Review of the Heart of Texas Airshow

For the first time in twenty-three years, the USAF Thunderbirds scheduled Waco for a show, so when I saw the airshow schedule for 2015, I decided to try to find the time to hop in the car and drive the three hours up to Waco on June 6. The show is called the Heart of Texas airshow, and if I heard correctly over the PA system, this was the third year for the show. The show was apparently able to attract the Thunderbirds because it was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the host of the show, Texas State Technical College (Waco), which is located on the old James Connally Air Force Base (originally Waco Army Airfield).

I didn’t decide to go to the show until the week of the show, and I decided to go on Saturday because of a family commitment on Sunday. The weather for both days was expected to be hot and partly cloudy, which aided my decision making. The show offered four types of admission — general admission ($15.00), flight line seats ($25.00), chalet seats, and a photo pit. Both the photo pit and the chalet were $50.00. The chalet seating offered covered and uncovered seating, portable toilet access, water, and snacks (chips). Flight line seating was basically folding chairs, not far from show center, with no other amenities.

The photo pit, however, was a bit of a mystery. The web site offered basically no details. I hoped that some of the same benefits as the chalet seats would be available, but I really couldn’t tell. Even the location of the photo pit with respect to show center wasn’t revealed. The show had a Facebook page, with daily updates, but that offered no help either. The best information I could find was offered by the Dallas Aviation Photography Group, which is hosted at Meetup.com. DAPG apparently had some hand in organizing the photo pit and publicized it within their site, but  other than encouraging members to attend, they offered no real insight, either.

I decided to purchase a chalet seat, and they were available on Wednesday before the show, but  I procrastinated, and sure enough, they were sold out on Thursday evening. I decided to roll the dice and buy the photo pit ticket, with the hope that it would have a few amenities, much like the photo pit at Wings Over Houston.

I left home about 7:15 a.m. and made it to the airport about 10:45, which was about what I expected given that I stopped for breakfast along the way. The airshow web site pointed out a number of options for parking, with the primary route being to park on the north apron of the airport. Given my past experiences with the traffic chaos before Wings Over Houston, I was a little worried on my way up the road to the airport, by my apprehensions were misplaced. I pretty much drove straight in, waived my ticket, and was able to park quickly.

The show entrance wasn’t far from where I parked the car, but the entrance was a long way from the photo pit (about 3/8-mile, I think). I got my photo pit wristband at the gate and started walking. Unfortunately, the location of the photo pit wasn’t marked, so I probably covered more like a half-mile just to find it. The air temperature was already approaching 90 °F, the sun was bearing down, and the light concrete was reflecting the heat. I found the VIP area, which was next to the chalet seating, and a pop-up cabana for DAPG, but no signs for a photo pit. I wandered further down the apron, saw a guy with some serious camera gear, and asked him if he knew where the photo pit was. He said he didn’t but that he had seen the DAPG cabana, and perhaps they would know.

So I circled back, found the DAPG cabana again, and asked someone there about the photo pit. Big surprise — they were it. My heart sank when I looked around. The view in front of the pit was completely blocked by a military band seated and playing on a riser. There was a small gap to the left of the riser, but there was no way more than two or three people could fit in the gap — and two people had already staked out spots with their tripods (I still don’t get the idea of trying to shoot planes flying 500 mph with a camera mounted on a tripod). There was no water or snacks — or chairs. The cabana was a standard 10×10-ft pop-up, which had room for maybe eight people underneath it. The only good news was that there were five or six portable toilets next to the cabana, which were apparently for the VIPs but had no one monitoring them.

I had probably been walking for only 15 minutes, and I could already see that I shouldn’t risk going much longer without water. The web site for the airshow said no food or drink could be brought in, so I didn’t bring any with me. I stepped away from the pit and started looking for water. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if it was intentional or not, all of the food and drink vendors were positioned well off the flight line and scattered at that. Just going for a bottle of water was going to take five minutes every time I did it. I found a family serving chicken fingers and paid them $3.00 for a half-liter of water. By the time the day was over, I think I shelled out over $20.00 for water and a frozen lemonade, most of it to that family. I was so beaten down by the heat, I had no hunger the whole day.

When I got back to the photo pit, I was starting to think about just staking out a spot along the flight line, away from the pit. There was plenty of open space along the temporary fencing at 11:30. The only problem is that I didn’t even think to bring a bag chair. I just assumed the photo pit would have something to sit on.

About that time, someone in the photo pit wondered if the band would vacate the riser before the airshow started so that we might use it. It was an intriguing thought, so I decided to stick around and see. Sure enough, the band wrapped up, packed up, took their music stands and some of the chairs, and left just before the official noon start. Tentatively, a few of us took the steps and started standing on the riser. No one said anything to us, so we more or less stayed. A few chairs were left behind, so some of the photographers grabbed them and put them under the cabana (which actually reduced the number of people who get in out of the sun).

The (really) good news is that the riser was more or less at show center, and we had only about a dozen photographers. We were standing right behind the air boss and the show announcers. Unfortunately, that also meant that their radio masts were right in our sight lines. I was able to get a sense of where they were during the show and avoid them in many of my photos, but I probably have a dozen or so photos where an out-of-focus antenna aerial is clearly in the frame. The riser was probably about 30-ft long and 15-ft deep, so we had plenty of room to maneuver. Unlike Wings Over Houston, we also didn’t have too many photographers trying to use tripods and no one tried to stake out their space for the whole show. It was a pretty cooperative group of people.

No one affiliated with the management of the airshow ever approached the photo pit, as best I could tell. Even now, I don’t know if the DAPG folks just got permission to set up an ad hoc photo pit at the edge of the VIP area or if the show coordinators actually had a plan that included allowing us to use the riser. I do know that I paid $50.00, and basically all I got was a spot on that riser at show center and portable toilets.

The show started more or less on time at noon. The headline acts were the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and, of course, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The Golden Knights jumped twice; the first time to kick off the show, and the second time just before the Thunderbirds flew. There were a number of aerobatic performers, including Gene Soucy and Kent Pietsch. I have to admit watching Pietsch land his Jelly Belly-logoed Interstate Cadet on an RV (and not a large one, at that) was interesting.

Given the proximity to a number of warbirds based in Houston, Dallas, and Midland, I was disappointed that the Commemorative Air Force was represented by only three planes — the B-17 Texas Raiders, the PBJ-1J Devil Dog, and the P-51D Fragile but Agile. The Trojan Phylers were supposed to do some formation flying in their two T-28s, but only one actually flew.

Other than the Thunderbirds, no modern combat aircraft flew. The Navy flew in an F/A-18, but it was on static display only. Of course, with the sequester in place, its hard to get other demonstration teams except when shows are at active bases.

The Thunderbirds started their performance with the induction of  a group of USAF enlistees. Thunderbird 1, Lt. Col. Christopher Hammond, led them in taking their oath, with the other five Thunderbirds pilots standing next to them. It was really a pretty special event for the enlistees and their families.

The Thunderbirds flew their low show. They started flying at 3:35 p.m. and finished at 4:10. Visibility was good, but apparently the clouds were thick and low enough that they chose not to risk the high show. Given that the weather was otherwise excellent, it’s a shame they didn’t fly the high show, but I understand the need for caution.

Speaking of weather, the temperature topped out at 93 °F with a heat index of 97 °F, but the heat felt even worse with the sun beating down and reflecting off the concrete. There was a slight breeze, which helped keep the smoke from the performers dispersed.

Should anyone associated with the airshow read this review, I’ll offer a few comments. First, I think Wings Over Houston runs a good photo pit, and the Heart of Texas folks could learn from them. WOH has plenty of canopy space erected for shade, chairs and tables, portable toilets, drinks, and even box lunches. They provide a riser and even a scissor-lift, all for a charge of $75.00. WOH also has show volunteers manning the pit. The only advantage that Heart of Texas provided versus WOH is that the photo pit was at show center, which was indeed nice (WOH puts the photo pit down the flight line from show center). Also, whatever amenities the show organizers do choose to include should be well-publicized.

Second, for the audience in general, food and drink were too dispersed, and portable toilets were well off the flight line. A round trip to the toilet would easily take five minutes. Both services need to be closer to the flight line. Something else for the organizers to consider is to set up one or more cooling zones, with shade canopies and misting fans. Given the heat, the show should have allowed, and publicized, that water in non-glass bottles could be brought in. The show management actually prohibited drinks (which I assume includes water). Here is a quote from the web site:

No food, drink, coolers, large backpacks or weapons of any kind may be brought into the event. All items may be subject to random police search.

A heat index of 97 °F is in the extreme caution range. OSHA recommends one liter per hour of water intake in that heat index range. If I had to do it over again, I would wear a hydration pack and take my chances that anyone would stop me. One of the photographers in the pit did just that. Also many of the military reservist volunteers had hydration packs.

The big question is would I go again? Unless the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels were flying, I think my answer is no. An airshow in central Texas in June is just too hot to bear unless it has a prime act. I planned ahead and booked a hotel in Waco because I figured I would be too wiped out from the heat to make the three-hour drive back to Houston after the show, which proved to be a good decision. Consequently, my all-in cost for attending the show approached $200. As much as I enjoy airshows, that’s just a bit rich unless the show has a prime act (and many folks would say it was a bit rich, period, for an airshow).

I do want to thank the DAPG folks for at least bringing the canopy and providing some sense of organization to the photo pit. It helped.

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