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Mon, Apr 19, 2004

Lighting Up The Night Sky

Do It by Moonlight!!!

By Aleta*

With weather more reminiscent of a spring evening up north (that's cool, dry and clear for those who can't remember) the last glows of pinks and oranges faded in the west and the night air show at Lakeland was about to begin.

A paltry $5 was the fee to attend the dynamic light show. For that small payment four of the five categories of aircraft were represented during the hour plus show and even "Elvis" sang a few songs.

With the Balloon Glow off to the side, the Aeroshell Aerobatic team took to the twilight sky in their T-6s to start the spectacle. When asked the difference between the teams night and day performance, Mark Henley, right wing position replied that they use "the same series of maneuvers as the daytime but for safety purposes the hard deck is raised to five hundred feet."

No pyrotechnics are used by the Aeroshell Team; their T-6s are simply lit up as they trace their show through the twilight with the lights and smoke. Granted the lights make it seem as if the planes tail is on fire at times! One of the difficulties in the twilight performance can be visibility, which seemed unthinkable on this clear evening but Henley explains, "Typically late afternoon the wind will lay down, then the smoke stays inside the aerobatic box cutting down on visibility."

Gene McNeely, slot pilot has one concession to the twilight performance; the lead plane has no strobes on during the show. McNeely would no doubt like to continue on his 40 plus years of flying by not getting vertigo at five hundred feet during a maneuver from watching a bright, blinkie, white strobe!

Planning, preparation, practice, presentation (yes, in that order, then repeat numerous times) seems to be the motto regarding any performance. Just ask Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University alumni, Eric Beard who pilots a Yak 54 called Russian Thunder. "It takes fourteen hours to prepare for the show."

Beard's firework spewing performance, which includes some new two and one half inch shells, lasts just under ten minutes. The crowd reaction during Beard's time aloft certainly confirmed that those fourteen hours were well appreciated. Beard's specialty is the night performance and his biggest concern is the possibility of night blindness. To diminish the brightness from the pyrotechnics, all two hundred fifty pounds of them, by the way, Beard uses "dark shields on the sides of the canopy to help control the light and keep it out of my eyes the best I can."

Seven performances kept our attention skyward for the better part of an hour. In addition to the Aeroshell Team and Eric Beard, there was Roger Buis in Helicopter Otto, Steve Oliver who took to the sky twice in a Chipmunk and the Pepsi Sky Dancer, Manfred Radius in his glider allowed us to actually hear the music being played as the colorful fireworks streamed into the dark. Closing the show was the E-team (that E stands for Elvis, complete with hair, belt and lighted jumpsuit which I don't believe even Elvis had) minus one, as one of the performers had just become a daddy and was rightfully spending time with the new mom and baby. I just hope he didn't wear his Elvis costume to the hospital. Once the two E Team jumpers landed and turned off their light suits the crowd was treated to a few Elvis tunes while a lengthy display of ground-based fireworks commenced.

Once the last spark hit the ground the blankets and chairs were being folded up and the mass exodus to the gate began. The night air show is still a relatively new phenomenon and as Mark Henley stated "I enjoy the twilight show crowd reaction."

He hears comments like 'I've never seen anything like that' or 'that was awesome.' The newness hasn't faded yet for the night performances, and those were just the comments I heard as I walked to the parking lot with the rest of the awestruck crowd.



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