Next month at the Dayton International Airshow & Trade Exhibition—known simply as the Dayton Air Fair until 1982—some 150,000 spectators will turn their eyes skyward to witness the breathtaking aerobatics and derring-do of the nation's top flyers. In nine years the Dayton show has become the largest of its kind in the United States, growing from a one-day event for barnstorming pilots to a four-day exposition and two-day air show that many claim to be second only to the Paris Air Show. Still, for pure dramatics, the '84 show July 19 to 22 is bound to be something of an anticlimax after the 1983 spectacular, during which spectators tasted flight both in the air and on the ground. Mother Nature stole the limelight in the proud home of those bicycling brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who taught the world to fly.
Nineteen eighty-three was a benchmark year in aviation history, marking not only the 80th anniversary of the Wright brothers' maiden flight at Kitty Hawk but also the 200th anniversary of the first manned hot-air balloon flight, which was made outside Paris. At 7 a.m. on Saturday, July 23, the show began with the first of 28 hot-air balloons rising into the hazy sky above the airfield and drifting eastward in a steady breeze. On the ground, traffic was already backed up for a mile, and spectators toting coolers, blankets and folding chairs glanced skyward every few steps while trudging across the field to the main viewing area. Many set up tents, umbrellas and canopies, most of which would be torn out of the earth before the day was over.
"For years we've said we were the best-kept secret in Dayton," says the show's executive director, George (JR) Wedekind Jr., who remembers when Dayton had just 15 performing aircraft and 35,000 spectators. "I guess word's sort of leaked out. We have three different types of spectators. There are the people who go from one show to the next looking at the serial numbers of the airplanes; they can tell you the military history of any one of them. Then there are the people who go for the trade show; some are buyers and some are rubber-neckers. The third group comes for just plain entertainment and maybe a little education at the same time." To handle the crowds and stage the show, Wedekind has recruited some 2,000 volunteers from the Dayton area.
The show has something for nearly everyone, including concession food so exotic and varied that a chow hound could keep himself busy for weeks. There were pork rinds, elephant ears, shish kebabs, egg rolls, spiral fries, fortune cookies, trail mix, pizza steaks, barbecued ribs, Italian sausages, Polish sausages, kraut dogs, corn dogs, Coney dogs, hush puppies, French waffles, Greek pastries, watermelons, funnel cakes and turkey legs (big!). To wash all that down there were lemon shake-ups, lemon squeezes, lemon sippers and good old-fashioned cups of lemonade for a buck. Or, for the same price, you could mosey over to the beer truck and buy yourself a Stroh's.
Last year the airplane part of the show got under way shortly after 11 a.m. on a Saturday, when a lookalike of the Wright "B" Flyer, the world's first military production craft, sputtered upward, flown by two pilots in open-air cockpits, goggles and leather helmets. The original Wright "B" was built in 1911 for reconnaissance purposes. Its lookalike made two passes in front of the crowd, trailing, in gross contrast, a helicopter with a cameraman shooting film for the evening news.
In the next few hours just about everything that wasn't tied down, and some things that were, took to the air: ultra-lights powered by chainsaw engines; a B-52 bomber; exhibition teams from Germany, England and Canada; the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, who left the crowd with necks cricked from trying to follow their spectacular vertical spiral rolls in their F-16 fighters; radio-controlled airplanes; biplanes; gliders; paratroopers; helicopters; and the world's smallest jet—which was flown by J.W. "Corkey" Fornof and had been featured in the movie Octopussy. About the only thing missing was a flying dog, and, well, she would have been there flying with Art Scholl had she not come down with a suspected case of heartworm.
Scholl, 52, is one of the legends of the air-show circuit. He was a member of the U.S. aerobatics team for nine straight years before retiring from competition in 1974. A former aeronautics professor at San Bernardino Valley College in California, Scholl now does 30 air shows a year in addition to television and movie work. Usually he flies with his small black mutt, Aileron, whose television credits include one episode of CHiPs, but Aileron had been laid up for two weeks. "She had to go to the doggie hospital," said Scholl. He was dripping sweat. "My wife, Judy, usually does all this and I get to stand around signing autographs. This is the real work. But she's with Aileron."
Scholl, who's not expected to perform in Dayton next month, flies a Pennzoil Super Chipmunk, and does his aerobatics to music, in three acts. In Act I he does things like upside-down circles to Beethoven's Fifth, followed by Cuban (figure) eights to the William Tell Overture, and finally inverted loops to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Act II is his Great Waldo Pepper thing; that was a movie in which Scholl did much of the stunt-flying. In Act III, Scholl performs his specialty, the frightening "lomcevak," in which he stalls out during an outside snap roll and the airplane tumbles nose over tail until Scholl eventually pulls out some 100 feet from the ground. In Czechoslovakia, where the maneuver was invented, lomcevak means headache. Says Scholl, "When I did it with Johnny Carson he said he would have thrown up but he didn't know which way was up." Act III is Scholl's "Salute To America." It features red, white and blue smoke willows during a lomcevak; The Battle Hymn of the Republic; aerial bombs; and America the Beautiful; finally culminating with an upside-down pass in front of the crowd during which Scholl maneuvers the tail of his plane into a position to pick up a ribbon suspended some 15 feet off the ground. "I want it to bring tears to people's eyes," Scholl says. Because of all the sunglasses, it was difficult to tell whether he succeeded. But the act certainly got the crowd's attention.
One of the popular local performers last year was Harold Johnson, otherwise known as the Flying Mayor of Moraine, a Dayton suburb of 6,000. Johnson, who is in his eighth year as mayor, flies a red Waco UMF-3, a biplane that seats two passengers in a cockpit in front of the pilot. Only 17 UMF-3's were built, and Johnson's is the only one still flying. From 1975 to 1981 Johnson appeared seven days a week at the Kings Island amusement park in suburban Cincinnati doing a reenactment of the dogfight between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Johnson was the baron. "I wasn't going to be shot down every day for seven years," says the mayor, who estimates he performed in the role before 14 million people. "How did I get interested in this type of flying? Like every other kid who holds a model plane in his hand and pretends to fly it. You don't fly it straight, do you? You go up and down and all around."
Late on Saturday afternoon Leo Loudenslager, the 1980 world aerobatic champion, flew his bright red custom-built Bud Light Laser 200 up, down, all around and back again in a performance that left the crowd gasping. At one point, after a 360-degree knife-edge turn led into two spins, a snap roll and a number of seemingly berserk maneuvers, a fellow pilot was asked to describe what Loudenslager had just performed. "That's, like, out of control," he said. One move flowed gracefully and breathtakingly into the next—hammerhead stalls, torque rolls, a lomcevak while ascending, tail slips, front rolls and finally a side-slip landing, in which he approached the runway sideways and managed to ease his craft gently down. "If this airplane starts flying any better I'll have to frame her," said Loudenslager, 40, a seven-time national champion who grew up in Columbus, Ohio but now lives in Sussex, N.J. When not competing or performing, he is a pilot for a major airline, but he is loath to discuss that part of his life. "I've been set up so many times by reporters I can't tell you," Loudenslager said. " 'How would you like to have this man at the controls of your DC-10? A stunt pilot?' The airlines spend a lot of money to build certain images of themselves, and pilots who are aerobatics champions isn't what they're looking for."
No sooner had Loudenslager landed than he began pushing his Laser 200 toward the nearest hangar, a 10-minute trek. "When I see something that dark coming at me, it's time to head for shelter," he shouted over the gathering wind. At 4:45, just as Loudenslager was easing his monoplane into a hangar, the raindrops started to fall. The sweltering air had gone suddenly cool, and with only one scheduled act remaining in the show, the spectators began to pack their belongings for the long walk to the parking lot.
At 4:50, with startling fury, the wind began howling in excess of 58 mph. Cold rain blew in solid sheets across the airfield, drenching everyone and everything, as lightning streaked and thunder crashed. The military command tent, its poles snapping from the force of the squall, collapsed. The media tent fell. Concession tents with all those wonderful foods were torn to shreds, burning workers with hot grease. Signs and garbage cans took flight, clobbering fleeing spectators. Tent poles flew across the airfield, along with umbrellas, lawn chairs, souvenirs, coolers and foodstuffs. Performers wrestled with their unsecured aircraft to keep them from being blown over, while the spectators fled to any form of shelter that was still standing—huddling beneath jets, seeking out trailers, dashing toward hangars. Some were laughing, some crying.
By five o'clock the storm was over. The wind and rain stopped. Termed a "localized downdraft," the gale had dumped 1.06 inches of rain on the field in 10 minutes. Parade marshal Gordon Jump, better known as Arthur (The Big Guy) Carlson on television's WKRP in Cincinnati (he is a Dayton native), was left stranded on a bunch of two-by-fours in the middle of a small lake.
Moments earlier Carlson had been signing autographs inside the Channel 2 tent. Then the tent blew away. Fortunately, five rescue units from surrounding towns were on the scene in case they were needed to provide treatment for heat prostration, so the injured were attended to quickly. In all, more than two dozen people were taken to area hospitals; most were released by the next morning.
During the night one more major thunderstorm swept through, wreaking additional damage. The press tent, which had been put up again by 9 p.m., was blown down for good, and a mobile home was lifted off the ground and deposited on top of two Coca-Cola vans. Volunteers worked through the night to secure airplanes to 55-gallon drums filled with water. Three ultralights were destroyed, and flying debris ripped a hole through the fuselage of Duane Cole's Clipped Wing Taylorcraft. It was repaired in time for the next day's performance.
When dawn broke, the skies were mostly clear, the breeze was a brisk and drying 15 knots, and the temperature was in the 80s. Wedekind inspected the parking lots at 5:30 and found them serviceable, and word went out that there would indeed be an air show. By 7:30 the hot-air balloons had ascended and spectators were filing in to set up their tents, umbrellas and canopies. Though fewer in number, the concession stands were open—with freshly painted signs. The debris had been cleared away and straw had been scattered on the particularly critical byways through the acres and acres of mud. By midday the planes were roaring overhead, and the crowd appeared to be every bit as large as Saturday's. One lady, the back of her legs, arms and shirt spattered with mud, was holding her daughter on her shoulders, pointing upward toward parachutists descending through the cotton-ball clouds. "Look. See? One, two, three, four of them. Aren't they beautiful?"
She walked in the mud, but her eyes were turned skyward. Somewhere along the way, that woman—indeed, all of Dayton—had tasted flight.
For pilot Scholl, performing has down moments.