Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wings Over Houston

I spent Halloween day with a friend at the Wings Over Houston airshow at Ellington Airport. Ellington's claim to fame is it is used by the Johnson Space Center, and has even seen the space shuttle stop by on occasion.

I love air shows, one of my earliest memories is my Dad taking me to one in Albuquerque when I was four years old. I clearly remember being able to identify by sight several types of planes, and could only conclude dad had shown me pictures and told me the names before the show. I thought it was fitting that my friend took along his four year old son. It was the lad's first show, and he is a very smart and well behaved child. He had a blast at the show.

There were several static displays of contemporary and historic military aircraft. But three highlights of the show really stood out. First, Texas is home to the Commemorative Air Force, once known by the rather politically incorrect name of the Confederate Air Force. This group has been around for several decades, and is a collection of aviation enthusiasts. They dedicate themselves to locating and restoring old military planes, with emphasis on World War 2 examples.

They have contributed many aircraft and pilots, to movies. In the late 1960's they participated in the Battle of Britain film. However, I doubt any of them were given speaking roles seeing as how most of them are Texans. Somehow a pilot telling the late Sir Lawrence Olivier, "Yeeehaaaaaaa!!! We got the Germans and the damn Yankees on the run!" may not have quite fit in with the atmosphere of England in 1940.

They had enough P-51 Mustangs to form an aerial demonstration team. Another demo was recreating the attack on Pearl Harbor with about a dozen replicas of the Japanese planes that participated. This was complete with some pretty spectacular pyrotechnics. They flew over a grass field next to the runway, which then erupted with some great looking explosions. Meanwhile you had sound effects of frantic officers giving orders, anti aircraft guns opening up and air raid sirens. It was loud, and it was great.

Some other demos were a huge C-17 transport flying with an ancient C-47. The C-47 looked like it was flying with the pedal to the metal, (they weren't renowned for their speed), while the C-17 pilot was hoping he wouldn't suck the poor C-47 into an engine.

Meanwhile, back on the ground there was a display of a C-130 that the Hurricane Hunters use. Plus the crew was on hand to demonstrate their equipment and answer questions. I told one they did a great job this past season since no hurricanes hit Texas. I imagine when these guys fly commercial, they aren't the least bothered by turbulence. They are dedicated and certainly brave, after all anyone who actually wants to fly inside a hurricane is a cut above the rest of us. It was interesting hearing what they see inside a hurricane. I had always envisioned it as a constant dark gray, but in reality you see all shades of gray, and then you break into swaths of clear sky between storm bands. The eeriest is the eye, which is crystal clear, blue sky surrounded by cloud bands.

I did wonder if anyone who applies to fly with them must first of all have no next of kin. And in case they had to abandon the plane in the middle of the storm, I have a feeling the exchange with the Coast Guard would go something like, "We're in the ocean floating in the middle of a category 5 hurricane, when can you pick us up?" "Nothing personal guys, but you're on your own."

The highlight of the show was the Blue Angels. As many times as I've seen them, I am always in awe of their skill and steel nerves. I saw them last year in San Francisco a few weeks before starting my trip to live in Texas. My ex landlady hated them. She said, "Oh I hate those jets. I was trying to talk on the phone but they were so loud I had to tell the person I was talking to I'd call back." My reply, "What you heard was the sound of our armed forces giving you the right to be selfish, self centered and not have any appreciation for the sacrifices they make so we can have the freedoms we enjoy."

All in all, it was a spectacular show, and probably the best I've ever seen. I'm already looking forward to next year's show.