Saturday, May 30, 2009

Feel the Thunder, not the firepower

By Kayla Gahagan, Journal staff
Rapid City Journal
Saturday, May 30, 2009

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE -- Over here, it's for fun. Over there, it's to save lives.

For United States Air Force 1st Lt. David Dennis, today's air show -- he pilots an A-10 Thunderbolt II -- is a prelude to his deployment next month to Afghanistan.

"Over there, you could die. Someone could shoot you down," he said. "There's nothing more chilling than a radio call from someone whose best friend was just killed. It's a little bit different than loops to music."

But whether he's flying the A-10 for entertainment, or overseas to protect ground combat troops, the A-10 West Coast Demo Team member from Arizona said he's honored to do it. He wasn't alone in that sentiment Friday as airmen from throughout the U.S. gathered at Ellsworth Air Force Base to prepare for the weekend's open house and Dakota Thunder air show.

"I'm living a dream," Dennis said. "We flew over Mount Rushmore yesterday in formation. I have the best job in the world. I'm very proud of what we do."

Col. Scott Vander Hamm, Ellsworth's 28th Bomb Wing commander, said he hoped for crowds of 20,000 to 40,000 this weekend.

"This is well-rehearsed and well-practiced," he said. "They enjoy showing what their plane can do. There's nothing more fun than that."

Attractions at the event include the Thunderbirds, U.S. Army special operations jump team the "Black Daggers," F-22 Raptor, B-25 Mitchell, F-16 Fighting Falcon and more than 100 local and regional aircraft that will either take to the skies or be on the ground for close-up viewing.

The Air Force Thunderbirds, known for more than 30 signature air formations that feature the capabilities of the F-16 -- which includes flying at twice the speed of sound, or 1,200 miles an hour -- will perform at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Tyrone Douglas, the lead solo pilot for the Thunderbirds, squinted in the sun near the row of eight F-16s Friday afternoon as crew members completed maintenance checks -- the green fields behind the airstrip contrasting with the red, white and blue of the planes.

"It's an exciting show," he said. "At one point, we come at each other at 1,000 miles an hour."

It's similar to the adrenaline an athlete feels pumping through his veins before a big game, he added.

"We've been training for four months," he said. " ... We know what each other is doing, and we trust each other."

Earning a spot on the Thunderbirds team, as a pilot or crew member, is difficult. Pilots serve a two-year assignment with the squadron, while crew members serve three to four. Eight planes are taken to almost 90 shows a year, but only six are flown during shows.

"You know what to do; you've run the plays," he said. "Once you're inside the jet, you're home."

That is how Dennis feels in the A-10, which is known for its maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude and highly accurate weapons. It can also loiter near battle areas for extended periods.

"We're not as fast as the F-15, F-22 ... but we stay there the longest," he said.

The jet was built around the gun, which is evident by the seven-barrel, 30 millimeter gun pointing out from the front of the aircraft.

"The rounds are the size of Coke bottles," he said, of which the jet carries 1,150, and shoots 60 to 70 a second.

Designed during the Cold War, the aircraft is now primarily flown in Afghanistan.

Sitting inside the cockpit is a tightly-quartered navigation office, a cushioned seat surrounded by hundreds of buttons, a joystick and two small screens.

Following the lead of commanders, the pilot has a cache of ammunition at his fingertips -- incendiary cluster bombs, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, a laser-guided bomb, 2.75-inch rockets and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

Visitors to this weekend's show will see the flying, not the firepower, Vander Hamm said. The show is family-friendly, safe and entertaining.

"They'll see a really neat show," he said. [...]


Note: Is that true? An A-10 West Coast Demo Team pilot will deploy for combat to Afghanistan just after the 2009 airshow season started?

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