Highlights of the 2006 Yankee Air Museum 'Thunder Over Michigan' Airshow

The 2005 Thunder Over Michigan airshow was always going to be a tough act to follow - after all, how do you top the previous year's show, with eight B-17 Flying Fortresses flying at a single time?   It's not easy, but the organizers of the 2006 Thunder Over Michigan show came very close by assembling the best collection of British and German world war two planes seen in America this year.   There were also enough other rarely seen aircraft at the show to attract enthusiasts from across the country and even from Europe, including this Douglas C-54 Skymaster which flew in on arrivals day.

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Arrivals day also saw these two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs come in, one of which flew a tactical demonstration on both showdays.   Based at Battle Creek, home of the Kelloggs breakfast food company, this squadron is affectionately known as The Cereal Killers!

A-10 Thunderbolt IIs  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The first of the German aircraft to arrive was this beautiful Junkers Ju-52, nicknamed "Auntie Ju" by the Germans and currently operated by the Great Lakes Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.   Sheathed with the corrugated metal sheeting characteristic of most pre-war transport aircraft produced by the Junkers company, the Ju-52 was used primarily as a transport, but also operated as a bomber during the Spanish civil war and during world war two acted as a minesweeper, detonating Allied magnetic mines by flying low over the water while fitted with a huge energized hoop mounted under the aircraft.

Several of the aircraft at the show came across the nearby Canadian border, including this CC-115 Buffalo transport which was here as the drop ship for the Canadian parachute team.   The Buffalo is the de Havilland company's successor to the Caribou, and although this aircraft was only here to support the parachutists, for American airshow attendants it's extremely rare to see foreign aircraft in operation, so it was a very welcome sight.

Despite all of this talk of foreign aircraft, there was still plenty of American hardware on display.   In particular there was a very good selection of world war two fighters starting with one of the few P-38 Lightnings still in operation, owned by the Planes of Fame museum based in Chino, California.   Formerly painted as the world war two aircraft "Porky II", it turned up at this year's show in its new incarnation as "23 Skidoo".

The P-40 was another American fighter active from the start of world war two, and although it wasn't able to compete against German aircraft like the Bf109 and the Fw190, it still provided excellent service in the North Africa and Pacific theaters of operation.   The immaculate aircraft shown here is a testament to the value of this aircraft type, since it's the definitive P-40N model and was manufactured as late as 1944.

Two of the P-47 Thunderbolts from last year's show also turned up for the 2006 display.   They flew in formation against the beautiful blue Michigan skies and also performed combat tail chases and ground strafing during the simulated ground battle sequence, which brought together a very large group of re-enactors in German, British and American uniforms, complete with tanks and other equipment for each fighting force.

During the war the P-47 had no trouble mixing it with the best of Germany's propeller-driven fighters, and nor did this fighter, a classic P-51D Mustang.   Rumor had it that the pilot's friend was in the photo pit and that's why he did several head-on approaches at a safe distance before peeling away.

If one classic aircraft is good then two in formation is even better, as the Warhawk and the Mustang ably demonstrated.

This Mustang in Canadian air force colors was a very nice reminder that the North American company originally designed and built the P-51 for the British and allied Empire forces.   The replacement of the American designed Alison engine with a British designed Rolls-Royce Merlin was also a vital step in the transformation of the Mustang from an average performer to a war winner.

What's missing from many airshows is a reminder of who the enemy was, but Thunder Over Michigan was graced once again by the presence of this authentic early model Messerschmitt Bf109E "Emil" owned by the Russell Group, which flew it down from Canada.   In the United States there are several Buchons, basically Bf109s with Merlin engines which were built by the Spanish after the war, but this is the only German engined 109 in North America.

A-10 Thunderbolt IIs  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

This Hawker Hurricane is another classic British fighter owned by the Russell Group.   Like the P-40, the Hurricane wasn't on equal footing against the latest German fighters, but it continued to serve from the beginning of the war to its end.   It's said that the Hurricane flew combat in more theaters than any other British fighter, and also that during the Battle of Britain it destroyed more German aircraft than all other British aircraft and other air defenses combined.   The Hurricane shown here has only machine gun armament, which was typical for these aircraft in the early part of the war, with up to twelve 0.303 guns in the wings.

The Fighter Factory of Virginia also brought along a Hurricane, this time a Mk IIB, and it was flown very vigorously and at low altitude as the two Hurricanes chased the Bf109 around and around the circuit.   Cannons like the ones on this plane were fitted from late 1941 onwards, mostly these were of 20mm caliber, but some were armed with 40mm cannons and rockets.

The Russell Group also supplied this nice Mk IX Spitfire, complete with wing mounted cannons.   Like early Hurricanes, the Spitfire started out with eight .303 caliber machine guns, but these were soon augmented with cannon in order to equal or better the firepower of similarly armed German aircraft.   Although it first flew around the same time as the Hurricane, the Spitfire was markedly superior in performance, so during the Battle of Britain it tackled the German fighters while the more numerous Hurricanes went after the bombers.

The Fighter Factory also brought a Mk IX Spitfire to the show, and it was a very rare treat to see them flying in formation, something I've never experienced previously in the United States.   Unfortunately this happened on Sunday, which suffered somewhat from overcast grey skies that sucked a lot of life out of the photos.

Here's another Canadian import and another aircraft which is unique to the North American scene, an Avro Lancaster bomber belonging to the Canadian Warplane Heritage museum, one of only two still flying.   Powered by the same Merlin engines as the Spitfire and the Mustang, the Lancaster was the Royal Air Force's main heavy bomber, able to carry far greater loads than the B-17 Flying Fortress, but not as capable of defending itself from attacking fighters.   The lifting capacity of the Lancaster allowed it to carry the 12,000 Tallboy bomb designed by Barnes Wallis, which reached about 2,500 miles per hour as it fell, and could penetrate 16 feet of concrete to produce a crater 80 feet deep and 100 feet across.   The Tallboy was used to sink the Tirpitz and destroy numerous heavily fortified U-boat pens and other structures.   Wallis went on to design the incredible Grand Slam bomb which was also delivered by Lancasters and weighed 22,000 pounds.   This bomb penetrated over 120 feet into the ground before exploding and successfully destroyed U-boat pens protected by 22 feet of concrete.   The Grand Slam was 26 feet 6 inches long and the molten torpex explosive which filled it took a month to cool down and stabilize!   Lancasters are also famous for delivering another Barnes Wallis creation, the 9,250 pound Upkeep bouncing bombs which were used to destroy several dams in the Ruhr Valley.

At the start of the war the Royal Air Force bought a number of B-17C Flying Fortresses armed with ten machine guns and used them on daylight raids over Europe, but with a bombload of only 4,000 pounds the British considered this type an inefficient use of resources and reallocated them for use as maritime patrol and attack aircraft. 

The Flying Fortress continued to be developed as the war dragged on, the definitive B-17G being introduced into combat in September of 1943.   This version can be easily distinguished by the chin turret under its nose, which brought the total number of 0.50 caliber guns to at least thirteen.

On short range missions the B-17G could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs, but on long range missions it was still limited to 4,500 pounds.   Nevertheless the Flying Fortresses continued to punch through the German defenses, and when long-range escorts like the Mustang became available the end of the Reich was clearly approaching.

If 2005 was the Year of the Flying Fortress at the Thunder Over Michigan airshow, then 2007 will be the Year of the Mitchell.   Early plans call for about 20 of these American-designed medium bombers to be brought together at next year's show, which will be the most B-25s gathered in one place since the 18 or so used in the movie "Catch 22".

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The Mitchell was certainly an important and effective world war two bomber, with a total of over 10,000 eventually built.   Famous for the symbolic raid against Japan launched from the USS Hornet a few months after Pearl Harbor, the B-25 went on to make a real difference in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.   Like the B-17, the B-25 received significant development as the war went on; the B-25D shown in the previous photo became the B-25J shown here, with the addition of a tail gun and a two gun "fuselage package" on each side of the nose.   Designed for strafing and skip-bombing attacks, solid-nose B-25Js carried the most guns of any world war two bomber, with 8 in the nose, 4 in the fuselage packages, 2 in the top turret, 2 in the tail position and 2 in the waist positions, all of 0.50 caliber.

The two primary organizers of the show, Michael Luther and Kevin Walsh are obviously true warbird fans, but they're also not at all adverse to modern military types.   As well as the A-10s, a B-2 Spirit "stealth bomber" made one of the unbearably tame high flat passes which they're required to do for fear of anything going wrong, and this Fighting Falcon of the Viper East F-16 demonstration team did an anything but tame display of its prowess, to the obvious delight of the crowd.

The Fighting Falcon also teamed up with the Mustang and the Lightning in one of the air force's excellent Heritage Flights, which show off historic types alongside modern weaponry.

Seeing a formation of aircraft together is great, but sometimes you just have to close in on part of the formation for maximum impact!

Will Ward's beautiful Russian designed MiG-17 "Fresco" provided a reminder of who the enemy was during the cold war period, just as the Bf109 had done for the world war two period.   Like many of the pilots, Will made full use of the layout of the Willow Run airport to throw the aircraft around and display angles of the aircraft which aren't seen at other air shows.

MiG-17 'Fresco'    (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The navy wasn't forgotten either!   The Old Dominion Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force put their S-2 Tracker on static display, and two Grumman Avengers flew during the weekend, as did Tom Duffy's FG-1D Corsair called "Marine's Dream".   Although they were on the list of expected arrivals, Chuck Greenhill's Grumman Goose seaplane and Hawker Sea Fury fighter finally weren't able to make it.

The absence of the Goose and the Sea Fury were made up for by the presence of one of the Colling's Foundation's newest aircraft, the TA-4 Skyhawk.   This aircraft brings back especially fond memories for me because the Skyhawk was the main (in fact the only) strike component of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, so I saw them flying on many occasions, both solo and in formation, though my photographs from that period are somewhat lacking in quality!

This Skyhawk put on a very good solo display of its own on both Saturday and Sunday, though by the time it flew on both days there wasn't too much blue sky left.

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This very nice naval formation flight with the Corsair and the Skyhawk is an appropriate matchup, since both aircraft operated in the ground attack role and both fought in Indochina, the Corsair with the French and the Skyhawk with the US navy and marines.   American senator John McCain is perhaps the most famous Skyhawk pilot, but he was shot down while flying one over Hanoi and spent several years as a guest in the "Hanoi Hilton" prison.

This T-2 Buckeye is still in active service with the navy as a training aircraft to teach new pilots how to land on aircraft carriers.   The Buckeye was on static display only, but I managed to get this photo when it departed after the end of the show on Sunday.  This aircraft type first flew in the early 1950s and it has to be one of the ugliest planes in the American inventory - there's even a navy song with the words "Don't give me a T-2 Buckeye, so ugly it makes aviators cry".   It might not be pretty, but we were very lucky to see it, since it wasn't in the list of aircraft expected at the show and there aren't too many flying anymore.

The T-45 Goshawk is the Buckeye's successor in the advanced naval training role and it was also on static display at the show.   The Goshawk is a slightly modified version of the British designed Hawker-Siddeley (later BAE) Hawk trainer, which first flew in 1974.   As well as flying as a pure flight trainer, the Hawk is able to carry weapons including bombs, rockets and sidewinder air-to-air missiles, and with such versatility it has been an extremely popular aircraft, with  export orders to many different countries around the world.

See the Thunder Over Michigan Airshow in 2003, 2005 and 2007.