance, more brutal and intolerant fighters caught more than a few pilots by surprise, even as early as their first takeoff. The key to survival in combat was knowing your aircraft’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing what your opponent’s aircraft could and couldn’t do in comparison to yours, and never being caught with your performance envelope pants down during the encounter. As one later jet pilot would say, it was “long hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror”.
The most successful pilots simply managed to keep plying their own craft’s strengths during combat, working to engineer the situation so that their opponent’s performance strengths could never be brought to bear against them. I’d call it being situation-aware. Also, being able to think in spite of fear. Not an easy business. Example: There was a small group of American volunteer pilots in China during the early stages of the war, and all they could get was the P-40 Warhawk fighter, which was technically obsoleted by all other newer designs that followed. General Claire Chennault trained the relatively inexperienced pilots to only engage in situations that used the P-40’s remaining strengths against three of the most feared Japanese fighters, the result being the loss of 4 P-40s against some 115 enemy craft in one 6-1/2 month period. The total span was 229 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, and another 68 on the ground, with losses of 14 men, 6 of those in accidents. The p-40s were always hopelessly outnumbered in combat, making their tactics all the more critical. Knowing that their P-40s wouldn’t stand a chance in a typical low-speed dogfight, they simply kept to diving high-speed, hit-and-run tactics that very few newer enemy fighters could match. Brains over technology.
But, back to the air show. A marauding pack of radio-controlled aircraft flew several rather large models up and down the flight deck, doing aerobatics. That was worth watching if only because of their sheer size and power. One guy had a model jet that easily topped 200 MPH, which was something to see. I’d seen “jet” models decades before that had turbines spun with a conventional model airplane engine, but this thing had a real miniature jet engine, and man, did it move.
The national anthem was played, with flags being carried downfield by what liked like high schoolers in camo uniforms. They were also assigned security duty during the active part of the show too, to keep wandering spectators away from the aircraft scheduled to perform. Reminded me of ROTC, but in high school instead of college? I’m not sure what the story was, as there were a mass more under a National Guard canopy. Navy and Army recruiters were nearby as well.
What seemed peculiar was Will “The Flying Tenor” Allen in his Pitts Special biplane, singing The Star-Spangled Banner into the field’s PA system as he flew around overhead. He had his own version playing, and used a mic in his helmet to belt it out, Vegas-style. Okay-y-y….
Then the Rocky Mountain Renegades, a group of seven pilots, put four of them up as a warm-up and did a few decent stunts with smoke trails in their wake. A guy in a ZLIN 50 stunter went up, too. Then Will “TFT” Allen went back up again in a long aerobatic show, and frankly, I’ve never before encountered anyone so impressed with himself. The charitable term would be self-confident. The tower (or player in his plane) was playing a rockin’ soundtrack which he himself had performed and recorded, all the while throwing his plane and narrating how excited the various stunts were making him, oh yeah! Woo-hoo! He was an exceptional pilot, his soundtrack was pure Vegas stage act and done competently, and I was promptly waiting for it to be over. The guys in the tower loved it though, because all they had to do was twiddle their thumbs for ten or fifteen minutes, and when Will was done, they thought it was fab, and threatened to bring him back again next year. Figures. When I want a Vegas act, I’ll go to Vegas. Maybe it’s just me.
When they started the good stuff, it was good. The planes weren’t even parked fifty yards from me on the concrete. Each was similar, in their own time slot. Big props slowly cranking over, the engines eventually stumbling to life and belching out wads of oil smoke. A brief warm-up and controls check, and off they rolled. I found it interesting to hear the lumpy and uneven firing of each cylinder, a clear reminder that these various engines were designed and tuned for maximum power, which made them temperamental when asked to do the mundane.
Up each went, one at a time. A bright yellow PT-17 biplane trainer went up first, a plane often used to get a new recruit used to the mysteries of flight. Then a T-6 Texan, a mono-wing trainer more like the modern aircraft of the time. I consider them kinda big and dumpy, but veteran pilots have a persistent nostalgia about this reliable, forgiving, and enduring aircraft. There are lots of them still flying. They tend to have a real affection for ’em.
I was waiting for the big F8F Bearcat, and it did not disappoint. Fitted with the most powerful radial fighter engine then extant, it was a fast, tough fighter that built quite a reputation for itself in combat. A plus was that each fighter that went up finished with a slow idle up and down the flight deck right in front of the crowd, allowing for waves and some great close-up shots while the prop whirled around.
A B-25 twin-engine bomber then went up, its engines sounding unhappy on the the pad, but powerful once spun up. From what I could catch from the announcer, this particular plane had completed missions over Japan, and more recently had acquired the penned signatures of several pilots that flew it, and two of the women who built it on the assembly line.
Then the P-51 Mustang took off. Sleek and slightly faster than the Bearcat despite much less horsepower, the Mustang belatedly solved the fighter escort problem over Europe late in the war. That problem was that, despite all their machine guns in turrets, long-range bombers were unable to effectively defend themselves against the defending German interceptors. This weakness became apparent early, and surprised a lot of people, since the bombers had what had seemed to be enough guns to stand a fighting chance. The contest proved unequal. Between the enemy fighters and the devastating ground antiaircraft fire, the bomber and crew loss rate was absolutely horrifying. They needed fighter escorts, but no capable Allied fighter had the inherent fuel range to take them in, fight off the enemy, and then get all the way back to friendly territory. When the Mustang finally made it into the war, the tables turned. It combined extraordinary range with speed and highly competent combat capabilities, quickly becoming the most valuable and effective Allied fighter of the war.
Toward the close of the air show, the Texan, Bearcat and Mustang took off for a three-plane pass for the crowd. Unfortunately, the Texan popped a hydraulic landing gear line and was having problems fully retracting its landing gear, so it promptly landed again. But the other two planes zoomed the field in classic “photo op” passes, and a good time was had by all. What a day!
The following air show video I shot is not the best, but is okay IF you can stand a 75MB download and are an aircraft addict. If you can’t and/or aren’t, you aren’t missing much. It runs almost 10 minutes.