High-flying acts

LINDSAY STREET

HAVELOCK — The silhouette of Teresa Stokes on the wing of the large red and yellow biplane moved lithely, despite the head wind thousands of feet in the air and the fact she was balancing on a slick wing in black stiletto heels.

“I’m not a land person,” the professional wingwalker said.

Ms. Stokes and her pilot and boyfriend Gene Soucy once again bring their act to Havelock for the 2009 Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point Air Show.

The air show begins tonight with gates opening at 5 p.m. and a twilight air show begins around 7 p.m. ending in a night flight and fireworks. Saturday and Sunday, gates open at 8 a.m., acts begin at 10:30 p.m. and it ends at 4 p.m.

Admission is free. Spectators are encouraged to bring blankets or their own beach chairs. Parking is free.

Claiming the title “North Carolina’s largest air show,” the air show regularly draws between 150,000 and 200,000 people. The show draws more than $21.7 million in economic impact into Havelock and surrounding communities, according to the Cherry Point public affairs office.

Staged from the tarmac Thursday, pilots entertained a select group of U.S. Marines, many selected for their top performance by their commanders, and regional journalists with the opportunity to experience the thrills of aerobatic flying firsthand.

Ms. Stokes and Mr. Soucy were among the pilots.

“It’s the wind-blown look today – it always is for me,” Ms. Stokes joked Thursday about the winds.

For 21 years, Ms. Stokes has walked the wings of the brightly colored red and yellow “Show Cat.” She tours the country with Mr. Soucy.

Aviation is in Ms. Stokes’ blood; she grew up with a flight instructor for a father.

She started out as an acrobatic pilot. After seeing a wingwalker perform, Ms. Stokes gave it a try.

Ms. Stokes described the feeling of flying on the wing as “Ah, yeah.”

“I like getting paid to go for a thrill ride,” she said.

After two decades of performing, the veteran wingwalker still gets butterflies during the acrobatics of the show when she gets strapped in and Mr. Soucy loops and rolls across the sky.

“I’m glad you can’t hear me!” she exclaimed. She said, during that part of the show, she is screaming and laughing.

Many of the air show’s acts arrived Wednesday night, and the headlining act, the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds, arrived Thursday afternoon.

The Snowbirds begin their first performance this weekend at 6:50 p.m. tonight. They will also fly 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Flying in from the northeast, a nine-aircraft formation grew from a speck to visible jets in a matter of seconds at around 12:30 p.m. Thursday. A brief aerobatic show marked the headliners entrance to Cherry Point.

As the Canadian Forces’ Snowbirds, in three rows stacked in an inverted pyramid, passed by the runway, No. 8 and No. 9 peeled off from the outside. Those are the soloists of the concert, which has been likened to a ballet of the sky.

Making several passes before landing, jets one through seven remained in formation and eventually touched down in three sets, two sets of three and one by itself. No. 8 and 9 worked across the overcast skies to dazzle the small, grounded crowd of U.S. Marines and journalists.

The Snowbirds are similar to the United States’ Blue Angels or Thunderbirds in that it is a touring entity of the Canadian Forces. Unlike the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, however, the Snowbirds fly at slower speeds, allowing them to fly with more jets in formation and keep something in front of the audience at all times, said Canadian Forces Public Affairs Officer Capt. Jennifer Jones.

The weekend’s show is the Snowbirds’ first visit to Cherry Point. The inaugural visit coincides with Canada’s flight centennial, a celebration that occurred in North Carolina in 2003.

The Snowbirds fly for 12 to 35 minutes, depending on weather conditions – and usually they will even perform in the rain. They fly with five, seven and nine jet formations.

“There’s always something on stage,” Capt. Jones said.

The Snowbirds flew in Thursday from Anderson, S.C., where they wrapped up a show over Myrtle Beach.

Donning a maple-leaf red Canadian flight suit, Capt. Mark “Happy” LaVerdiere flies the No. 8 aircraft.

“We’re looking forward to this weekend,” Capt. LaVerdiere said. “It’s an honor to be demonstrating our skill.”

The flight crew and support staff includes 24 people, and the squadron includes about 80 people. The Snowbirds have toured the United States for four decades.

“It’s a chance to give back to the American people,” he said. “We try to give something for every one.”

At times, the wingtips of the crafts can be as close as four feet apart.

“We always try for the ideal show,” Capt. LaVerdiere said. “I love my job. I love coming down here.”

Though passionate about flying, Capt. LaVerdiere puts his emotions aside in the air.

“There’s no emotion, no feeling. Just complete focus,” he said. “We take it very seriously.”

Prior to each show, the pilots gather to discuss conditions, safety and the previous night’s show, and they run down a play-by-play of what they will do later.

“You get into the zone. That’s why we visualize,” Capt. LaVerdiere said. “What we do is pretty dynamic. Every day’s different. There’s lots of different challenges.”

This weekend, weather permitting, the Snowbirds may perform Capt. LaVerdiere’s favorite maneuver: the mirror roll. This is when two aircrafts fly cockpit to cockpit, with one flying horizontal to the ground and the other upside down on top of it. The two crafts spiral, or roll, together through the sky. Capt. LaVerdiere’s No. 8 jet performs the maneuver with No. 9, piloted by Capt. Christian Dallamore.

Later Thursday, inside a Cherry Point building, air show Director Jim Riemer stood beneath a flyer for the 2009 Air Show, which read “Canada to Carolina: Friends in Flight.”

The retired Marine colonel has worked as the deputy director for the past three air shows. This is his first show as director.

“The primary focus today is setting up,” he said. “It’s an undertaking that used to take two or three days to do but we’ve condensed it.”

Planning for the air show began last August. More than 600 Marine Corps personnel and civilians have helped to organize, set up and run this weekend’s show.

“It takes every person in order to make it work right,” Mr. Riemer said. And that requires focus. “There’s no single or partial focus; it’s just one unified effort.”

However, safety is the No. 1 priority, he said. About 150 local emergency workers have been called in from neighboring municipalities and counties to be on location.

So why does the station hold an annual air show?

“To give something back to our public,” Mr. Riemer said. “It’s been well-received and we’re very proud of our show.”

Dates for the air show fluctuate each year as the show coordinates with major jet performer such as the Blue Angels or, in the case of this year, the Snowbirds. And this year, the show is new and improved – a goal show staff strive for every year.

“We’ve scheduled some very, very good acts,” Mr. Riemer said.

This year, the show will feature four military demonstrations in addition to civilian acts like Ms. Stokes and Mr. Soucy. These include a F-18 U.S. Marine Corps Hornet demonstration, a B-25 “Panchito” performance and Harrier demonstration.

“The military flying acts are big crowd drawers,” he said. “The general public is very loyal to our troops and our military. People like to see what we do.”

And this weekend, the crowd will get to see a display by Canada’s own military flying act.

Despite the gusts of winds and low ceiling Thursday, the weather isn’t a big concern for air show staff, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t prepared.

“We have to pay very close attention to it,” Mr. Riemer said. “This year, we’re worried about thunderstorms.”

According to the station’s weather crew, thunderstorms are not likely. Just in case, hangars are ready for attendees seeking shelter.

“I’m very optimistic (about the weather),” Mr. Riemer said.

The station has predicted similar conditions to Thursday for Friday evening with higher ceiling visibility (allowing for more horizontal maneuvers in the acts) and no rain. Saturday rain will be a possibility after 4 p.m. but will be nice in the morning with a break from Friday’s overcast conditions. Sunday, though not a definitive prediction, will have gusty winds but unrestricted visibility and a 3,000-foot ceiling, but a thunderstorm later in the afternoon is expected.

Attendees have more than just the sky for entertainment, also. On the ground, the Air Forces’ flight simulator and the Bud Light Lounge are just a few of the other activities.

For more information on the air show, visit www.cherrypointairshow.com or call (866) WINGS-NC.

Schedule

Friday

5 p.m. Gates open

6:50 p.m. Canadian Forces Snowbirds perform

9:30 p.m. Fireworks display

Other performers include: Trojan Horsemen, Kent Peitsch’s “Jelly Belly,” Bob Carlton's Jet Sailplane, Bill Leff’s T6 Texan, Super Shockwave Jet Truck, Gene Soucy in a nighttime aerial demo and Marine Air Ground Task Force Wall of Fire.

Saturday & Sunday

8 a.m. Gates open

10:30 a.m. Flying begins

3 p.m. Canadian Snowbirds

Other performers include: P-51 Aerobatic Demonstration with Dale Snodgrass, B-25 "Panchito," Red Eagle, USMC Harrier demonstration, Kent Peitsch’s "Jelly Belly" aerobatic act, Marine Air Ground Task Force, Bob Carlton's Jet Sailplane Gene Soucy and Teresa Stokes Wingwalking Act, "Showcat" Aerobatics, Red Eagle Races, Shockwave Jet Truck, Trojan Horsemen , Super Shockwave Jet Truck, British Sea Harrier Demo, F-18 Hornet Demonstration, Pedro Rescue Demonstration and Bill Leff’s T-6 Texan.

Exact times are not furnished due to operational availability. Performers and times subject to change at any given time.

Ellie