A flight through the ages: a look back at the Smoky Mountain Air Shows
Air shows at the McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base have been dazzling fans since 1995.
The Thunderbirds. Stealth Bombers. The Blue Angels. These are just a few of the magnificent aircrafts that have made their way to East Tennessee for the McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base air shows.
Their aerial feats have dazzled hundreds of thousands of flight fans who have attended these events in the past, and they’ll be flying in once again this September when the air show returns after a more than six-year hiatus. To celebrate, we’d like to look back at the festivities, fun and flights of the air shows of the past. So, strap in as we travel back to the '90s where it all started.
The first air show at the Air National Guard Base was in Spring 1995. Then known as the Dogwood Arts Air Show, the festivities kicked off with flights from the Red Barons.
“It’s a lot of fun and our idea is to kind of get the crowd juiced up, anticipating what they are going to see in the air show,” Red Baron pilot John Bowman said.
The barons' aerial dances did not disappoint the onlooking crowd.
“This is terrific! Just unreal. What they can do with an airplane really buggers belief,” said Bob Browell, a spectator.
The first day’s spectacles ended with a showing from the Thunderbirds, whose tricks could sometimes find their planes dangerously close to touching the ground.
"You bet. We get within 18 inches at some points during the show to about three feet. You bet. We are flying in very, very tight formation. Some tight turns and some real good rolls. Just really showing off what this airplane can do,” Thunderbird pilot Captain Russell Quinn said.
We also met up with stunt pilot Frank Ryder during the inaugural show who gave us some insight into the tricks he would be performing for the fans in attendance.
“My Lomcovák maneuver where I’ll tumble the airplane end-to-end out of control,” Ryder said.
Ryder was also taking plenty of precautions to keep from getting sick during his acrobatics with a hefty supply of Dramamine.
"We’re going to have a caseload of it shipped in for this next flight we’re going to make," the pilot said.
Stunt pilot Jan Jones had only been flying professionally for around five years. A former insurance software vendor, Jones attended an air show and became smitten with stunt piloting after seeing another female pilot perform.
“When I first got involved in competitions, my goal was not to fly in shows. I just wanted to do it as a hobby, and I’m afraid it’s a hobby that’s gotten a little bit carried away,” Jones said.
According to Jones, a pilot must be 100% focused at all times while airborne.
“What I’m thinking about is concentrating on where my placement is. I can’t be too close to the crowd. I don’t want to be too far away. I want to be high enough off the ground. Lots of different thoughts going through my head concerning the flight of the airplane. I don’t think about what I’m going to fix for dinner that night.” Jones said.
Rounding off the weekend was the flight of the Stealth Bomber, but it wasn’t just the plane that drew some fans to see this modern marvel. The pilot, Mike Newman, and the crew chief, Skip Johnston were both Maryville, Tennessee natives and graduates of Heritage High School.
“Oh, it was fun. It was nice coming home again. I hadn’t flown a plane here since pilot training in 1984,” Newman said.
Newman got an early start in the military through the Heritage High School's ROTC program, while Johnston was in the mime club. His time miming, however, did help him with his hand signaling.
The military had already revealed the Stealth Bomber to the public but kept some of its internal components secret. So secret, in fact, that maintenance on the plane was done in the dark.
“You’re in the dark, and the plane’s black, and you got to know what you’re doing, so it takes a while to get acclimated,” Johnston said.
The sun set on the first Dogwood Arts Air Show, and it would be three years until the planes would take flight again.
During the first weekend of May 1998, fans were welcomed back to the Air National Guard Base for the second Dogwood Arts Air Show. Organizing for the event began as soon as the previous one ended.
“It’s been pretty much non-stop planning: from where the airplanes are going to park, static displays, the traffic flow. Just many, many things. It’s a lot of work by an awful lot of people out here," an organizer said.
One of the big attractions of the show was a simulator where visitors could emulate the flights of the Blue Angels called the Blue Angel Reactor.
“I want to be a pilot when I go to college, and this is great! You get to fly for five minutes, and you don’t even have to have a degree or anything. So, it’s great," a rider said.
Flying at that year’s air show was stunt pilot Sean Tucker, who told us about his safety process while flying.
“I wear pads, and a back brace, and a neck brace, and the works because I’m getting older and I’m breaking,” Tucker said.
Tucker also gave us a tour of his plane.
“What’s really neat is, if you come a little closer and listen to this [wing], it’s made out of fabric. It’s stretched really tight. We use some of the old technologies and some of the new ones. We have titanium landing gear, fabric wings, carbon fiber and lots of horsepower,” the stunt pilot said.
Although his plane wasn’t specifically designed for the tricks he was pulling off at the show, Tucker assured us there was a method to his madness.
“It’s a balancing act because the airplane is not supposed to do it, but if you just fly it just right, and touch the air in the right way, then that airplane will just hover there,” Tucker said.
Spectators young and old were left the show in awe of the aerial displays they witnessed over the weekend.
“I flew for Delta for 34 years. Airplanes never get out of your system. You’ve got to be around airplanes as much as you possibly can. This is a great place to do it," spectator Jack Holcomb said.
To help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Dogwood Arts Festival, the air show returned in Spring 2000. That year’s main attraction was the Blue Angels, whose schedules kept them on the road for a majority of the year.
"It’s a lot of fun and it’s very rewarding, but it’s very challenging as well. We practice six days a week including shows, and we’re on the road about 300 days a year,” Lieutenant Commander Scott Moyer said.
As usual, the Angels didn’t cease to amaze.
“I was in the Air Force for 20 years and been stationed at a number of Air Force bases, and I haven’t seen as many talented pilots as they have here,” spectator Scott Stevens said.
At the show, then Dogwood Arts Festival Executive Director Bob Neal gave us an understanding of how much it costs to hold a show of that caliber.
“It’s a very expensive event to put on. This event is probably costing us $250,000. You pay that whether anybody comes or not. Hopefully, we’ll come out in the black this time,” Neal said.
Now named the Great Smoky Mountain Air Fest, the flying festivities were set to return in Spring 2003. In January of that year, the Blue Angels stopped by Knoxville to help promote the show and do a bit of military recruiting.
“It’s probably the most cost-effective means of recruitment there is. You could imagine putting a commercial on during the Super Bowl and the cost that would incur. What we do is put on an air show in different cities all across the country, and it’s kind of unquantifiable how much of a reach we have,” Lieutenant Craig Olsen said.
Unfortunately, the Great Smoky Mountain Air Fest was canceled in March 2003. Commander Colonel John Keenan said the decision was made in the interest of safety for the community and base. Keenan said he regretted having to cancel the show because it rewards the community for their support. He finished by stating officials hoped to bring back the air show the following year.
In October 2015, it was announced that for the first time since 2000, the Smoky Mountain Air Show would finally make its way back to the Air National Guard Base. With it, an estimated 250,000 visitors and 600 jobs to the area, as well as a portion of the proceeds benefitting Honor Air. To the delight of fans, the Blue Angels would also make their return.
“We are super excited to finally be back. It’s been so long since our team has performed here. So, the Smoky Mountain Air Show next April 16 and 17 is something we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time,” Captain Corrie Mays of the Blue Angels said.
Also returning was the voice of the 2000 air show, Rob Reider, who assured us that despite the long layoff, fans would be raring to go when the show began.
"I’ve been at a couple of shows over the years where there’s been a long gap between last time and this time. When the first plane goes in the air, the people are really excited. They say, 'Yeah! We came to see this! Let’s let her rip,'" Reider said.
On opening day, traffic was causing problems for attendees, but they didn’t let it damper their mood.
“At the point where we were almost to our parking lot, we were able to look over the bridge, and you could see a back up from every direction, and every on-ramp, off-ramp. It was amazing,” one spectator said.
One of the acts of the 2016 show was one of the fastest planes in the world, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Nicknamed “The Viper” due to its sleek, snake-like shape, pilot Major Craig Baker promised a good show for the fans in attendance.
"We’ve got the Air Force’s best out here showing you the capabilities of the Air Force. It’s an exhausting routine for me, but it’s a lot of fun. For the crowd, it’s going to be really loud and you’re going to see a lot of cool things that the airplane can do," Baker said.
Along with the F-16, the first day of the show was highlighted by Aeroshell Aerobatics, the Leap Frogs, who spiraled from the sky and parachuted down with an American flag, and the main event was the Blue Angels.
“I think it’s one of the most magnificent programs that there is. I couldn’t wait to get over here to see the show,” a spectator said.
Aside from watching the flights, there was also an opportunity to learn about the history of the planes themselves. A remade P-51 used by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II was on display. George Hardy, a retired lieutenant colonel and former member of the historic pilot group, said shows like this are a great way for children to get a glimpse into the past.
“Well you come out here and you get a lot of the history. You see a lot of the airplanes that have flown over the years, plus you see good, precision flying. These guys put on a great show. It’s really inspiring to young kids,” Hardy said.
By the end of the weekend, long after the planes had departed, there were still dreams of Blue Angels.
Sept. 10 and 11 marks the fifth time an air show has come to the Air National Guard Base. The Aeroshell Aerobatics team, the Golden Knights Parachute Team, and of course, the Blue Angels will all make an appearance. Proceeds from the show will benefit the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley and Second Harvest Food Bank.