Our Towns

Air Show Promises Loud, Fast and Cool

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Air Force Col. Jeff Shaffer knows the three things visitors to an air show want most. They want something loud. They want something fast. And they want something that’s going to look cool.

With those three things in mind, he took the lead in planning the Thunder Over the Valley air show June 17 and 18 at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

“I think of it like Nascar. People go to see cars go around a track all day because it’s loud, it’s noisy and it’s exciting,” he says.

But beyond what will entertain visitors, Shaffer had other criteria for what’s featured in the Thunder Over the Valley air show. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, he wanted to highlight each war the branch has been involved in while also telling the history of the 757th Airlift Squadron. The squadron traces its roots to 1943 as a heavy bombardment squadron in World War II, before the creation of the Air Force.

Among the planes that will be featured in the show are the B-24, the first planes the 757th flew, B-17, P-51 Mustang – this model in particular is a Red Tail, flown by the Tuskegee Airmen – the Korean War-era F-86 and MiG-17, along with a Vietnam-era F-4, a plane the Air Force retired earlier this year, and the C-123 cargo plane. Headlining the air show is a cargo drop by the C-130 Hercules planes in use at the air station today and a performance by the Air Force Thunderbirds, whose pilots fly F-16s, the current fighter jets.

“People want to see the premier acts,” Shaffer says. “You say ‘Thunderbirds’ and there’s national recognition, worldwide recognition. People know what those are.”

Assembling the lineup has been a two-year task that required negotiations, research, organization, delegation and cross-country travel. When Shaffer started planning Thunder Over the Valley, his first task was reviewing the itineraries of the air station’s shows in 2009 and 2014 to see what was featured and figure out what he could expand.

For booking acts, the first step was filing the paperwork to get the Thunderbirds, a two-year application process that includes ensuring Youngstown Air Reserve Station could meet the team’s requirements.

“There’s PR stuff where we need a hometown hero and a fallen hero [to honor]. We have to meet the flight line requirements and have the right parking for them and set up a show box,” he explains. “We have to close down roads while they’re flying. A lot of logistics beyond just making a call and saying, ‘We’ve got an air show. Can you come in?’ ”

A year after he applied for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force announced that they would indeed come to the Mahoning Valley. In the meantime, Shaffer and his air and ground teams were at work. The air team consisted of staff responsible for infrastructure and logistics while the ground team was charged with booking other acts and securing sponsorships to pay for the show.

Shaffer went to the International Council of Air Shows’ annual convention in Las Vegas to find aerial acts, planes to display and services for Thunder Over the Valley.

Among the acts, both aerial and ground-based, are Team Fastrax – a performance that involves parachutists and large American flags, the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team, the Warrior Flight Team L-39, the Air Force Drill Team and the Shockwave Jet Truck.

“I’m excited,” says Col. Daniel Sarachene, commander of the 910th Airlift Wing, who can’t hold back a satisfied laugh. “It’s quite an endeavor and Col. Shaffer has done a fabulous job of putting everything together.”

What worked in Shaffer’s favor was the date of the show: Father’s Day Weekend. Only two air shows in the country are scheduled that weekend, one at the air base, the other in Ocean City, Md. From there, it was a matter of convincing performers to be at Thunder Over the Valley.

“Which would you rather be at: The best-guarded corn field in northeastern Ohio or Ocean City?” Shaffer asks with a laugh.

Paying for all this, plus the infrastructure costs, took nearly as much time as finding and organizing the acts. “These aren’t cheap and the Air Force doesn’t give a lot of money to do air shows,” he says. “We’ll pay our workers to work at the show and spend about $230,000 just paying people to work over that week on infrastructure build-up, rehearsal, the two days of the show and base cleanup.”

Beyond paying reservists, the base is responsible for paying for buses to bring visitors to the station, running electric and water lines into the airfield for safety and entertainment, having water available for workers and, in some cases, fuel for the planes.

Older planes run on a fuel not available at the air station. The YARS team not only had to obtain the special fuel but get it to the base. Thankfully, Shaffer says, Winner Aviation stepped in as a sponsor. Part of its sponsorship is providing that fuel.

In total, Thunder Over the Valley has 32 sponsors, each supporting a different act or aspect of production.“You’re constantly wheeling and dealing. People want to help out with this air show and we couldn’t do it without the community,” Shaffer says.

To further cover costs – the busing contract, for example, is $200,000 – the show this year introduced VIP and preferred seating tickets. While the show is free, selling these tickets allows the base to recoup some of the expense. About 200 VIP tickets are being sold for each day and about twice that for preferred seating.

VIP tickets include on-base parking for the show, private bathrooms, a tour of the planes where guides relate their history, a shuttle around the base, catering and the opportunity to meet some of the pilots. Preferred seating offers shaded seating, private bathrooms and on-base parking.

“We’re already reaping the benefits of our VIP sales. Even though it is a free air show, there are people who want to know what you’ll give them,” Shaffer says. “If we sell those out, we’ll be sitting on a large cash reserve for the 2020 air show.”

In the months leading up to the show, with acts booked and contracts awarded, everything comes down to “putting out the fires,” as Shaffer describes it, and working to make sure the day goes off without a hitch.

“At this point, the lead shifts from the guys who fly the airplanes and maintain them to us,” says Col. Donald Wren, commander of the 910th’s mission support group. “We own the infrastructure and the support capabilities, from the guys at the gates and parking lots to the fire department to our volunteers picking up trash.”

Drills have been conducted, Shaffer and Wren note, to ensure that the Air Force’s safety requirements are met for every situation. Should a plane crash during the show, for example, emergency personnel will be at the site within 60 seconds.

“We’ve been practicing for months and everyone’s excited, but on game day we have to be ready,” Wren says. “This is a major muscle movement. It touches everything we do.”

Pictured: The Air Force Thunderbirds, flying F-16s, are the main attraction at the Thunder Over the Valley air show June 17 and 18. The 910th Airlift Wing’s C-130s also will be in action.

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the MidJune issue of The Business Journal as part of our Air Station Salute. Leading up to the Thunder Over the Valley air show, we’ll be sharing stories from Youngstown Air Reserve Station. To purchase a copy of our Air Station Salute issue, click here.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.