Harrier aircraft, new activities ‘hover’ over Washtenaw County
When “Thunder Over Michigan” Director Kevin Walsh was just a boy, his fondest childhood memories included attending a hometown airshow in 1974.
“I joke and say I started in this business when I was 5 years old,” said Walsh, who got an exclusive look at aircraft via his air show directing father in London, Ontario. “That’s when I caught the bug and have been doing it ever since.”
While “Thunder” gets set to wow crowds of Ypsilanti aviation fans on August 4-5, Walsh and his crew have booked a new attraction sure to excite enthusiastic wing nuts this year at Willow Run.
For the first time in the exhibition’s 14-year history, a 1978 model of the retired British Sea Harrier FA.2 will be featured among the fast and furious speedsters that traditionally make up the weekend performance.
Owned and operated by pilot Lt. Col. Art Nalls (USMC ret.), the Sea Harrier FA.2 is part of a larger fleet of experimental show planes operated by Nalls Aviation, based out of Maryland. Considered a timeless piece of Cold War memorabilia, the Harrier jet performs just six times a year, making this round at TOM a historic event for Washtenaw County.
“It’s never been to Detroit before, which makes its visit here a unique experience for our guests,” said Walsh, 42, from Davison. “It’s one of the attractions that I’m most excited about.”
So what exactly makes this machine so special?
Foremost, it’s one of the faster planes to be featured at this year’s TOM show, according to Nalls, 58. With a maximum speed of approximately 730 mph, and a winning race record against airshow favorites, Nalls’ claim may not be far off.
“We can do the type of fly-bys that a normal Air Force plane can’t,” he said. “It’s about 100 knots faster than the rest of them due to a lesser amount of drag.”
Aside from the Sea Harriers harrowing speed, its other tactical advantages, such as its ability to hover in midair during flight and all take-off and landing procedures, have made it an international smash.
“The Harrier has a fan base of its own, really,” Nalls said. “People will drive great distances to see one. And it’s no wonder; it can hover, it’s fast, it makes a lot of noise.”
Even with the added bonus of a vintage rabble-rouser roaring through the skies, “Thunder Over Michigan” doesn’t need much help to turn out large crowds, according to Walsh, who has been involved with the air show since its inception.
Those crowds, estimated this year to reach 45,000, also make for an economic impression almost more impressive than the planes.
“This air show hits not only Washtenaw County, but Van Buren, parts of Wayne and southern Oakland County,” Walsh said. “That’s a huge economic impact. We spend about half a million (dollars) in the community to put it on, and the community sees an average of $6-$7 million in spin-off.”
Maj. Gen Joe Anderson, Nalls’ wing man and associate, knows the power of that local impact. At 66, the Detroit native is proud to bring his skills and showmanship, and a little extra cash, back to Michigan residents.
“It feels great to finally be back,” said Anderson, who hasn’t flown a plane in a Michigan show since the 1974 Detroit City Air Show. “It’ll be fun to fly again and show them our stuff.”