Known for his prowess on the golf course, Arnold Palmer was equally skilled as an airplane pilot.
Owner of a Cessna Citation X business jet, he loved taking to the skies, often soaring over his Latrobe hometown and flying to his second home in Florida.
His fascination with aviation led to his serving on the board of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority for years. He was board chairman at the time of his death on Sept. 25.
In 1999, the Unity airport where he learned to fly was officially renamed the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
The golfing legend, known as “The King,” even became an honorary member of the Blue Angels.
Watching the precision military team, and all of the airborne acts at “his” airport’s air shows, was a special thrill for Palmer, says Gabe Monzo, airport authority executive director.
“I sat with him last year during the practices. … He was sort of an air show bum like the rest of us. He sat right next to me while the (Air Force F-22) Raptor was doing its thing. He hit me in the leg and said, ‘Look at that, look at that,’ ” Monzo says.
“He would always get that spark going, get a gleam in his eye when he saw all the planes flying around. He wanted to see everything,” he says.
“He met the pilots performing last year. They were just as infatuated with him as he was with them,” Monzo says.
The 2017 Shop ‘n Save Westmoreland County Airshow, which takes off in the skies above Unity this weekend, is planned as a tribute to Palmer.
As part of the June 24-25 show, current owner Xcoal Inc. will display Palmer’s Citation X at its airport hangar, along with his famous tractor, which he rode in Pennzoil commercials, his golf cart and other memorabilia from his days in the sky and on the green.
Those attending can hang onto their tickets as a keepsake. Programs also will feature Palmer, and companion commemorative coins are being sold for $10.
“He was not the one that looked for the glory. He appreciated all the work the staff did to bring the show here. He understood that it was an important part of what we do,” Monzo says.
Donald “Doc” Giffin, Palmer’s personal assistant for more than 50 years, was appointed to the airport authority last fall, after his boss died.
“I think he would be very pleased about the (air show) dedication. He was very pleased when the (county) commissioners named the airport after him,” Giffin says.
“The airport meant so much to him, since he was a little boy. … That’s where he learned to fly. (The late Elias R.) ‘Babe’ Krinock taught him how to fly. He soloed after eight hours of training,” he says.
“He loved aviation. I always said had he not been such a successful golfer, he would have been an airline pilot. I always enjoyed flying with him. … He got his first jet in 1966, the year I started to work for him,” Giffin says. “He just enjoyed being able to fly an airplane. I think he was particularly proud he was able to fly a jet.”
Palmer enjoyed meeting with the military teams, Giffin says, from the U.S. Navy Blue Angels to the U.S. Army Golden Knights, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds.
“He always offered them the chance to play his golf course (at Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club) if they had time,” he says.
In addition to popular performers like the military jet demonstration and parachute teams, the show offers plenty of other attractions in the air and on the ground.
Along with its famous blue and gold F-18 Hornets, the Blue Angels will include a demonstration of its C-130 cargo transport plane, Fat Albert.
Civilian performers include Greg Koontz and his comedic aerobatic show, stunt pilot Michael Wiskus with his Lucas Oil Pitts Plane, and Matt Younkin, performing stomach-dropping rolls and loops in his Beechcraft 18.
The “Class of 45,” a pairing of Scott “Scooter ” Yoak of Aiken, S.C., in his P-51 D Mustang long-range fighter, and Jim “Torc” Tobul of Jackson, Wyo., piloting a F4U-4 Corsair, a bent-wing fighter/bomber, should appeal to veterans and fans of early aviation.
“It’s very important that we keep the history of these aircraft and the men that flew them alive and active,” Tobul says in a release.
“The role these heroes played in securing democracy and our freedom cannot be measured. We owe them a great debt, and it’s an honor and privilege to carry on for them and tell their stories,” he says.
On the tarmac, the loud and smoky Shockwave Jet Truck will roar by at speeds exceeding 300 mph.
Static aircraft displays will include a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber Panchito, World War II cargo planes, two Texan T-6 trainers, an MH-53E Super Stallion, a mine-sweeping helicopter, a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber and a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin, a search and rescue aircraft (also performing a demonstration flight).
Vendors will sell food and merchandise. Attendees can bring blankets or chairs. Pets, other than service animals, will not be permitted.
For the first time this year, air show organizers will offer visitors the opportunity to reserve space in a VIP tent with shuttle service.
Monzo says tickets for the VIP tent, which include a buffet and cash bar, tent seating, commemorative program and an Arnold Palmer coin, will be priced at $150, $50 for ages 6 to 12.
“We thought people would like to have a place to sit down and relax and not have to do a lot of walking. It’s getting a good reception. Some people are buying (tickets) for their parents,” he says.
Air show sponsor Shop ‘n Save is supporting veterans through the Feherty’s Troops First Foundation with store sales of flight wings for $1 each. In 2016, independent operators raised nearly $21,000 for the nonprofit, which assists military who have been wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Along with Eckrich, Shop ‘n Save will surprise a local military family on June 24 as part of Operation Homefront’s campaign to recognize military families.
“We’re excited about the show. It’s quite an undertaking. There are hundreds of people doing this,” Monzo says.
The air show also presents an opportunity to remind residents of the airport’s amenities, he says. Low-cost commercial carrier Spirit Airlines offers flights to Myrtle Beach and several cities in Florida, and on-site parking is free.
Airport officials anticipate a good turnout. In past years, when the weather has been good for both days of the event, the air show typically attracts more than 100,000 people.
“I think it’s the best air show we’ll have ever produced. With decent weather, the (attendance) possibilities are endless,” Monzo says.
The show will go on, rain or shine.