There’s nothing quite like watching a military jet shoot across the sky above your head, as you crane your neck to watch its ascent, a snow-white plume tracing a path behind it. The air seems heavy as you wait, holding your breath, attuned to just how quiet everything is around you until… BOOM! The sound finally catches up to its supersonic creator.
Now, imagine six of those jets, steely gray streaks splashing zooming through the clouds in perfect harmony. As the two on the edge peel off from the main group, two others start to lose altitude. As you start wondering what’s going on, the remaining two jets flip over with a lazy grace that belies just how difficult their maneuvers are. Now, they’re flying upside down, in perfect alignment with the two jets underneath them, their tails only inches apart. You can hardly believe your eyes, but that’s just the start of the show when it comes to the famous USAF Thunderbirds.
It’s all part of the fun during the semi-annual Minnesota Air Spectacular, one of Mankato’s biggest events. The show was first organized in 2003, and it has grown ever since, constantly evolving as it brings in more and more aerial acts.
Preparing for takeoff
Mankato first began hosting air shows in 1999, bringing in the USAF Thunderbirds as the first show’s headlining act. The roughly $700,000 event is organized by several partners, including the Civic Center, the Department of Public Safety, the Parks Department, Blue Earth County, MN State Patrol, other representatives from the city of Mankato, the Mankato Regional Airport Commission, local businesses and local volunteers.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” said Eric Jones, co-director of the Civic Center and one of the event’s main organizers. “It’s not just the Civic Center, it’s the whole city of Mankato and a great group of volunteers. Everybody takes a piece of it, from volunteers to concessions. We’ve all gone through it before, [so] when it comes together like it is right now, it works.”
The show has been organized sporadically throughout the years, with events in 1999, 2003, 2012 and 2015. In nearly every show, the Thunderbirds were the headliners, though the U.S. Navy Blue Angels filled that slot in 2012.
Jones said there have been quite a lot of changes throughout the years, even though the basic idea of the show has stayed the same. One of the biggest issues that the event’s organizers had to figure out in the earlier days was the question of parking. There were so many people who wanted to come watch the show, parking became a headache in 2012 when spring rains left the temporary, nonpaved parking lots a muddy mess.
“We spent a lot of time trying to fix the parking issues,” he said. “But we got it down to a science.”
The 2015 show was particularly exciting because it was the first time the Thunderbirds were able to land at the Mankato Regional Airport. When they performed in 2003, the airport’s runway wasn’t long enough for them to land, so instead they flew out of the Minneapolis airport, performed the show, and returned to the Twin Cities without ever touching down on the ground.
However, the Mankato Regional Airport extended its runway shortly before the 2015 show, giving the jets the ability to land.
“If you’ve ever been to an air show, some of the greatest drama is watching the pilots get into their planes, turn on those jet engines and taxi down the runway,” said Burt Lyman, former director of the Civic Center and one of the event’s previous organizers. “It makes a big difference in the quality of the air show.”
When it comes to planning air shows, the first step is even being selected by the military to host one of its performance teams, such as the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds, which most recently came to Mankato in 2015. The military group performs for free, but the city organizers need to prove they’re able to put on one spectacular show.
That was a problem for Mankato following its 2015 show, which saw a 10 percent drop in audience members and ended up losing $20,000 for the city. This derailed Mankato’s hopes to host a show every three years, but the city was able to secure the Thunderbirds for 2019. This will be the fourth time the Thunderbirds headline.
Other acts have included the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team, aerobic flyers Team Oracle and John Klatt, comedic pilot Kent Pietsch, wingwalker Tony Kazian (flying with Dave Dacy), and pretty much any other aerial performer you can imagine.
Jones said the city has been working on this year’s show about two years. He explained that the show has a committee that attends an air show convention every December in Las Vegas to talk to different performers and see who’s available, in order that they can provide a variety of acts and performers during the show.
“We want to have a little bit of something for everybody,” he said.
Jones said besides the Thunderbirds, this year’s show will feature a 1929 biplane retrofitted with a jet engine (nicknamed the “Screamin’ Sasquatch”), a stunt plane performer that can land on an RV, the Socom Para-Commandos joint-service parachute demonstration team, and Michael Wiskus, a 2002 U.S. National Aerobatic Champion. Crowds will also get to watch famed female Minnesota aviator Julie Clark, one of America’s first female commercial airline pilots, who has been flying for more than 50 years and is retiring after this season. Meanwhile, on the ground side of things, the audience can check out Shockwave, the world’s fastest jet-powered truck (putting out 36,000 horsepower thanks to three engines), which has a speed record of 376 mph.
While the Air Show has featured many of these performers before, Jones said they always make sure to bring something new for the audience.
“They do update their show, so every time it’s a little different,” he said.
Hopes for this year
Jones said the goal this year is to pull in crowds of around 40,000 people, which would be close to 2015’s numbers.
“I think if we have beautiful weather and all things considered, we should have [those numbers],” he said.
While it might seem like watching airplanes could get old from year to year, Jones said they actually have many repeat visitors, who make a point of coming to every show. He added that whether an audience member is an old pro or coming for the first time, there’s always something for everyone.
“It’s something you don’t necessarily get to see every day,” he said. “As many times as I’ve seen [the Thunderbirds], it still gives me goosebumps to watch. It’s such an amazing performance that doesn’t get old.”
The 2019 MN Air Spectacular will take place on June 15-16.
If you go
What: MN Air Spectacular
Where: Mankato Regional Airport in Mankato
When: All day June 15-16
Cost: $25 for general seating, with pricier ticket options available
For more information: www.mnairspectacular.com/home
By Grace Brandt