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Winston-Salem Air Show preview

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photos by Steve Orcu’tt (steve619m@yahoo.com’)

“My father was a pilot and he brought me out here to fly when I was about his age,” Steve Flippin, director of the Winston-Salem Air Show, says as he gestures toward his 5-year-old son Luke. “I grew up around planes and have always loved flying.” Luke rambunctiously climbs on top and underneath the row of four attached airport seats where Flippin and I are seated at opposite ends. With a week to go before the show, he has many details to finalize and lots of last-minute planning and promotion to handle

As director of the air show, Flippin does yeoman’s work in the show’s preparation and execution, along with the help of 500 volunteers the day of the show. Their help will be needed because, according to Flippin, by the time Smith-Reynolds Airport’s gates open at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, there will be 10,000 people waiting to enter, with hopefully 30,000-plus total attendees.

“It is a wonderful, wonderful family event,” hev says. “It brings out the best people and the best in people. They love to put it together and see it come together.”

Flippin has a lot on his plate but his temperament reveals no stress. At one point Luke picks his father’s cell phone off of a chair. Flippin delicately tells him, “That’s not a toy,” much like Flippin’s Scottish built Bulldog T-1 military training plane, used by the Swiss Air Force, that he takes Luke up for rides on occasion.

One difficult aspect of planning the show is determining the availability of current military aircraft. According to Flippin, you can never know the availability of a military aircraft until the day of the show (they do have other priorities, I assume) but the past two years Seymour Johnson Air Force Base’s F-18 Hornet and F-15 Strike Eagles have made the quick trip to fly by. Flippin is hustling to get current military aircraft from across the country but the availability of most of them will be a gameday decision.

The air show does have confirmed attractions that will be a spectacle unto themselves.

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The Tora! Tora! Tora! bomb squad’s Great Wall of Fire. The wall of flames will reach about 1,000 feet long and 300 feet high this weekend, featured at the Winston-Salem Air Show for the first time.

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The F-16 Falcon Fighter Jet in flight (one of the military aircraft they have requested for a fly-by, but as yet unconfirmed)


The most spectacular being the Tora! Tora! Tora! Bomb Squad and its great wall of fire. Using gasoline and dynamite, Tora! Tora! Tora! will ignite a wall of flames that will be about 1,000 feet wide and 300 feet high.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever worked for an air show and someone said ‘Hey man, I need you to get a case of dynamite.’ You’ll certainly be able to feel the heat from the flames,” says Flippin.

Unlike most air shows in which spectators are positioned 1,500 feet from the activity in the air and on the runway, spectators are only 500 feet away at the Winston-Salem Air Show. That is one reason that air-show fanatics (is there a name for that subculture?) flock from across the region and country. The proximity to the aircraft leads to a multi-sensory experience. “You’ll hear the engines roar, feel the ground shake, smell the exhaust fumes,” Flippin says.

Other headlining performing aircraft are the Aeroshell Aerobatic Team, reputed to be the best civilian formation team, featuring AT-6 Texan planes. The Harrier “Jump Jet” — the first-ever vertical take-off plane — will also be featured for the first time in over a decade. A MIG-21 jet will pass by at close to the speed of sound and the AH-21 Cobra helicopter demonstration team the “Sky Soldiers” will also perform.

“[The Winston-Salem Air Show] is an incredible display of current and former military aircraft and display teams,” says Flippin.

He has also ensured that there will be as much going on at ground level as in the air. On the airport grounds there will be about 100 vendors and exhibitors, 50 grounded aircraft on display and plenty of food and refreshments to beat the heat.

“People see a few planes do a few tricks and then they’re bored and want to leave. That’s why I’ve gotten as many vendors and exhibits as possible,” Flippin says.

To commemorate the 9th anniversary of 9-11, a parade honoring local police, fire and emergency response teams will be held.

This year’s event will be the 99th anniversary of the Winston-Salem Air Show.

Though it hasn’t been an annual occurrence throughout the last century, its history includes performances by pioneering aviators Lincoln Beechey in 1911 and Charles Lindberg in 1927 when the event was held at Piedmont Park Fairgrounds.

Flippin first attended the show as a child in 1972 when he got to see the Blue Angels perform. He’s attended most of the air shows held between then and now, and began volunteering in 2000. He’s served in his current capacity as director since 2008. Most of his adult life Flippin has been a school teacher and he currently is the coordinator of Guilford County’s magnet aviation program at Andrews High School with 150 students enrolled. Some of the students in the program pursue aviation, either in the military or commercially, while others simply keep flying as a hobby or, as in Flippin’s case, a passion.

In his two years as director, attendance at the show has increased 30 percent and that trend is likely to continue, especially given the 70,000-80,000 tickets distributed to Triad area schools. The show is free for children under 12, $11 in advance and $15 at the gate for adults and $10 at the gate and $7 in advance for seniors (all parking, including remote shuttles, is free).

“We’re not trying to make money we’re just hoping to break even,” Flippin said. “The goal is to show the community what the airport is all about and what we do here.”

The Winston-Salem Air Show this Saturday and Sunday will not just be a sight to behold but a full-blown sensory experience of heat from the flames, the sound of the engines, the smell of burning fossil fuels and the taste of funnel cakes and Pepsi. Flippin has worked hard to make sure that the Winston-Salem Air Show is, even more so than ever, a dazzling event for all ages from the greatest generation on down to the kids.

Steve’s effervescent excitement and anticipation, for the show and his hectic week leading up to it, comes through in his voice when he says: “If people saw the show in the ’90s, they didn’t see the kind of show we put on today.”

Since no air show preview would be complete without a demonstration, Steve escorted me out to the airfield for a flight in pilot Mike Steele’s T-6 Texan, a World War II trainer plane. The Texan was referred to as “the pilot maker” because it was the last plane an airman trained on before he became a fighter pilot. Steele will fly his Texan with the Warbirds team that will open the show each day around noon.

Steele directed me as I gingerly stepped on a small footpost then the wing, and loaded myself into the back bucket seat. Steve instructed me on buckling and tightening the harness of a seat belt and he hopped into the front seat and hollered back for me to put on my headset.

“Alright, can you hear me, Joe?” “Yeah.” “Okay, you see that lever between your legs?” asked Steele. I glanced down at the green metal rod protruding from the floor between my feet.

“Yeah.” “Don’t touch it, or we’ll crash.” “Okay.” “You see those pedals in front of your feet?” Two green metal squares that, to me, looked like ideal footrests, were moving in and out at Steele’s behest.

“Yeah.” “Don’t touch those either.” On the hunk of metal separating the front from the back, directly in front of me, were a range of circular gauges adorned with numbers and abbreviations used to measure things that I couldn’t comprehend. I tried to imagine keeping track of all dozen or so simultaneously and my head started to hurt.

I clasped my hands together in a praying motion and planted my boots firmly on the ground to avoid any potentially fatal interference on my part. I should mention that I’m sometimes prone to motion sickness and have a mild case of acrophobia, or a fear of heights. I didn’t want to lose my breakfast — a muffin and tea — on Steele’s precious Texan.

I’ll be fine, I told myself. I can handle roller coasters… usually. My grandfather flew planes similar to this as a fighter pilot in the Korean War so it’s in my blood, right? But my dad needed to sit on the bench and gather himself for an hour once after a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl at Tweetsie Railroad. Hopefully whatever inner-ear chemistry or genetic knack predisposes one’s tolerance for flight is like red hair and it skips a generation, I thought, as Steele put the bird in motion toward the runway.

A few moments later we sped down the runway and lifted off into the air. During our gradual ascent the area surrounding Smith-Reynolds Airport came into view: neighborhoods, warehouses, a massive parking lot filled with school buses, ball fields, patches of trees and a few ponds tucked into the sprawl.

Without warning Steele turned the plane down and to the left sharply. I leaned forward and the harness caught me and I briefly saw the world upside down, and then suddenly Steele yanked the Texan straight up vertically and I was staring straight up into the cloudy mist of the deep blue yonder. Steele then quickly turned the nose of the plane back down and leveled us out.

“How was that?” he asked me. All I could manage to utter, as I regained my equilibrium, was a drawn out, “Cooool.”

Steve then took the plane on a pass over downtown Winston-Salem. I don’t like heights, but I love the dwarfed perspective of the ground from above; automobiles and people and how they seem to be moving in slow motion and how even tall buildings look like complex, hours-in-the-making Lego constructions.

Steve rounded the plane back towards the Smith-Reynolds runway and got clearance from the air traffic controllers for a low flyover. He got the plane in line with the runway and began our descent.

“Just like in the movies except without the guns,” he told me. I scoped out the wing to the right and noticed a spear in the place where the guns would be.

The Texan, under Steele’s control, swooped down on the runway and leveled out about 20 feet — but seemingly inches — from the ground and Steele increased the speed over the runway until it topped out at 240 miles an hour.

I caught a quick glance of the Flippins looking on from the runway… and just as soon as we were low, Steele snapped the Texan back up into the air again and into another sharp downward turn followed by steep climb. During the entire sequence I sat, hands clasped and feet nailed to the ground, mouth agape, occasionally muttering “Oh… my… God.”

I realized that though my grandfather hasn’t fully absorbed modern technology like cell phones, the internet and video games and all of their digitized wonders, when he was my age he got to pilot planes like these all the time. The adrenaline rush of flying in planes of that era alone is euphoric and awe-inspiring. Add the con stant threat of enemy fire and dogfights and the experience is certainly more real (obviously), dynamic and intense than any Call of Duty game could ever approach.

“[Pilot] veterans love my plane,” said Steele. “It brings back so many memories for them because it’s the plane they used to learn and train.”

Steele will often allow veterans to sit and sometimes fly in his T-6 Texan.

Steele circled back around one more time and brought in the plane for a comfortable and smooth landing. I pulled back the lever holding the glass cockpit cover and let the air pushed by the propellers run through my hair like a happy pooch wagging his tongue out the window of a car. He pulled the plane back to where Steve and Luke were standing in the loading area. I climbed out of my seat, hopped down off the wing and back onto the ground.

“Daddy, can I go now?” asked Luke Flippin.

“Not now. Maybe a little bit later,” said his father, who seems to have passed along his genetic coding for flight to his boy.

“The first time I took him up,” he said, “I spun him around a little and he just kept saying ‘Do it again!’”

Winston-Salem air show info

Where: Smith-Reynolds Airport, Winston-Salem When: Saturday, Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12. Gates open at 10 a.m. each day. Aerial show starts at about noon. Tickets: *Available in advance at wsairshow.com or local Lowes Foods stores Children under 12: Free with an adult (limit 3 children per adult chaperone) Adults: $11 in advance, $15 at the gate Seniors: $7 in advance, $10 at the gate Military: $6 in advance, $10 at the gate phone: 336.767.2832 Help desk: 888.695.0888 E-mail: wsairshow@earthlink.net Volunteer applications and more information available at wsairshow.com.

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