May 25, 2017

SLIDESHOW: Smoke, Wings, and Noise Fill the Skies Over Rhode Island

For the second consecutive year the organizers of the Rhode Island Air National Guard Open House and Airshow found themselves in an unenviable position.  After the Thunderbirds cancelled a week before the show in 2016, this year’s headlining act, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, entered a safety stand down following an incident at a show where they had to break formation.  The loss of a jet team is enough to cripple most shows, but all was not lost for the smallest state’s flagship aerial event with a solid mix of military jets, warbirds, and civilian performers.  

Sean D. Tucker rolling across the show line over the beach in Narragansett.

In traditional fashion the show opened each day with the presentation of the nation’s colors alongside the playing of the national anthem.  Jumpers from the SOCOM Para-Commandos skydiving team leaped from the back of a Rhode Island Air National Guard C-130J with the American and Rhode Island state flags, as well as performing a baton pass in freefall and precision canopy flight and landing maneuvers.  Sean D. Tucker circled the jumpers as they descended to earth beneath signature black ram air parachutes featuring the spear logo of Special Operations Command.   

Following the safe return to earth of the jumpers, the aerobatic performers teaser/warmup acts commenced in earnest.  First up was a short routine from Sean D. Tucker in the Oracle Challenger III biplane followed by John Klatt and Dell Coller in Extra 300Ls.  

The Harrier performing a high speed pass approaching the speed of sound soon after a low speed short take off.

As the aerobatic performers wound down their displays an unmistakable high pitched whine of a modern turbine engine filled the air as the US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier fired up for the first of its flights of the day.  The Harrier’s unique capabilities were on full display from the moment they were cleared into the show box, performing a short rolling take off and lifting away from the Quonset Point runway with a few plane lengths of roll.  The aircraft immediately accelerated for a high speed pass moments later, followed by an ear-splitting hovering demonstration at show center.  After a short landing, the aircraft would normally perform a vertical takeoff, but was restricted to another short rolling climb for fear of damaging the runway.  After the takeoff the aircraft hovered briefly before powering out of the hover and returning to forward flight.  The demonstration concluded with a more conventional slow landing.  

Major John “Rain” Waters pulling G’s in the F-16C.

The second military demonstration team took to the skies next, as Maj John “Rain” Waters put on a show in the Wild Weasel 50th Anniversary special livery F-16C.  The Viper Demonstration Team’s performance was by far the most aggressive of the weekend, with vapor trails consistently appearing above the leading edge extensions of the nimble single engine multirole fighter.  


In a similar fashion to last year’s show, Michael Goulian and Rob Holland took to the skies for a tandem act that featured a handful of formation and head-on maneuvers mixed in among portions of their solo routines in a dueling fashion.  After the aerobatic portion of their performance, Shockwave made its way down the crowd line and out to the runway with the signature mix of noise, fire, smoke, and speed!  Rob raced Chris Darnell in Shockwave after a series of low passes taunting the jet truck and flying through the clouds of smoke produced by the world’s fastest semi.  

F/A-18FMore jet noise was in the forecast, as the F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-106 took off to represent the US Navy at Quonset Point, which was once home to the Seabees and a bustling Naval Air Station.  While the Rhino flew a bit further from the crowd than the Legacy Hornet did at last year’s show, the power of the F414 engines were on full display as the two crews put the jet through its paces.  The combination of high speed, power climbs, and high alpha maneuverability were demonstrated for the gathered fans, as well as the nose authority provided by the fly by wire flight controls in the Foxtrot model Hornet.  The Rhode Island show was the last performance for pilot Lt Danielle “Purple” Thiriot who is moving on from the Gladiators for a post at the Pentagon.  

A unique element of the Rhode Island airshow is that the crowd line is near the boundary of the main taxiway, and performers are known to interact with the crowd while taxiing to/from the runway.  The airboss frequency was often filled with chatter for requests for slow taxi speeds past the crowd in order to help fill some of the time left by the Snowbirds’ absence.  In addition to some creative stall tactics nearly as unique as those of Rob Holland, Michael Goulian, and Sean Tucker, each of the three military single ship demonstrations was flown twice during the day, and provided photographers with two different light angles to best show the aircraft during each maneuver.  

A Rhode Island Army National Guard Blackhawk heading for show center with a Humvee slung beneath the fuselage.

The brief lunch intermission was bookended by a second set of jumps by the SOCOM Para-Commandos and the Combined Arms Demonstration.  While this year’s show lacked the pyrotechnics from past performances, additional helicopters were added to the fray for this edition of the demonstration.  The demonstration started with a pair of AH-64 Apaches making a rare airshow appearance to provide top cover for the assault forces.  A pair of Rhode Island Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawks brought in a pair of Humvees for the assault force, while a Connecticut Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook flew in with a M777 155mm howitzer cannon.  While the Apaches continued to provide cover, two Blackhawks landed with ground troops who drove off in the Humvees.  When “supplies ran low” a Rhode Island Air National Guard C-130J dropped two crates over the field, and a second Hercules landed to retrieve a high value target captured in the mock battle and loaded an ATV.  That aircraft took off soon after closing its cargo door, and both C-130s joined up behind the crowd while a dustoff UH-60 performed a pickup of an “injured” soldier.  As the C-130s approached from behind the crowd for an overhead pass, all of the participating helicopters formed up for pass along the flightline in a loose line astern formation.  The sheer volume of aircraft in the airspace was impressive, and provided an outstanding opportunity for the hometown units to strut their stuff in front of the crowd.  

John Klatt climbing away from show center in the Jack Links sponsored, jet powered Waco known as Screamin’ Sasquatch.

After recovering the numerous aircraft from the Combined Arms Demonstration, the one of a kind Jack Links sponsored, jet powered Waco known as the Screamin’ Sasquatch took to the skies with John Klatt at the controls.  John put the Waco through a series of maneuvers that showed off both the graceful maneuverability of the vintage biplane as well as the raw power when the turbine was kicked in.  Not to be outdone, Shockwave made a second appearance and challenged the Sasquatch to a race down the runway.  With a 1 for 1 split on victories for the weekend, the jury is still out on which of these machines is superior in a race for runway superiority.

The warbirds owned the next portion of the show, beginning with Mark Murphy in the newly repainted F-4U Corsair now known as “Godspeed”.  The aircraft was making its airshow debut in the new livery, which honors the memory of John Glenn, a genuine American hero who needs no introduction.  Mark took the Corsair through a series of graceful rolls, climbs, dives, and fast passes providing great views of the famous gull winged fighter from all angles.  

Skytypers 2 and 3 taxiing out for their Saturday performance.

Continuing with the World War II era theme, the Geico Skytypers returned to Rhode Island with their 6 SNJ-2s.  Performing a routine demonstrating tactics and maneuvers used during one of the most prolific eras of aerial combat, the team’s round engine noise and beautiful smoke trails filled the skies with precision formations reminiscent of what one might expect to see from the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds.  Making full use of all six aircraft operating in two elements, the Skytypers demonstration has constant action that keeps the crowd looking skyward.  The author had a firsthand experience with the team that will be detailed in a future article that peeks behind the curtain with an airshow team that’s a staple in the New York area.  

Randy Ball complies with a request of a “Low and fast!” pass from the airboss.

Jumping forward in history to the Vietnam conflict, the warbird theme continued with Randy Ball’s Rhode Island Airshow debut in his MiG-17.  Painted in an authentic Soviet era livery, Randy performs his fan favorite act with a combination of speed and low altitudes that thrills airshow veterans and first timers alike.  Often spitting a large orange afterburner flame from the tailpipe, the silver MiG sliced across the sky in a demonstration of the nimble fighter that was the nemesis of American pilots during the Vietnam War.  While the limited fuel capacity of the MiG keeps the demo short, Randy makes the most of his time in the show box including a few beautiful photo passes in addition to minimum radius turns, loops, rolls, and power climbs.

Moving back to the civilian world, Sean D. Tucker took to the skies in the Oracle Challenger III biplane after missing last year’s show.  The custom red biplane features eight ailerons and incredible maneuverability.  From “The World’s Smallest Inside Loop” to incredible knife edge tumbles, the high energy muscle biplane act is one of the most aggressive and intense in the industry.  In addition to the high energy aerobatics and hovering, Tucker’s signature triple ribbon cut is a highlight, slicing a ribbon in right knife edge, followed by left, and finishing a final ribbon in the inverted position.  Check the photo section for a (very) close up view of the ribbon cut, as seen from the runway next to the poles holding up the targets.  

Rob Holland using plenty of rudder in the vertical in the Nano Pro MT MXS-RH.

The Harrier flew a second demonstration in the afternoon, as did the Viper and Hornet.  Following the Harrier’s flight, reigning US national aerobatic champion Rob Holland performed his solo routine in his custom MX Aircraft MXS-RH.  Rob’s routine is a nonstop display of maneuvers that were once thought impossible in a fixed wing aircraft, and showcases the precision and power of modern unlimited class aerobatic planes.  As always Rob closes his show in signature style, with a spin, hover, and roll performed on final approach to the Quonset Point runway.  

After the F-16’s second demonstration Michael Goulian dove into the show box to throw his Extra 330SC around the show box.  Much like Rob Holland, Mike flies in a surgically precise fashion that showcases the strengths of the modern aerobatic monoplanes, as well as demonstrating the crisp flying that won him multiple aerobatic championships.   The Goodyear, Whelen, and Aviall sponsored plane tumbled, rolled, and flew through the box with the practiced hand of a true aerobatic superstar at the controls.  

The show closed each day with a second performance by the F/A-18, with the final flight of the weekend being Purple’s fini-flight as a Super Hornet TACDEMO pilot.  


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A 104th FW F-15C touching down at Quonset Point for static display.

Unfortunately the lack of a jet team took its toll on attendance once again, and despite beautiful airshow weather, it remains to be seen if the free Trains 2 Planes service would help with the traffic arriving and departing from the airport peninsula.  Next year’s show is scheduled for June 9th and 10th and will feature the return of the US Navy’s Blue Angels for the first time since 2015.  

The author would like to thank the Rhode Island Airshow public affairs team for their incredible dedication and professionalism in dealing with the media for this airshow.  Additional thanks to the Geico Skytypers, Rhode Island Wolfpack (1st Batallion, 126th Aviation Regiment), and Team Oracle for providing the access and flight time that made the photos from this article possible.  

About the Author

Mark Kolanowski
Mark is a lifelong aviation and photography enthusiast based in Michigan and has been writing for NYCAviation since 2015. When he's not traveling to airshows and races, he can often be found out on the lake in the summer, and on the ice as a hockey referee in the winter. He's always up for a plane ride, even if there's a strong chance of G-LOC or revisiting breakfast! His favorite airports to spot at are JFK, EGE, and of course TNCM!



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