That ‘70s Airshow

Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

“The Red Arrows didn’t care,” recalls Cianci, who says that the team flew “their most dangerous maneuvers directly towards the thickest part of the crowd. After performing, they did a flyby within 100 feet of the tower, below our eye level—we were 65 feet in the tower cab—right over the chalets and VIP crowd.”

Airshow performer Bobby Bishop, pilot of the world’s smallest jet, the Bede BD-5J, remembers that 1972 appearance. “The Red Arrows were told by the FAA inspector, John Doster, to fly the routine the way they normally flew it,” he says. “I was by my plane watching the airshow, and I didn’t know which way to run. Bomb bursts right at the crowd, multiple solution crosses, and recovering 100 feet over the crowd’s heads.”

Cianci adds that even the Red Arrows’ C-130 transport buzzed 150 feet over a line of 7,000 people. “ ‘You stupid Limey son-of-a-bitch!’ I screamed at the C-130 pilot on my radio. Suddenly I see one of the show managers waving at me frantically from the ground and I realize that [the mike] was hot— live on the public address system to the entire airport. The Red Arrows pilot just came back with that casual tone: ‘Not to worry, Yank.’ They did whatever they wanted. I had to send letters of apology to everyone, from the Mayor to the County commissioners.”

When the military teams started flying, Reading management initiated a number of procedures that became routine at all air shows. Snow fences were added along show center to prevent jet wash from blowing over the light aircraft parked on the grass. Still, there were mishaps. In 1971 a hovering Harrier pilot burned a hole in the tarmac of Runway 13/31 that persisted through years of patches.   

 “We also had to lay down 30 to 40 white plastic strips for a total 4,000 feet for the military teams,” notes Cianci, in one of the earliest experimental applications of the method used to mark the show centerline for pilots’ visual orientation. “In the old days, they would just tell you to park a school bus or two as markers,” Cianci says.

The military demonstrations brought bigger crowds. Greater Reading has a population of 120,000 and is surrounded by farmland. Show management snagged farm fields each year as temporary lots but provided no paved parking. Local farmers learned to price for what the market would bear.

 “Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the show’s success,” Cianci laments. “A 15-cent cup of coffee suddenly went for 50 cents. The airport authority parked cars and collected trash, so they also wanted a piece of the action. All the restaurants in town escalated their prices during show week and rooms were twice or more the usual.”

Still, he says, “Every motel room was filled, all the way to Pottstown, even at artificial prices.”

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