Two F-35s and the Thunderbirds dazzle International Airshow

SALINAS, Calif. — When the California International Airshow celebrated its Halloween weekend-long 40th birthday, it had the afterburners of two versions of Lockheed Martin F-35s to light the candles, and the Air Force Thunderbirds to blow ‘em out with a star-burst bang at show’s end.

A combined two-day paid-admission crowd estimated at more than 45,000 drew attendees from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. Air Show President Harry Wardwell said, “It was one of the biggest years we ever had,” coming off 2 Ω years since COVID-19 closed the show. Wardwell, involved since the air show’s founding in 1981, and who saw some early year gates swell to 50,000, gives partial credit to people needing to just get back outside after being cooped-up for so long,

A young air show attendees enjoys the attractions at the California International Airshow in Salinas, Calif. (Photograph by Larry Grooms)

But there was no discounting the big role three military aerial performances played in attracting and dazzling the crowds on Saturday and Sunday.

In part because it pleases the kids, and in part because Central Coast clouds and fog can interfere with the aerial program, the Salinas Airshow includes a flexible schedule to include ground-based acts, such as a jet-propelled car, a fire-breathing robot dragon, and monster trucks. Whether overhead or on the ground, noise and smoke is guaranteed, and this year’s jet noise possibly set a new decibel level.

Flying independently were the U.S. Navy’s F-35C Tailhook version and the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A model of the F-35 Lightning II, both of which pack a jet roar louder than that produced in earlier years by the F-22 Eagle. With ear-shattering blasts from their single Pratt & Whitney engine, both F-35s demonstrated the kind of flight profile many people would have thought beyond possibility.

In a matter of seconds, not minutes, an F-35 transitions from speed on the edge of breaking windows to a nose-high crawl beyond the edge of a stall, only to level out and accelerate straight-up like something launched from a Vandenberg pad. And whether it operates from an aircraft carrier deck or one of the Air Force’s shortest runways, the F-35s turning radius in any flight attitude must be seen to be believed.

Both F-35s delivered a memorable photo moment in separate Heritage Legacy Fly-by formations featuring a World War II vintage P-51 Mustang fighter leading an F-35 A, and a rotary engine-driven Navy T-28 trainer trailed tightly by the F-35 C. The only element missing from the show-stopping F-35 exhibition was the US Marine Corps version with the gimbaled engine allowing it to make vertical takeoffs and landings from wherever the Marines want to be.

Not to be out-done in their older 4th generation F-16 Fighting Falcons, the Thunderbirds upped their game. Airshow President Wardwell, who has watched the Thunderbirds, Blue Angles, Snowbirds, Red Arrows and other high precision flight teams over the years, remarked, “The Thunderbirds have significantly changed their maneuvers,” seemingly flying closer to earth, and providing an evening more spectacular closing starburst.

Between those supersonic bookends, the California International Airshow delivered the full measure of top-shelf professional aerobatics on Sunday, and only a slightly reduced number of acts due to delayed lifting of cloud minimums Saturday. On both days showgoers were treated to the aerobatic thrills of Vicky Benzing in the Boeing Stearman biplane, Jon Melby Fear Boss in the Pitts S-A-11B, and Greg Colyer in the ‘made in Palmdale’ Lockheed T-33 jet. The popular Tom Larkin Mini Jet was literally fogged out on Saturday but was all sunshine on Sunday.

All eyes are on the Thunderbirds on California’s Central Coast. (Photograph by Larry Grooms)

The Salinas Airshow, launched four decades ago in town traditionally known as the boyhood home of the late John Steinbeck, the top-ranked summer California Rodeo, and the only slightly exaggerated title, “Salad Bowl of the World,” was built around two principles that allowed it to flourish while some big airshows perished. Salinas relied on volunteers to do all the work, and even before the Municipal Airport’s gates opened on Oct. 30 had returned more than $8 million to Salinas and Monterey County charities, including hospitals, schools, and youth organizations, including the newly added Bob Hoover Academy, a non-profit alternative high school program named in memory of the legendary test pilot and airshow star. Classes meet at the airport where students learn to fly.

One of the things that can keep an airshow fan coming back is the atmosphere of constant change and enthusiasm shown by the planners and performers. This year’s Salinas Airshow put a spotlight on something the Air Force Thunderbirds do wherever they perform.

Timed around the patriotic opening ceremonies a group of young men and women in civilian clothes lined up on the tarmac facing the crowd and raised their right hands to be sworn-into service with the U.S. Air Force. The crowd delivered the biggest cheer of the day to the 15 recruits from Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties.

Casually walking towards the admissions gate on the first day of the airshow, we came alongside a small group of people who looked family. One of the men wore a name badge. “Jim Gattis,” the hard-working, civic-minded Main Street retailer who championed a plan that in air show circles came to be called “The Salinas Plan.” Home-grown, locally financed, and owned and operated by volunteers.

Related story: Successful California International Air Show grew from unlikely soil

Exhibiting the Air Force F-35’s remarkable range of speed, the supersonic fighter trails a World War II vintage P-51 Mustang fighter in the classic Heritage Legacy Fly-by formation. The Navy’s F-35 tailhook version carried out the same Legacy performance with prop-driven T-28 Trojan trainer. (Photograph by Larry Grooms)
The president’s tent at the California International Airshow. (Photograph by Larry Grooms)

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