For a while Saturday things were looking gloomy for the Lynchburg Regional Airshow. The day began with a meager 300 feet of vertical visibility and two inches of mud beneath spectators’ lawn chairs. However, by the end of the day the skies were filled with roaring engines and graceful loops of smoke.
The clouds lifted just after 1 p.m. Saturday, allowing the show to commence with a performance of the national anthem by the Ladies of Liberty and an opening convocation by the Chief Chaplain of the U.S. Air Force.
While the show had numerous performances, displays and activities, the main attraction was the Blue Angels flight team. The flight demonstration team for the U.S. Navy performs in air shows across the country. In planes painted a striking blue with gold tips, pilots perform legendary precision flight maneuvers that have been wowing crowds since the team’s founding in 1946.
The Blue Angels’ show started after 3 p.m. much to the crowd’s delight. Narrator U.S. Navy Lt. Tyler Davies talked the crowd through each maneuver as the planes zipped overhead cranking out 360-degree turns, sneak fly-bys and, finally, a landing demonstration.
Micah and Stacey Torrence of Appomattox said they came to the air show in Lynchburg five years ago. This event had a different vibe, they said.
“It was much more dynamic,” Stacey Torrence said. “The music really added an element to the show.”
Torrence said she also loved the educational factor that came with the addition of the narrator.
“You got to hear what each maneuver was,” she said.
Sprawled out in a lawn chair, their 5-year-old nephew Waylon Torrence flew a model Blue Angel plane over his head. On the wings were the signatures of the Blue Angel pilots themselves.
“They were pretty cool,” Waylon said, before moving on to the Spirit of Freedom plane on display nearby.
“I want to drive it home,” he said. “I bet [Mommy] would like it.”
Alan and Diana Pino came from Northern Virginia for the show, making a mini-vacation out of it by renting a house through Airbnb and bringing the family along.
“Except for the mud, everything has been just great,” Diana Pino said.
“The Blue Angels … there’s nothing like it,” Liz Pino said. “This whole experience has been great, even with the mud. But with all the rain there wasn’t really anything you could do about it.”
In addition to the famous Blue Angels, there were crowd pleasers among the other performers. Air Captain Julie Clark’s performance in her silver and blue plane was very popular with spectators. She looped above the clouds forming shapes and performing to the tune “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood.
Another crowd-pleasing performance was the Aeroshell acrobatics team. This group of four 1940s-era warplanes moved in complex rolls, sweeping loops and dives with thick trails of white smoke billowing behind. The T-6 Texan aircraft was originally used to train Royal Air Force pilots during WWII.
The Shockwave Jet Truck also wowed crowds. The semi is powered by a jet engine and holds the world record as the world’s fastest rocket truck, having been clocked at speeds up to 376 mph. When it made a second appearance to race Kevin Coleman’s stunt plane, kids of all ages pushed to the front to see the truck beat the plane.
Show organizers also hosted a parade of US veterans from WWII all the way through the War on Terror, escorted by the Virginia Corvette Club, before inviting crowds to witness the swearing-in of a host of young Air Force recruits.
While many of the nuances of these performances might have been lost on those outside the air show grounds, it didn’t prevent skygazers from gathering. A few dozen spectators camped out in front of the Sheetz on U.S. 29, just south of the airport.
Several businesses in the area — Carpenter Tire, Don Irby’s Transmissions and First National Bank — let spectators set up camp on their properties to watch the show for a $20 parking fee Saturday that would be donated to the Lyn-Dan Heights Fire Department, according to Mike Watson, a volunteer firefighter with the department.
Watson said firefighters arrived around 7 a.m. to start letting people onto the property surrounding the station, but he didn’t see the first wave of people until 8:30 a.m. Watson said they’ll offer parking Sunday as well for the same $20 donation.
By 2 p.m. Saturday families and couples were sitting on top of cars and blankets watching the show. Some even had portable grills.
Dawn Mays and her daughter Marissa sat on the grass. Mays said she had every intention of buying tickets to the air show, but when she arrived Saturday morning, Mays said she was told the show was full.
“I was trying to find a spot,” Mays said. “I drove around and saw over here.”
During the 2011 show, Mays said they watched it from the Old Navy parking lot. Mays is happy with how it worked out this year.
“I paid $20 for parking,” she said. “I would have paid $35 and then $8 for [Marissa]. It’s not much of a difference, you know? Plus you donate to [the fire department].”
Over on Waterlick Road at the Moose Lodge, a whole tailgate was going on. For $5, people could park, enjoy live music, play corn hole and watch the planes zip by overhead.
Melvin Dolan, his sister-in-law Nicole Dalton and Jason and Elizabeth Crawford were some of those tailgaters. The group took up a spot along the grassy hill behind the baseball field.
Dolan said Saturday was a “test run” before Sunday’s event, saying he avoided buying a ticket because he didn’t want to get stuck in traffic and have to watch the show from his car.
Dolan said there is nothing like being on the tarmac and seeing a Blue Angels fly by.
“See them if you get the chance,” he said. “They fly 1,200 miles [an hour] and six feet apart. It’s unbelievable. The noise … the whole earth shakes.”
As for going Sunday, Dolan said he hasn’t ruled it out.
Five years ago, the Lynchburg Regional Airshow experienced several difficulties. The Blue Angels’ barrel break-out maneuver came too close to the earth, which resulted in the grounding of the illustrious squad and the eventual resignation of its commander.
On the spectator side, the oppressive heat caused some in the crowd to faint and required an airport fire truck to spray water on crowds to cool them down. Previously there was only one way in and out of the show, which caused long waits for shuttles and severe traffic jams.
None of this was in evidence Saturday despite early parking challenges.
With one entrance and a separate exit, waits were considerably shorter. Temperatures were mild and all of the performances appeared to have come off without a hitch.
Air show organizers had originally planned for 2,700 parking spots in the fields on airport property. Due to muddy conditions they relied instead on 4,000 overflow parking spots at Liberty University’s East Campus. Shuttles from Liberty to the site ran all day as a result of the change.
By 5 p.m, the event venue was nearly empty as crews started to come in and clean up trash. Organizers could not provide attendance or ticket sale numbers Saturday.
While Liberty University buses delivered spectators to the main terminal to catch shuttles back on campus, some people skipped the wait and walked back along the runway.
Despite the slow-moving line, the Daubert Family was in high spirits. The family of four said they had no complaints about the wait or shuttle system.
“We hopped right on a shuttle, which was awesome,” Alisa Daubert said. “…You just got to be patient … especially when you have kids.”