History in the sky

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Aerial acrobats showcase winged wonders over Jeffco

By Emile Hallez

  Gary Rower waved to the Midwesterners far below as he piloted his red-and-white-striped World War II-era biplane across the country in his annual pilgrimage to the Jeffco airport.


Visible in the open cockpit, the aviator, protected from the elements in antique-style cap and goggles, demonstrated an arsenal of aerobatic maneuvers at the Colorado Sport International Air Show on Aug. 29 and 30. Rower’s plane is a ubiquitous sight at crowd-pleasing aviation showcases but a rare one above the unceasing expanse of the Great Plains.

“We come out for the summer and do a lot of shows out west,” said Rower, a former F-16 instructor from Atlanta.

The ground-bound often wave to him on his long flight to Jeffco, and unlike pilots encapsulated in modern planes, he can return the gesture.

“In an open-cockpit airplane, you stick your arm out and wave back,” he said.

Rower was among the flight enthusiasts and Air Force pilots to soar through the skies above the county airport near Broomfield with growling engines and dramatic trails of smoke. The show, commemorating the airport’s 50th anniversary, featured a contrasting assortment of vintage stunt planes and imposing, technologically refined modern aircraft.

The show, a community event with NASCAR-like fanfare, drew thousands of spectators, whose heads were perpetually angled upward as they sat in rows of lawn chairs and took in the theatrics of aerial stunts and pyrotechnics, amid aviation-themed music such as Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting from speakers.

“We’ve been coming for several years,” said Centennial resident Jerry Hayes, who brought his daughters, Megan, 11, and Kelsey, 12, to the event. “This is a lot bigger and more organized than last year. … It’s a great thing for the kids.”

The girls watched the small-plane aerobatics in awe and savored the evening’s fireworks display, in which a glider drifted above the crowd, launching the tiny rockets and spraying the indigo sky with flashes of gunpowder.

“I like the planes that do the twirly stuff,” Megan said.

Despite the apparent ease with which stunt pilots display their skills, such maneuvers are physically taxing and require years of practice.

“You’ve got to be physically fit to do this — pulling plus-10 and minus-6 Gs. It’s like running 5 miles,” said Aurora resident Don Nelson, who flew two demonstration flights Sunday filled with technical stunts such as torque rolls, tail slides and complex Russian tumbles known as lomcevak. He zoomed high above the airport, climbing vertically until the plane stalled, then drifting downward until pulling up just shy of kissing the runway.

Nelson, a former Alaskan bush pilot who also flew for the Army in Vietnam, said his plane, a 1991 Russian Sukhoi SU-26, was designed specifically for such maneuvers. “It’s made strictly for aerobatics,” he said.

In fact, many of the tiny stunt planes in the show were of Russian design, including a small, coveted fleet of Colorado-based planes acquired after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“We can show off the aircraft that no one else would ever be able to see,” said Red Star Pilots Association member Joe Wilkins, who flew in formation with other local pilots in the Colorado YAK Pak, a group of enthusiasts who fly the small training planes.

“The Russians built it and used it as their primary trainer back in the ’70s and ’80s. … It’s a wonderful, complex, high-performance aircraft,” Wilkins said. “We kind of joke about it. We say it’s the spoils of the Cold War. … I’ve grown to appreciate the sacrifice those people made to build these.”

The event was a visual history lesson in aviation, with a smattering of fully restored World War II airships on display, in addition to the menacing F-16 and F-18 fighters, which screamed across the horizon, ear-piercing booms trailing the light blue flames at their tails.

“We were flying a glider this morning,” said Air Force Academy junior Charles Bowyer, who helped secure planes on the runway. “I love the World War II styles. … It’s cool to see the history.”

For some, the show was akin to window shopping — a short and blissful taste of the financially unobtainable.

“He loves this little airport,” said Vance Kuhn, whose son Jake, 7, took longing glances at the fighter jets. Kuhn, who had been to at least eight of Jeffco’s air shows, toured rows of parked planes on his bicycle along with Jake, whose bike helmet was affixed with honorary stickers from an Air Force pilot. “He loves aircrafts, and I can’t afford to buy him a plane.”

While the thrill of aerobatics draws a crowd, the highlight of the air show is always interacting with the audience, Rower said.

“This kind of air show, which is a community air show, is the best. … We get to talk to kids about careers in aviation,” said the well-traveled pilot, who has logged more than 18,000 hours of flying time since 1972. “It’s just a kick in the pants.”


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.