Sunday, February 07, 2016

Preparations in full flight for Vance's 75th anniversary air show

Lt. Col. Randall Schmedthorst, show director for the upcoming airshow at Vance Air Force Base, discusses this summer's event during an interview January 19, 2016. 

Northwest Oklahoma may still be in the grip of winter, but one local man has summer firmly on his mind.

His job as a T-38 instructor pilot at Vance Air Force Base keeps him busy, but these days, much of Lt. Col. Randall Schmedthorst's time is spent planning for one particular Saturday in late July.

Schmedthorst is director of the Vance air show and open house, set for July 23. The free event will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Vance's opening in 1941.

Planning for the air show began last summer, but the date was not set until Dec. 7 when the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team released their 2016 schedule and Vance was on it. July wasn't the first choice for an air show in Oklahoma, Schmedthorst said, and in fact Vance had requested a date in June.

"As far as the date and all that, that was contingent on the Thunderbirds," Schmedthorst said. "Ultimately, with them agreeing to come here, we're at their whim, if you will."

The announcement of the schedules for military demonstration teams like the Thunderbirds comes at the annual International Council of Air Shows convention in Las Vegas every December. Schmedthorst talked to the Thunderbirds' representative before the conference to try and get a hint as to whether or not they would be coming to Vance, to no avail.

"The Thunderbirds, they like to keep it very close-hold until they finally announce it," said Schmedthorst.

The Thunderbirds have traditionally announced their schedules one year at a time, until December, when they released their list of appearances in both 2016 and 2017. This, Schmedthorst said, helps air show directors like himself have more lead time to work through the many issues that go into planning such an undertaking.

"It definitely caught us off guard this year, as far as getting in under the wire to get things going," he said.

Schmedthorst calls himself "The grand puppet master for the different operations here on the base from the air show perspective. We also have a ground operations director and an air operations director. We're kind of, if you will, the three amigos trying to make things happen."

Ground operations director 1st Lt. Lauren Cook is working on many of the logistical issues such as lodging and transportation for the various acts and static aircraft pilots who will be attending the show.

"All those behind the scene things that people expect to have when they show up, but they don't really come to see that kind of stuff," Schmedthorst said.

Capt James Baker, air operations director, is working to secure air show acts and static aircraft displays.

So far the Thunderbirds are the only air act confirmed for the show.

"Right now we're working through the contracts before we announce who the official acts are going to be," Schmedthorst said. "We have ideas lined up as far as who we would like to get, but until we get the contracts finalized and signed we're not going to be talking about who it is."

Area aviation enthusiasts, Schmedthorst said, can rest assured the show will include a full day of flying featuring historical aircraft and civilian aerobatic acts, capped off by the performance of the Thunderbirds.

The tentative plan is to open the gates to the public about 9 a.m., with flying beginning around 11 or noon, and the gates closing at around 5.

"The Thunderbirds will be the last event of the day, as far as the flying," said Schmedthorst. "Once they're done it's going to be the mass exodus of everyone leaving the base."

As far as the static displays, he said, plans are to bring in many of the Air Force's active-duty aircraft.

"It will be a broad assortment of what the mission of the Air Force includes," said Schmedthorst, "a wide assortment of trainer aircraft, fighters, cargos and transports. We're looking to get a broad stroke."

In addition, Schmedthorst said, he hopes to bring in one of every aircraft that has ever been used to train pilots at Vance.

"From 1941 until today, if a plane has flown on the flightline at Vance as part of the mission, we're reaching out, we're going to try to find it and bring it back in," Schmedthorst said.

Many on-base agencies are involved in the planning of the air show and open house, most notably the 71st Security Forces Squadron, who will be charged with getting everyone on and off base, finding parking spaces for their vehicles and keeping both visitors and base personnel safe.

"They are obviously going to be a huge component," he said. "They are going to be extremely busy. They're going to be bringing in additional manpower as far as working the gates, the security checkpoints, baggage screening and a lot of those kind of things."

The 71st SFS and Vance Fire Department will coordinate with Enid's police and fire departments, while the 71st Medical Group will work with the local hospitals and ambulance service, he said. The planning ranges from how to deal with a child who falls and scrapes his knee, to the aftermath of an aircraft accident.

"The community support is unbelievable," said Schmedthorst. "That's part of the planning process as well, making sure that the response aspect of that has been thought through and is ready."

Given that the average high temperature in Oklahoma in July is 94 degrees, heat will be a definite concern.

"Making sure people are hydrated before they come out and drinking fluids throughout the day are obviously the big parts," Schmedthorst said. "Our medical personnel are already planning contingency operations for that, fully anticipating that is going to be our biggest threat."

Vance's last air show, in October 2008, drew an estimated 40,000 people to Vance. Schmedthorst knows from experience the impact seeing the Thunderbirds can have on young people.

"It's one of the vivid memories I have, out in the middle of small-town Texas, and here are the Thunderbirds," he said. "It does leave a lasting impression."

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