Speed, precision will highlight jet flights at this weekend’s Westmoreland County Airshow
When Air Force Maj. Garret Schmitz spirals in his F-16 jet this weekend above Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, he’ll be completing more than one kind of circle.
Schmitz, 33, the new commander of the F-16 Viper Demonstration Team at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., is set to maneuver his fighter plane at up to 700 mph Saturday and Sunday during the annual Shop ’n Save Westmoreland County Airshow. If weather conditions are right, he’ll fly the same “maximum performance climb” that enthralled him when he attended an air show as a boy growing up in Price, Utah.
“It was actually the Viper Demo team,” he said, recalling that show. “The pilot did the max performance climb, where he spirals into oblivion, essentially. I remember seeing that and thinking that was really cool and that’s what I wanted to do.
“It’s come full circle. To get the chance to do that right now, it’s an incredible experience.”
Before recently joining the demonstration team, Schmitz served as an F-16 instructor pilot and flew 55 combat missions.
How high Schmitz will climb this weekend will depend upon how high the cloud ceiling is in the area surrounding the Unity airport.
“If there are no clouds, we can perform the full-height show,” he said.
The most challenging part of his 12-minute demonstration, he said, is “flying low and flying fast. There are a couple transitions where we go from essentially straight and vertical, with the full afterburner, to 300 feet above the runway. There’s no set procedure for it; you just have to be a good pilot.”
Nine of the Snowbirds’ modified training jets appear in several tight formations during the team’s 40-minute show, before splitting into smaller groups that fly in various directions and then re-form.
“When the formation splits apart, it’s visually appealing,” said British Columbia native Capt. Ari Mahajan, 26, the team’s safety pilot and show narrator. “It gets a good kick out of the crowds.”
An aircraft type that has been used by the Canadian forces since the 1960s, the Snowbirds’ jets have “a straight-wing design and finely tuned controls that make it a classic sports car of the air, and that’s what it feels like,” Mahajan said. “It’s got a bit of power, but it flies very smooth.”
The Saskatchewan-based Snowbirds fly at an average cruising speed of 400 mph during their shows.
“It’s a little bit slower,” said Capt. Jenn Casey, the team’s public affairs officer. “It’s counterintuitive, but it keeps the show much closer to the (airport’s) center and keeps the action going” — avoiding the longer pauses that can occur when planes race away from each other in opposite directions before circling around and regrouping.
The team does include two solo pilots who periodically break away into a cross maneuver, where they “come right at each other,” Casey said. “Those are always crowd-pleasers.”
Other aircraft slated to fly in this weekend’s show include a Harrier Jump Jet and a Huey helicopter. A “Tora! Tora! Tora!” segment will re-create the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor that triggered the country’s entry into World War II. A number of vintage airplanes will be displayed on the ground.
Gates open at 7:30 a.m. and events begin at 10:30 a.m. each day. On Sunday only, a Memorial Day observance is planned at 10:30 a.m.
Adult tickets cost $15 in advance at Shop ’n Save supermarkets or $25 at the gate. Admission is $10 for military personnel.
Visit palmerairport.com or call 724-539-8100 for more information.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .