Air show returning to Westmoreland
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Are you intrigued by the 1920s barnstorming biplanes that do backward loops in the sky? Or mesmerized by the maneuvers of an F-15 fighter jet?
If so, Westmoreland County airport officials are planning a weekend for you in August. They want to bring back the Westmoreland County Air Show.
In its heyday during the 1990s, between 50,000 and 100,000 people gathered at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe over a weekend to watch the Navy's Blue Angels or the Air Force's Thunderbirds perform.
The last county air show was 10 years ago, however. It was canceled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in part because of security concerns.
"We're going to do it the weekend of Aug. 20 and 21," said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the airport.
"We're going to come back small, at first," he said. "We want to appeal to families. We're going to have military tactical demonstrations," he said. "Those are with F-15 or F-16 fighter jets, where one pilot will perform maneuvers. We're also going to try for some old war planes from World War II.
"And we'd like to have some of the old barnstormers that do the loop-the-loops. Those are the propeller biplanes, where you see the pilot in the open cockpit with his scarf blowing. And they have the 'wing walkers,' too. They're a lot of fun."
The barnstormers got their name because pilots would fly low over a town and land on a farm so local residents could pay for a ride.
"We'd also like some skywriting planes to perform, too," Mr. Monzo said.
With the return of the air show, the county airport authority, which owns the airport, also wants to draw attention to its new commercial airline service to Florida.
Spirit Airlines, based in Florida, began nonstop flights Saturday from Latrobe to Fort Lauderdale.
Mr. Monzo said the first few flights of an AirBus plane that holds 145 passengers were sold out.
The airline service to Florida is available Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
"It's a membership," said Mr. Monzo. "It's like Sam's Club; you pay a $59 membership, and they have specials as low as $9 all the time. When you add in taxes, it may cost you $40 one way. But that's a great deal, and we have free parking here at the airport. That's the best part."
Travelers don't have to take out a membership to book a flight.
"I say to people, would you rather spend two hours driving through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel [to fly out of Pittsburgh International Airport], or driving two hours to your destination in sunny Florida? From Fort Lauderdale, you are close to Miami and Key West."
The airline also plans to begin four flights a week to Myrtle Beach, S.C., starting May 5 with the introductory $9 one-way fares, as well.
Rob Dixon of Derry Township is a pilot for Vee Neal Aviation, based at the airport; he's excited about the return of the air show.
"When I went to college in Florida at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, they had some smaller air shows that I really liked," he said.
"When you have the teams like the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds, they are loud and fast, and you spend your time watching the sky.
"But I like the slower, more genteel kind of show, with the barnstormers or vintage planes and acrobats. They fly low and slow, and have the wing walkers that are fun for the kids.
"Some of the shows in Florida were more like a carnival, with things to do on the ground, as well, like games and parachutists, contests and hot-air balloon races," he said.
Mr. Dixon said his favorite Westmoreland County Air Shows were in the '80s, with military solo planes, flybys and formation flying by vintage planes like the DC-3.
"Our airport is very impressive," said Mr. Dixon. "We have one of the longest runways in the state and a control tower."
Mr. Dixon attended an informal meeting of the air show supporters last week, and organizers are just beginning to line up performers.
But Mr. Dixon said it probably will be combined with the Wings and Wheels event that has taken place at the airport in recent years. That included a car cruise and events for enthusiasts of remote-controlled airplanes.
The air show will probably be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, with food booths and tours of planes before afternoon performances, Mr. Monzo said.
Mr. Dixon has his own plane based at the airport. In 1993, he began towing advertising banners over the Pittsburgh stadiums during sporting events.
"But that all changed after 9/11, when stadium flyovers were banned for security reasons," he said.
He now flies mostly to corporate-sponsored events for clients and employees -- to golf outings in Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C., or to NASCAR race events.
First Published February 17, 2011 5:43 am