Yankee Air Museum "Thunder Over Michigan" Air Show 2003

I have a serious soft spot for this airshow, which is held every year at the historic Willow Run airport near Detroit.   It's been getting better and better in the last few years, but it still has a small airshow feel to it.   Only time will tell if the organizers are able to maintain this, but so far the signs don't look so good - in 2002 it took an excessive amount of time waiting in line to get tickets and reach the parking lot, and the sound system was put together by a rank amateur - there was one pile of speakers stacked up in a single spot in front of the flight line, so it was impossible to hear anything at all.

However, the biggest impediment to future growth is the layout of the audience area, which I've marked in red on this scale map of the airport.   At the moment it isn't very big, and if they insist on leaving it as it is then at some point in time it will become very crowded and unpleasant.   At present, though, it's not a problem and there's certainly space available for them to expand the area in the future.   The blue rectangle on the map is the static display area, where aircraft are parked when they're not flying.  Before, during and after the show you can walk around the aircraft, take photos and in some cases tour inside, usually by paying a few dollars to the aircraft owners.

    The grey areas on the map are runways and taxiways - the wide grey area next to the blue static display area is a taxiway, not a runway.   The black strip along the north end of the airport is a road - the power poles, fences and vehicles along here detract quite a bit from photos of planes going along the angled taxiway nearest the audience area.

Apart from the negative aspects I mentioned above, there are several very good reasons to mark this airshow on your calendar.   The best reason, of course, is the aircraft that they have flying.   This is a lousy show for afficianados of modern military aircraft, though they have the odd F-18 Hornet or F-117 Stealth Fighter put in an appearance, but it's great for lovers of world war two and later warbirds.   A particular specialty of this show is to gather numbers of a particular aircraft - in 2002 they had six B-25 Mitchell bombers on display, and this year they managed to get four B-17 Flying Fortresses all together in one spot at one time.  Unfortunately, the only time they flew in formation was when people weren't around, which seems like a lousy piece of planning on someone's part.

The 2003 airshow was a real beauty, as you'll see from this highlights page.   There were a large number of rarely seen world war two aircraft, like a P-38 Lightning, P-39 Airacobra and the only Curtiss Helldiver in the world which is still flying, as well as the world's only flyable B-24 Liberator bomber (the Commemorative Air Force's Liberator is the LB-30 cargo version).   Then there was the Canadian Lancaster bomber, one of only two left flying in the world, and a Russian MiG-17 Fagot cold war jet fighter, complete with afterburner.   Many other aircraft also flew - an F4U Corsair, an F6F Hellcat, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, S-2 Tracker, T-6 Texan, T-28 Trojan, T-45 Goshawk, C-47 Dakota, C-121 Constellation, the B-17s I mentioned earlier and a B-25 Mitchell, an A-26 Invader and a very intriguing early helicopter called an Enstrom F28A in a marine corps color scheme.

Although the lighting can be difficult at times because of the sun being in front of you, planes flying at this airshow do more banking than elsewhere, making for some wonderful shots of the tops of the aircraft.   In 2002 they were flying along the orange trajectory I've marked on the map, unfortunately this year they were flying a more west-to-east course.   One of the aircraft which did do a lot of banking this year was the Lancaster - on Saturday they flew a great display but it was considerably more subdued on Sunday, and the gossip amongst the photographers was that they'd been told off by the airshow people, for some unknown reason. 

Another great reason to attend is the Yankee Air Museum, which hosts the airshow.   Their hangar, marked in yellow on the map, doesn't have any complete aircraft in it, but the outside area, shown in purple, has some great planes:  historic jets like a T-33 Shooting Star, an F-84 Thunderstreak, F-86 Sabre, F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, and an F-105 Thunderchief as well as more recently retired planes like an A-7 Corsair II and an F-4 Phantom.   When the airshow is on there are also military vehicles brought along by hobbyists and re-enactors.   Apart from the military equipment on display, you can also shoot photos from the north side of this outside museum display area, which can allow you to get better lighting, and you'll also be one of very few people there. 

As well as smaller aircraft, the museum has some larger planes, none more so than the B-52 bomber displayed conspicuously at the entrance to the display area.   Fittingly, there's an example of the aircraft for which this huge airport was constructed during world war two - a PB4Y Privateer, the maritime patrol (or "Patrol Bomber", hence the initials) version of the B-24 Liberator.   Unlike the B-24, the PB4Y has a single vertical tail, and it also has a stretched fuselage to house extra electronics, as well as blister turrets similar to a Catalina.   During the war, General Motors built the Willow Run airfield and a huge production line for the manufacture of B-24s and, although slow to get started, it eventually delivered an enormous number of aircraft.   The final bomber on show is a B-57 Canberra jet bomber, one of the very few British aircraft used by the United States after world war two.   Finally, there are several large historic cargo aircraft, like a Douglas DC-6 and a British four-engined Argosy cargo plane, which is very rarely seen in the United States - the only other one I know of anywhere is a very nicely restored one near Blenheim, in New Zealand.   You can tour inside the Willow Run Argosy at no cost, and even go up into the cockpit.

See the Thunder Over Michigan Airshow in 2003, 2005 and 2006.