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Fort Wayne Air Show attracts record crowds; honors WWII vets

“Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, they go together in the good ol’ U.S.A.” These lines from the iconic 1974 General Motors advertising campaign, beg to have two more things added to that list of all things truly American:  farmers and the U.S. military. The many ties between the farming community and the U.S. military were evident during the Fort Wayne Air Show held at the Indiana Air National Guard Base in Northeastern Indiana on the weekend of June 8-9.

The Air Show attracted a record crowd of over 51,000 people from several states over the two days, many of them being farmers or with direct ties to agriculture. The base is located in the southwest corner of Fort Wayne and adjacent to the Fort Wayne International Airport (formerly known as Baer Field after a WWI flying ace from the area). Several thousand more people attended the Friday Night Air Force Thunderbirds Welcome Party held at Parkview Field in the downtown area, home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball team. General admission to the Air Show and admission to the Friday Night Welcome Party were both free thanks to support from generous local sponsors. The show benefited the Wounded Warrior Project. 

The headliner for this year’s Fort Wayne Air Show was a performance each day by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, an elite team of pilots and support crew dubbed “America’s Ambassadors in Blue.” The Thunderbirds had also performed at two previous Fort Wayne Air Shows in 2012 and 2016. Hosting the Thunderbirds is no small task and requires years of advanced planning according to the 122nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Officer Captain Aaron M. Pence. 

“We don’t have enough time to explain all of the logistics involved in planning an appearance by the Air Force Thunderbirds,” he joked. He explained that there are many set requirements in order for the famous flying squadron to travel to a particular location. After applying for dates for an air show and being granted approval by the International Council of Air Shows, the planners of the Fort Wayne Air Show had to request an appearance by the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds’ “must-have” list includes things such as access to a gymnasium for workouts, security escorts from their hotel to the base and back each day, and making sure that an official Air Force enlistment ceremony happens during their visit. While in Fort Wayne this time, the Thunderbirds witnessed several groups of new recruits taking the oath to join the Air Force.

Other exciting acts at the Air Show included:  the A-10 Thunderbolts from the local 122nd Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard who performed combat search and rescue mission and in-air refueling demonstrations; the U.S. Special Operations Para-Commandos who parachuted into the Friday night party and the air show each day; the only known F-100 Super Sabre in flying condition piloted by Fort Wayne native and U.S. Navy pilot Dean Cutshall; the P-51 Mustang CAF Redtail Squadron, the model of plane that was flown by the famous Tuskegee Airmen; Kent Pietsch and his Jelly Belly plane that he landed on top of a moving pick-up mounted with a flat top; acrobatic pilot Skip Stewart who performed a number of “hold-your-breath” feats; the Shockwave Jet Truck complete with flames shooting out the back; sky writer Nathan Hammond; demonstration flights by historic B17 and B25 bombers; an F-86 Sabre jet known for its superior “dog fighting” combat skills; the “Sibling Rivalry” act of Bill and David Werth, one in a plane and the other on a motorcycle; strongman Mark Kirsch who has pulled several large aircraft to honor those serving in the military, and appearances by several high-end sports cars owned by Precision Exotics. 

Cutshall granted an interview at planeside after his performance in his F-100 Super Sabre, the only one known in the world to currently be in flying shape. The Super Sabre was a supersonic jet fighter aircraft that served with the United States Air Force from 1954 to 1971 and with the Air National Guard until 1979. 

He explained how he found his jet, “A good friend of mine, John Dilly, called me up one day and told me that a group of F-100s for sale in California and asked me if I was interested. So, I decided to call my crew chiefs Paul Swick and Jim ‘Prez’ Prezbindowski, and asked them if they were interested if I bought this thing and they said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ Both of them have over 30 years of service at the Guard base and were crew chiefs on the F-100. So, we all jumped into one of my airplanes and went out to Mohave, to look at them; there were four of them. We looked at all of them and picked this one.”

“It was manufactured in 1958,” he continued, “And was delivered from Palmdale to Holloman Air Force Base and was used there for a year or so as a weapons test plane and then it went into a boneyard. Then Turkey got it and had it for about 25 years. It did see combat in the battle of Cyprus. Then it sat in the desert in Turkey for 15 years and then sold to Mohave. It was in bad shape when I got it and it took two years and about $700,000 to restore it. I fly it from about the end of April to the end of November each year.” 

Cutshall talked about growing up in Fort Wayne, “We lived on the corner of Taylor and North Washington Streets. I went to Anthony Wayne School, then Elmhurst High School and Hillsdale College. I started flying 60 years ago. I was in the Navy. It’s exciting to perform at home because I have a lot of my friends come out, some of them didn’t even know that I fly,” he said smiling. 

In addition to the flying acts, there were many static ground displays. Spectators could walk or crawl through a number of parked aircraft and military vehicles or watch a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. The Ladies for Liberty, a Louisville, Kentucky-based, three-woman singing troupe, crooned in the vintage style of the Andrews Sisters, performing near one of the WWII planes. Informational displays by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and Civil Air Patrol were also a part of the show and the American Red Cross had a blood drive going on too. A UPS cargo jet sat on the tarmac with the pilot, who was originally from Fort Wayne, answering questions. A Kid’s Zone offered a space shuttle-shaped bouncy house and other rides and activities. Food and souvenir vendors were on grounds as well. 

A stop at the Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182 airplane on display offered the chance to meet two young people from Wabash, IN, both members of the Patrol, which is a first introduction to the U.S. military for young people. The Civil Air Patrol is an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force for civilians ages 12 through 17. Once they turn 18, a Civil Air Patrol member may choose, but does not have to, join the U.S. Air Force or any other branch of the military. 

Master Sergeant Alice Geyer, 14, has been in the Civil Air Patrol for three years. She is from a small dairy farm in Wabash County where they have Brown Swiss cattle and is the daughter of Troy and Rachel Geyer. “I want to be a dog handler in the Air Force,” she said. 

“I would recommend the Civil Air Patrol because it teaches you respect, integrity and to be selfless. I believe in times of war the Civil Air Patrol would function as a part of homeland security and would help with things such as disaster relief and search and rescue,” Geyer explained. 

World War II Veterans Honored

Since the Air Show coincided with the dates of the 75th anniversary of the World War II Normandy D-Day invasion by Allied forces, a group of ten local WWII veterans were honored during the Friday Night Thunderbirds Welcome Party. Each serviceman was accompanied onto the ball field and was presented with a recognition medal and a kiss by the Ladies for Liberty singers while excerpts from their military record were read aloud.  

These veterans, members of the “Greatest Generation” and all in their 90s, humbly accepted the recognition, many of them saying that they didn’t really think they deserved it. All but one was able to stand for the medal to be placed around his neck; though it was difficult for most, they seemed determined to make it to their feet. The veterans were:  Paul Shrader, Sergeant 1st Class, U.S. Army; Curlis Meaux, Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps; Maurice Steiner, Army Air Corps; Ladislaus Hanzel, PFC, U.S. Army; William Douglas; Charles Yates, PFC, Army Air Force; William Elliot, Seaman 1st Class, Naval Air Corps; Don Stebing, Seaman 1st Class, U.S. Navy; Ted Betley, Staff sergeant, U.S. Army, and Max Poorman, U.S. Army Air Corp / Air Force. 

In addition to honoring the veterans, the party included speeches by several Air National Guard officers, the U.S. Special Operations Paratroopers dropping into the stadium, official introductions of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilots and crew, and performances by the Ladies for Liberty and the country-rock band Mason Dixon Line. A somber moment during the evening was the honoring of local Gold Star military families, those that have lost a family member who died while on active duty. Fireworks capped off the festivities. 

Get to Know the Thunderbirds

 The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are based out of Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV. They fly F-16 jets. The members of the Thunderbirds for 2019 who performed in Fort Wayne were:  Lt. Col. John Caldwell, Orlando, FL, Jet # 1 and Commander/Leader; Maj. Will Graeff, Seminole, FL, Left Wing; Capt. Michael Brewer, LaGrange, IL, Right Wing; Maj. Whit Collins, Robins, GA, Slot; Maj. Matt Kimmel; Vacaville, CA, Lead Solo; Capt. Michelle Curran; Medford, WI, Opposing Solo; Lt. Col. Eric Gorney, Saginaw, MI, Operations Officer; Maj. Jason Markzon, Tucson, AZ; Advance Pilot/Narrator; Maj. (Dr.) Glen Goncharow, Greensboro, NC, Flight Surgeon; Capt. Lauren Venturini, Grand Rapids, MI, Executive Officer; Capt. Kassandra Mangosing, Aviano Air Base, Italy, Maintenance Officer, and Maj. Ray Geoffroy, Amherst, MA, Public Affairs Officer. In addition to the officers above a host of enlisted crew members and two civilian staff are also listed as part of the Thunderbirds team. 

 Captain Michelle Curran granted interview time on Thursday afternoon just after she arrived in Indiana. Just the fifth female pilot to serve in the Thunderbirds thus far, she is in her first year flying with them and she will be on the team for the next two years. She has been flying F-16s for eight years now and has logged more than 1,200 flight hours as an Air Force pilot, with more than 160 combat hours. She said the process of applying to fly with the Thunderbirds was a lengthy and difficult one involving many pages of an application and interviews with all of the current Thunderbirds at the time. 

She grew up in the small town of Medford, WI, and worked on her grandparents, now her uncle’s, farm as a young person. “I did some hay baling. I remember going up in the hay mow when it was 90 degrees and I was all scratched up. I milked a cow a few times too. All of my friends were from dairy farms. Medford was a cool place to grow up.  You didn’t have to worry. I could just disappear in the summer, all day long playing outside, and come home at dinnertime covered in grass stains,” she recalled. 

She married two weeks before the Fort Wayne Air Show and her new husband John Flueckiger, a former Marine, is from Geneva, IN, which is just south of Fort Wayne. “We are both from small towns in the Midwest,” said Curran. “He flew in yesterday and we are going to have dinner at his parents’ tonight. His parents have never seen me fly. So, he will be here with his parents, his whole family and his friends from high school to see me fly in the show.”

More about the 122nd Fighter Wing

The Fort Wayne Indiana Air National Guard Base is home to the 122nd Fighter Wing, a group of pilots who are called the “Blacksnakes.” They fly A-10C Thunderbolt II fighter jets affectionately known as “warthogs” due to their somewhat ungainly design. But the pilots and the community love their warthogs and efforts to transition the 122nd Fighter Wing back to F16 jets have met resistance, so the warthogs remain, at least for now. 

The 122nd Fighter Wing has been active since 1942 and the primary role is close air support in combat.  Around a thousand reservists serve at the base and are called to active duty on a regular basis. In addition to their skilled pilots, the 122nd Fighter Wing has contributed multiple combat medical teams, security forces squads and vehicle drivers, among other key roles, in combat zones. They have served abroad during deployments most recently to countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Diego Garcia, as well as many, many others. The Air National Guard Unit is also called upon to do humanitarian missions, both at home and in foreign countries, assisting in relief efforts and rebuilding after natural disasters and other catastrophic events. 

“The Thunderbirds are an irresistible draw for anyone who wants to see what their jets can do under the command of best Air Force aviators in the world,” said Col. Kyle Noel, Executive Director of the Fort Wayne Air Show. “It was our pleasure to host the Thunderbirds and all of the pilots and performers for the air show this weekend. And the fact that we had more than 50,000 people come through our gates was testament to this event. We look forward to hosting another air show.”

The dates of the next Fort Wayne Air Show are yet to be determined. For more information go to these web sites:

Fort Wayne Air Show:

Air Force Thunderbirds:

122nd Fighter Wing Air National Guard: