Crashes don’t deter ‘Thunder Over the Blue Ridge’ air show

MARTINSBURG – Organizers say a pilot’s death last weekend at an Iowa air show won’t dim excitement about the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge air show and open house set for Sept. 15 and 16.

Many are eager for the annual family-friendly event that benefits the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle programs, despite the most recent air show crash – a Texas pilot was killed Saturday in Davenport, Iowa –  and the deadly crash that halted last year’s Thunder just hours into its opening day.

Last year, thousands were seated in view of Shepherd Field at the Eastern Regional Airport when North Carolina-based stunt pilot Jack Mangan, a member of the civilian Trojan Horseman T-28 demonstration team, crashed during a complex close-to-the-ground maneuver.

When school resumed the following week, organizers offered counseling for children traumatized by seeing the 1950s-era plane burst into a fireball.

That Martinsburg crash came just a day after an air show tragedy in Nevada killed not only a 74-year-old stunt pilot racing a World War II-era P-51 Mustang but also 10 spectators on the ground. Seventy others on the ground were injured when the plane smashed into the crowd.

But in the Panhandle, longtime Thunder organizer Nic Diehl said he immediately heard feedback from stunt pilots, business sponsors and others who wanted the air show tradition to continue.

After last year’s crash, Diehl said in an interview, he was “shocked and stunned” and simply wandering around the airfield as spectactors headed out when he was approached by members of Maghan’s crew.

“As I offered my condolences, they said that while they mourned their teammate and friend, he would want the show to go on,” Diehl said. “This sentiment was reiterated by every pilot. I didn’t understand at the time that continuing the event is a sign of respect to a pilot who gave his life doing something he loved. The reality is there are air show crashes every year.”

Diehl said that air shows in the United States are required to use a “show box” so that the aerobatics take place away from the audience. “There is a difference between an air show and an air race,” he said. “The tragedy in Nevada last year was at an air race, which didn’t have the show box requirement. Last weekend with the crash in Iowa, no one on the ground was hurt.”

Diehl said there’s great excitement in the air. “This year’s show will feature some of the most impressive civilian acts in the country, some beautiful military aircraft, and a jet bus that can reach speeds of over 350 miles an hour,” he said. “The air show is a great, inexpensive family event with a lot to see before and during the show. Dozens of aircraft will be on display, there will be a bigger and better-than-ever kids’ village, and the act lineup is impressive.”

The event is put on by the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard and the Eastern Regional Airport Authority.

Volunteers from the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle help out during the event, including accepting suggested donations of $10 from visitors as they come through the airport’s gates. Proceeds from the air show give the United Way hundreds of thousands of dollars to be used for community needs.

Among the highlights of the 2012 air show will be returning performer Jerry Wells, the chief pilot at Aero-Smith Aviation in Martinsburg. He will perform both in a Bucker Jungmeister, the 1930’s German bi-plane known for its agility, and also in a German aerobatic monoplane, the Extra 300.

Award-winning aerobatic pilot Bill Finigan and Charlie Schwenker, who started flying sailplanes more than 35 years ago, also are set to return to Thunder, with Finagin flying in a Pitts S2C and Schwenker in an Extra 300. Announcer Larry Rutt, who emceed the 2010 and 2011 air shows, also is on the lineup for the 2012 event.

Thunder organizers in August held a sneak preview of the event, with Wells, Finigan and Schwenker demonstrating their acrobatic manuevers for reporters and other VIPs.

In Iowa, officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, which happened as one of three jets flying in tight formation dived into the ground when the pilot appeared to lose control of his plane.

The Iowa crash came just days after the NTSB released its report on the fatality at the Nevada air show. In an Aug. 27 news release, NTSB officials cited deteriorated parts and the pilot’s modifications as the causes of the crash in Reno.

For details on Thunder Over the Blue Ridge, go online to

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