Posted by Crystal Lewis Brown

Air Shows’ Aerial Feats are Rooted in Military History

There’s something to be said for living in a flight path. It’s noisy, but comforting knowing that trained airmen are just miles away from my home. Living near a U.S. Air Force base also means that we get treated to some pretty spectacular aerial feats. Confession: The first time I saw jets flying overhead I pulled my car over to the side of the road so I could stop and stare. It was that cool.

What I didn’t know was that I didn’t have to hang out on a dusty road to see what the U.S. Air Force could do. All I had to do was wait until their annual air show, and I could enjoy all the feats I could imagine.

The air shows of today are a far cry from the earliest ones. The very first organized air show was held in France in 1909 and was a competition between the world’s top aviators.

The first U.S. air show was in Los Angeles in January 1910. Self-taught pilot Louis Paulhan dominated the show, winning about $19,000 in prize money. Among his achievements that day was setting a flight endurance record. He carried a passenger almost 110 miles in 1 hour, 49 minutes.

The Boeing Company

French aviator Louis Paulhan during the International Aviation Meet at Dominguez Field, Los Angeles in January 1910.

Air shows in Boston and New York were held that same year. Those three successful shows gave spectators a rare view into aviation and motivated others to become pilots themselves. Many of today’s biggest air shows are flown by military pilots and air show groups like the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds or the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights. So it comes as no surprise that many of the maneuvers they use during shows are based off those used in military missions.

I recently had the chance to speak to retired Lt. Cmdr. Rob Ceravalo, a former U.S. Navy pilot. He shared with me that, “The majority of the maneuvers that you see in the air shows were basically based on combat maneuvers. Ceravalo spent 14 years in the Navy and now runs his own airline, Tropic Airways, which is based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Those combat formations are meant to provide mutual support among the aircraft. “Your job is not just to protect your jet. It’s also to protect the other pilots," Ceravalo said.

One big difference is that planes in combat don't fly as close as together as those in an air show. Show maneuvers are also a bit more aggressive, and pilots fly lower to the ground, making the shows that much more impressive.

One of the coolest parts of show flying is how much responsibility is placed on the lead aircraft.

“When you fly formation, the lead is essentially driving the show,” Ceravalo said. “The other aircraft (are) only looking at the lead aircraft.”

That’s right: The pilot of the lead airplane is the only one looking at the sky. Because of the responsibility, the lead is always a senior pilot. It’s also part of that pilot’s job to ensure the crew keeps up with training. The training and dedication come together to provide those complicated aerial feats that air show crowds have come to expect.

“It’s a tremendous feat. It’s really impressive,” said Ceravalo.

As for me, the days of pulling alongside the road to watch the planes are long gone. Next time, I’ll treat myself to marveling at their feats at an air show.