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Night Air Show: ‘More About Entertainment’

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 24, 2015 - Maximum entertainment. Maximum noise. Put them together and you get Saturday's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh air show.

The Rockwell Collins Night Air Show goes from 8-10 p.m.

Dennis Dunbar, director of AirVenture Airshow Operations, says he’s proud of the Oshkosh nighttime lineup. The show will begin with jets that make noise, including the AV-8B Harrier II, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-100 Super Sabre.

“Things that are loud tend to have more of a sense of electricity,” Dunbar says. “The energy level is there. The music is faster and louder. At day shows, people enjoy the precision and history. But night air shows are more about entertainment.”

The most challenging thing about planning night air shows is the timing. “Sunset is at 8:26, but at 9 o’clock is when it is really dark,” Dunbar says. “The time between 8:26 and 9 p.m. can be challenging to fill, but fortunately we have performers like AeroShell Aerobatic Team, Team Aerostars, and Luca Bertossio that like flying in low-light conditions.”

Gene Soucy, however, performs in darkness with his Showcat Grumman. Soucy says he began flying night air shows in 1986, getting the idea from Art Scholl who flew his Chipmunk all though the 1970s. Soucy’s plane with its all-metal construction makes it ideal for night shows and fireworks, versus other planes that are fabric.

The Showcat’s wings include 20 stainless steel tubes that store fireworks. So even if one would explode, the fire would shoot out of both ends and not hurt the airplane, he says.

But the tubes and fireworks do make the plane heavier for night performances. “It just doesn’t fly as good,” Soucy says. “You can only do maneuvers like barrel rolls, loops, or Cuban-eights.”

However, it wouldn’t be safe to do gyroscopic maneuvers that you’re able to do in the daylight, he adds.

Dunbar agrees, adding that night air shows have a great safety record throughout the industry. The pilot’s routines are not nearly as aggressive, and that’s why you don’t see Extras or Pittses performing at night. Instead, you see a different type of flying, more of a barnstorming type of performance.

The FAA also requires aerobatic pilots fly above 500 feet AGL at night, giving an increased margin of safety, Dunbar adds.

“At night, there’s no horizon,” Soucy says. “You might see some stars, but otherwise it’s all black. You’re basically doing aerobatics without any real reference.”

During a day performance, he looks at his wingtip to help determine position. But with fireworks coming out of his wingtips at night, he can only look straight ahead.

While the runway is lit up and provides some light, you do need a lot of experience to perform a night show, he says. “You have to fly more by feel.”
Saturday’s night show concludes with Tora Bomb Squad’s Wall of Fire and fireworks by Spielbauer Fireworks Co., Inc.

Gordon Webb, pyro lead of Tora Bomb Squad, says planning for the AirVenture pyrotechnics starts months in advance, in part to give their suppliers enough lead time. “We’re using regular commercial explosives to create Hollywood special effects,” he explains. “Over the course of the week, we go through 300 pounds of dynamite.”

The crew will be on site today by 7 a.m. to set up for the three shows—Tora! Tora! Tora!, World War II, and the Wall of Fire. Safety is always paramount, Webb says, and they follow procedures consistently to ensure safety. “We don’t rush to get it done, and we do it in an orderly manner to ensure it goes off safely, creating visual and audible experiences that add to the excitement and chaos of the show.”

How difficult is it? “Difficult is a relative term,” Webb says. “I brought my A-1 team to this venue because of its significance. Really, the most dangerous thing out there is gasoline because gas vapors can ignite with a spark.”

Dunbar says Oshkosh offers the biggest night show in the business, a two-hour show offered twice a week. And there is no doubt the night show has been a popular addition.

“People like that electricity,” Dunbar says. “It’s the romance of it, and the fact that it is new and exciting. A night air show brings out the kid in all of us.”
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