THUNDER OVER MICHIGAN - Willow Run Airport / Ypsilanti
Update: 2020/08/24 by Shawn Clish / CHK6
Today, Friday August 28, 2020, I am supposed to be at the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show enjoying the arrivals and practice day ahead of the two-day weekend event. Very little had been announced about this year ahead of the March shut down, but the theme was to focus on “Legends of the Luftwaffe” and the star warbird attractions were to be the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 from the Erickson Aircraft Collection out of Madras, Oregon. Modern military participation was to include the F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team from the United States Air Force and the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels performance was to be an interesting blend of old with new, as it would have been one of their last displays in their McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornets before they transition to the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet next year, while it was scheduled to be the first performance of their new Lockheed C-130J Super Hercules support aircraft, Fat Albert. Unfortunately, on Monday July 6th, seven weeks before the show, Executive Director Kevin Walsh announced the cancellation of this year’s event due to the challenges created by the global pandemic. He went on to say: “We built a reputation of being one of the top shows in the world and we look forward to keeping that place in the aviation community in 2021”. So while we look forward to next year’s show, now is a great time to look back at some of the highlights of an event that has become one of the feature attractions on the North American air show calendar.
The Willow Run Airport (KYIP) near Ypsilanti, Michigan has been the home of the air show since the first event in 1999. The airport currently serves freight, corporate and general aviation, but played a significant role historically as part of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy”. Constructed by the Ford Motor Company, the Willow Run Bomber Plant started producing B-24 Liberator Bombers in 1942, under license from the plane’s designer Consolidated Aircraft. More than 8600 Liberators were built at Willow Run during the war, the first B-24E rolled off the production line in September 1942 while the final B-24M was completed in May 1945. Officially known as Air Force Plant 31, at peak production one airplane was being completed every 63 minutes
The Yankee Air Museum is also a resident of the Willow Run Airport and is responsible for organizing the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show. Founded in 1981 the museum currently has five airworthy aircraft; a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Yankee Lady, a North American B-25D Mitchell Yankee Warrior that flew missions over Italy during World War II, a Douglas C-47D Skytrain Hairless Joe, a newly acquired Ford 4-AT-B Tri-Motor, and the most recent addition, a UH-1H Huey Greyhound that served in Vietnam from October 1967 through December 1971. There are also 20 aircraft on static display including a Douglas SBD Dauntless that flew off the USS Ranger during Operation Torch in November of 1942 while with VS-41, then later crashed in Lake Michigan while with the Carrier Qualification Training Unit and stayed there for 53 years until it was recovered in 1996. Also part of the static display is a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress that was deployed to Southeast Asia and flew over 600 combat missions during the Vietnam war.
The massive 3.5-million-square-foot factory was due to be demolished in 2014 after General Motors declared bankruptcy and closed their production line in 2010. Seeing an opportunity to save an important piece of local history while also finding a new home for the museum, the Save the Bomber Plant Campaign was launched with the hope of raising enough money to buy a section of the old Bomber Plant. With the help of a world record number of Rosie the Riveters, the campaign was successful and will be the future home of the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run.
Our first visit to the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show was in 2003. My fondest memory from that event is quite fitting, as it is of the Collings Foundation’s B-24J and it’s beautiful paint scheme Dragon and His Tail honouring a 5th Air Force B-24J flying in the Pacific Theatre of Operations with the 43rd Bomb Group. That Liberator was one of six World War II heavy bombers at the show, joined by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster Mk X and four B-17’s; Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-O-Nine, National Warplane Museum’s B-17G Memphis Belle, Commemorative Air Force’s (CAF) B-17G Sentimental Journey and of course Yankee Lady. Another highlight was the Reno Racers, including a Goodyear F2G-1 Super Corsair painted as Race 57, a Hawker Sea Fury Riff Raff, and a P-51 Mustang Cloud Dancer belonging to the Leeward Air Ranch and wearing Jimmy’s standard #9. Jimmy Leeward was a regular at Thunder Over Michigan and there will be more on him later. Other aircraft included a Bell P-39Q Airacobra Miss Connie, a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt Hun Hunter XVI, a North American P-51C Mustang Tuskegee Airmen, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Grumman Hellcat, a pair of Corsairs and B-25 Mitchells Briefing Time and Yankee Warrior. While the lineup of aircraft was remarkable, there was also a really comfortable feeling at the show. Friendly faces that would soon become friends and a relaxed atmosphere that welcomed both the serious aviation enthusiast as well as families that wanted to spend a day watching airplanes in the sky and support their local museum.
Annual themes have allowed Thunder Over Michigan to highlight specific aircraft and celebrate historic anniversaries. The most famous two events featured eight B-17 Flying Fortresses in 2005 and 2010. Just as impressive as the eight Flying Fortresses was the supporting cast that featured the only two airworthy B-24’s, a handful of World War II fighters, and three early jet fighters; a North American F-86E Sabre, Will Ward’s MiG-17F and the only airworthy North American FJ-4B Fury owned by MiG Fury Fighters. It also may have featured the most memorable pass in the show’s history when a rare 1939 Grumman J2F-4 Duck departed on Sunday afternoon and flew low over the crowd line. The 2010 supporting cast was also impressive as it featured The Horsemen Flight Team displaying their three-ship formation aerobatic routine in P-51 Mustangs. Other successful themes include 2004, when 12 TBM Avengers gathered at Willow Run and 2007, when 15 B-25 Mitchells were lined up along what is now known as Taxiway Hotel. More recently, the theme in 2019 was “Corsair Crazy” and the organizers delivered a spectacular show featuring 11 models of the aircraft in what was probably the largest gathering of Corsairs in over 50 years. Once again, a strong supporting cast that included seven P-51 Mustangs took part in the event.
As great as the themed aircraft are, sometimes it is a special appearance from a rare aircraft that makes the show unique. Previously mentioned aircraft that are the only examples still flying are the two Liberators, the Lancaster and the Fury and it should also be mentioned that both Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, Fifi and Doc have visited the show, although Doc has yet to perform during the flying display. Dean Cutshall’s F-100F has been involved on three separate occasions; 2010, 2013 and 2016. His arrival on Friday August 9, 2013 is probably the best arrival display in the show’s history as he made seven passes/options down Runway 09, the best runway for photography, on the only good weather day that year. In 2011, the Texas Flying Legends Museum’s Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero flew in formation with the CAF’s Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero, the only two airworthy aircraft of this type in the world. Staying in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, the only two surviving airworthy American aircraft from the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor have both been participants. Chuck Greenhill’s previously mentioned Duck in 2005 and the Collings Foundation’s Curtiss P-40B Warhawk in 2017. Other crowd favourites include the Collings Foundation’s McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II in 2009 and Art Nalls Hawker-Siddley Sea Harrier in 2011.
No record of the show would be complete without mentioning the Battle Re-enactments that take place at least once each day. Unfortunately, I am not overly interested in the equipment on the ground or the authenticity of the uniforms, but what I always enjoy about this demonstration are the air-to-ground passes from the participating aircraft. Many aircraft have participated over the years including Liberty Aviation Museum’s B-25J Mitchell Georgie’s Gal, multiple Mustangs and even the Russell Aviation Group’s Messerschmitt Bf 109E. But the highlight of many of the Thunder Over Michigan Air Shows over it’s 21 year history have been the passes from either the Tennessee Museum of Aviation’s P-47D Thunderbolts, Hun Hunter XVI and Wicked Wabbit or Jimmy Leeward flying the P-51B Old Crow. The morning edition of the re-enactment takes place when the lighting at the airfield is best for photography and the afternoon clouds haven’t started to appear. The Thunderbolts flew many of their strafing passes low over the battle on the north side of the field until the FAA put an end to them in 2006. Jimmy Leeward succeeded in stealing the show in 2009 and 2010 with his dynamic passes down the flight line as the battle raged on. Unfortunately, Jimmy Leeward lost his life when his modified razor-back Mustang crashed on the only day I ever attended the Reno Air Races, Friday September 16, 2011. His passion for flying the Mustang was obvious during his displays at Thunder over the years and his passes are still some of, if not the best, in the history of the show.
Although the air show has a proven model for success, they are always looking for ways to make the event better. In 2007 the show expanded to include a major demo team, featuring the US Navy Blue Angels for the first time. Since then the Blue Angels have appeared at the show four times (2009, 2011, 2015 and 2017), the USAF Thunderbirds twice (2014 and 2018), and even the Breitling Jet Team made an appearance during their North American Tour in 2016. The layout has also changed multiple times including most recently in 2018, when the flight line was changed from north-south to one that parallels Runway 05-23, leading to much better afternoon lighting conditions for photography. That same year, an engine run-up was introduced on Saturday night. The first year featured the P-47D Hun Hunter XVI, B-17G Yankee Lady and the museums freshly repainted C-47D now wearing the livery of Hairless Joe, an aircraft flown by the legendary Lt.Col. Dick Cole in the China-Burma-India Theatre. The night event proved successful enough to repeat the following year with the B-25D Yankee Warrior and the Lone Star Flight Museum’s F4U-5N Corsair Annie Mo taking their turn in the spotlight.
Since 2003 my father and I have only missed one show (2016). Although Willow Run is a four hour drive from Toronto, and in another country, it has always felt like home. In fact, there are so many Canadians involved in organizing, volunteering, participating and attending the show that “O Canada” is played along with “The Star-Spangled Banner” to open each days flying display. Every year we look forward to seeing friends, walking familiar spaces and photographing the excellent event that Executive Director Kevin Walsh produces. Missing the show this year is very unfortunate and obviously understandable given the world situation, but it has allowed an enjoyable look back through the years and the sharing of some fond memories. It has also demonstrated how far camera technology has come. In 2003 and 2004 we were still shooting film and in 2005 we used a DSLR for the first time, a Nikon D100 with its 6.1 megapixel sensor. The quality is unfortunately nowhere near what we have become accustomed to having shot with the 36.3 megapixel D800 for many years and now enjoy the wonderful D850 and it’s 45.7 megapixel sensor. No need to hear an aviation photographer complain about not having today’s current gear years ago so we will just have to look forward to shooting again at Willow Run on August 7-8, the dates of Thunder Over Michigan 2021
A big thank you to Kevin Walsh for all of his generous assistance through the years
Shawn Clish / CHK6