By Brian K. Roat and Alice M. Patterson
The early evening drive south on Highway 99 coming into Chico, Calif., felt like just another pleasant summer night. Over the trees to the east, wispy clouds filled a soft blue sky. Suddenly, the calm exploded as an F-18 Hornet bolted over the treetops and banked hard right, the roaring sound racing to catch up.
Hundreds of motorists pulled over on Eaton Road, along the south end of Chico Municipal Airport (CIC), to gaze transfixed at the northern skies. The Hornet worked its powerful magic in the distance, approaching the runway in a dirty, slow-speed fly-by—gears and flaps down, nose high—crawling so slowly it appeared to hang in space. The roar of the afterburner broke the quiet; gears retracted as the nose climbed higher, blasting off into the evening sky.
In a moment of silence, as the Hornet rolled inverted, the universal effect of aviation’s amazing spell could be seen—the grin. A man standing in his front yard, a huge smile on his face, laughingly commented to his roadside visitors that he had been unaware of an added benefit when buying his house several years ago; it was one of the best seats in town to watch the masterful pilots and their magnificent machines.
Chico is nestled in beautiful Northern California, home to the Sierra Nevada Brewery and Bidwell Park. Labor Day weekend marked the second year since the Chico Chamber of Commerce had brought AirFest back to life, after nearly a decade of silence. More than 700 people attended the Friday evening preview event on Aug. 31, plus hundreds gathered along surrounding roads for a taste of what to expect at Saturday’s event.
In the distance, the Hornet dived down for another approach, this time coming in very fast. The hotshot pilot screamed past show center and broke right. People gasped as the Hornet raced head-on in their direction. The pilot pitched nose-up and banked hard right in near silence; moments later the roar of the afterburners caught up. Many in the crowd, infecting with the aviation bug, have goose bumps, and, of course, grin broadly.
As the Hornet came in on final approach, two objects appeared on the horizon, flying in formation. The F-16 Falcon and P-51 Mustang are flying side by side in a U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight. After passing show center, in perfect formation, the legacy Mustang and modern Fighting Falcon glimmered in the setting sunlight. This touching Air Force demonstration honors the people and aircraft that have defended our country over the decades. The patriotic salute softens even the hardest of hearts and is a thrilling demonstration that excites the young as well as the young at heart.
As the afterburner of the Falcon roared to life while climbing high, the Mustang banked to circle around for landing. The roadside audience hoped for more, but dusk ushered in the end of the teasing preview and set the stage for Saturday, when it all came together for Chico AirFest 2007.
Saturday’s crowd of 10,000 flocked to the airport for a full day of history in the making. For the first time, Capt. Russ “Spicoli” Piggott, the F-16 Viper West Demo Team pilot, took to the skies in the same show as his father, John Piggott, who offered a masterful display of aeronautical maneuvers in his 360-hp radial engine-powered Russian Sukhoi Su-29. Chico AirFest was the first of several shows in which the father-son duo will fly together.
Another first was the addition of the Navy Legacy Flight, featuring a T-28 Trojan flying wing-to-wing with an F-18 Hornet. The North American T-28, a military training aircraft dating back to the 1950s, has been flown by many air forces around the world: Argentina, Brazil, France, Mexico, Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam and more.
John Collver took to the skies in his AT-6 warbird for a thrilling aerobatic demo of nonstop action. Collver’s aviation career has spanned nearly four decades; he’s accumulated more than 13,000 hours in more than 50 types of aircraft, including the Goodyear Blimp and TV’s “Airwolf” helicopter. With more than 1,000 air show performances under his belt, 2007 marked his return to Chico after events in the early 1990s. Dr. Frank Donnelly, a.k.a. “Dr. D,” thrilled spectators with a graceful flight demonstration in his 1946 T-Cart. Northern California’s own Eddie Andreini also captivated the crowd in his Super Stearman.
Warbird displays included the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a rare Japanese fighter plane from World War II. The Zero in the show is one of only three left in the world.
“We were honored to have such a rare exhibit in the show,” said Gayle Womack, AirFest director. “We really expanded our efforts this year and brought in some fantastic new features.”
Many unique warbirds and private aircraft were on display, along with a very special event: a “Jet Pull.” The United Way benefit helped raise money for local charities by testing how far teams could pull a huge 727 on the tarmac.
“AirFest not only thrills the attendees, but also gives an opportunity for local nonprofit organizations, like the United Way, to raise funds for their organizations. The chamber is proud to be a part of bringing the community and local businesses together,” said Amy Orr, AirFest administrator. “Like last year, we again put an emphasis on educating children about aviation.” Prior to the show, AirFest distributed information to 16 local elementary schools, including aviation-related quizzes for teachers to use in their classrooms. At the show, children received a “passport” designed to encourage them to learn more about aviation throughout the show.
“Chico AirFest celebrates aviation. It really aims to educate people about the importance of aviation, not only now, but in the past, and always looking to the future,” said Orr. Looking to the future, the chamber’s goal is to continue this important endeavor next year at AirFest 2008.
For more information about the Chico AirFest, visit [http://www.chicochamber.com]. For more event pictures, visit [http://www.airshowpix.net/pages/2007/chico_airfest/index.htm].