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Thunderbirds advance pilot tests skies over airport in Westmoreland County

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 11:48 a.m.
Tribune-Review
Major Michael J. Fisher, Advance Pilot and Narrator perform “survey maneuvers” over Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to prepare for the 2013 Westmoreland County Air Show that runs April 27-28, 2013. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review

Michael J. Fisher took a spin around the Latrobe area on Wednesday morning at about 345 mph and did not get a speeding ticket.

Air Force Maj. Fisher flew over the countryside surrounding Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in an F-16D fighter jet to become familiar with the terrain where the Air Force Thunderbirds are scheduled to perform intricate aerial maneuvers at the Westmoreland County Air Show on April 27 and 28.

“We're showcasing the power of the F-16,” said Fisher, who sped across the sky at heights between 500 and 2,500 feet above ground.

Fisher is the advance pilot and narrator for the Air Force Demonstration Squad. He flew into Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity from Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, S.C. He met with the air show team, including emergency management officials, to discuss the logistics involved in being host to the Thunderbirds.

This will be the first time the Thunderbirds will perform at the air show since 2001, said Dwayne Pickels, Westmoreland County Airport Authority's administrative assistant. Halted after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the air show did not resume until 2011.

The F-16 that Fisher flew into Arnold Palmer Regional in Unity was clear of any missiles or ordnance it carries in combat. The F-16 has flown missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, said Fisher, a 10-year Air Force veteran who is in the second half of his two-year tour with the Thunderbirds.

The Thunderbirds show combines flying in a diamond formation and solo routines, Fisher said. The diamond formation involves four aircraft flying together, about 18 inches apart.

“It takes a lot of practice to do this. They rely on each other,” Fisher said, noting that the pilots train twice a day, five days a week, from mid-November until mid-March.

Only experienced pilots perform in the demonstration squad, Fisher said. They must have at least 750 hours of flying and between eight and 10 years in the Air Force.

Eight pilots will make the trip to Arnold Palmer Regional, and six planes will perform aerial demonstrations at speeds close to 500 mph, Fisher said.

The air show, held last year in June, is earlier this year because that was the only date available on the Thunderbirds' schedule, said Gabe Monzo, airport authority executive director. The 2012 show featured the Navy's Blue Angels.

The air show has fewer acts than last year, said Donald Rossi, airport authority chairman, but they are “class acts.”

The airport authority has budgeted about $245,000 for the air show this year, a decrease from $280,000 last year. Monzo said the authority does not need to buy arresting cables to string across the runway to stop the Thunderbirds, as they did for the Blue Angels, and can reuse some equipment and supplies purchased last year.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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