That '70s Airshow
Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.
- By Roger Mola
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 4 of 7)
On the weekend, Hoover also flew his P-51 Mustang in a routine that took full advantage of Reading’s topography. The banks of the nearby Schuylkill River are precipitously steep. Hoover would depart from Runway 13, then sink and streak along the river 70 feet below eye level, leading the crowd to believe he had crashed. He would then fly north and pop up to surprise the crowd at the airport’s other end.
In 1970, Cianci recalls, Hoover’s feigned crash almost came true. He had practiced his routine on Friday afternoon without incident, but on Friday evening the local utility had strung a cable across the Schuylkill, preparing to feed power to a new housing development. During Saturday’s airshow, Hoover clipped the new wire with his left wing and it ripped away almost 10 inches from the wingtip. “Three inches lower and it would have sliced off the wing,” says Cianci. Hoover kept going, the crowd unaware that he had run into real trouble.
Bill Lear chose Reading as the occasion to introduce the prototype Learjet 23, 801LJ, in June 1964. “We took off in Wichita with an FAA inspector on board for final certification, even on the way to its introduction at Reading,” recalls Gates Learjet pilot Torch Lewis. “The inspector was ‘assisting’ in the controls and inadvertently deployed the spoilers. The Learjet crashed [at the] end of the field, but the pilot and inspector both jumped out and there were no injuries.” Except, potentially, to the 23’s reputation, so Lear took action. “Bill ordered number 802LJ to a rush finish that day and installed seats,” says Lewis. “On the way to Reading he flew to Washington to pick up FAA officials, then on to the Reading show. He stepped off the airplane to a press conference for a huge crowd.”
Each year Reading Aviation Service sponsored an awards competition to promote good maintenance and, indirectly, itself. Initially, the downtown Reading Crystal Restaurant hosted the gala banquet, but it later moved onto the field, along with white-glove catering for 300 and big bands. Cab Calloway was one of the entertainers. Arthur Godfrey came one year at Breithaupt’s invitation and later became an honorary show chairman. The chairmanship evolved into a way to pay tribute to aviation heroes: Neil Armstrong flew in his Learjet to chair in 1974. In 1978, T. Claude Ryan of Ryan Aeronautical, builder of the Spirit of St. Louis, presided.
In the 1960s, Breithaupt began booking aerobatic performers to fly at the end of the day, after the product introductions had ended. Air show legends Daniel Heligoin and Montaine Mallet appeared at Reading, flying Cap-10s as the French Connection. “That’s the first time an airshow had ever seen a horizontal outside loop,” says Cianci. Reading was a favorite show of Art Scholl and his Pennzoil Super Chipmunk. Breithaupt also booked Mary Gaffaney, whom he called “the best female aerobatic performer, ever.”
Because Breithaupt catered to commercial exhibitors, the performers didn’t start flying until around 5 p.m. “My customers were the fly-ins and the exhibitors, not the drive-ins,” Breithaupt says, referring to the thousands of residents of Reading and Birch County, Pennsylvania, who were beginning to compete with aerospace executives for parking and city services.
In 1966 Reading hosted its first military aerobatics team: the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, flying Grumman F11F-1 Tigers. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds came to town in F-100D Super Sabres. Then in June 1972, the British Royal Air Force Red Arrows invaded Reading as part of their North American debut, flying Hawker Siddeley Gnats in a formation of nine. And the norms of airshow performance changed forever.
At the time, the term “energy toward the crowd” hadn’t been coined, but Cianci intuitively knew the dangerous physics. Modern airshows set a safety buffer called scatter distance: the product of the airspeed and the altitude the aircraft achieves at the most critical point of a maneuver. It is intended to provide breathing room if plans go astray (as they did in 1988, when Italian air force jets collided as one headed toward the crowd during a perfomance in Ramstein, Germany, killing 70 spectators and injuring hundreds). Today, flights over a primary spectator area must be straight and level or climbing, and in a direction perpendicular to the forward edge or “showline” of the cluster of fans, never during or while exiting an aerobatic maneuver.