THUNDER over MICHIGAN 2021 - Willow Run Airport / USA

Update: 2020/09/10  by Shawn Clish / CHK6

On August 6 and 7, 2021, I was back at one of my favourite places in the United States, Willow Run Airport (KYIP) for the Thunder Over Michigan air show. Thunder Over Michigan was back after having to cancel the event in 2020 due to safety concerns associated with the coronavirus. Health issues weren’t the only obstacle for organizers this year as the airport was undergoing multiple major construction projects, including resurfacing Runway 05R-23L, the main runway used for the show. As usual, the team from the Yankee Air Museum was able to find solutions to all the extra challenges and presented a world class event that featured four sold out drive-in style shows, one each morning and another in the afternoon.

Airbus A400M ATLAS - © by Shawn Clish
Fairchild Republic A-10C THUNDERBOLT II - © by Shawn Clish

With one month to go before the show, the list of flying displays was packed with exciting performers such as the USAF Thunderbirds, the Lockheed Martin F-35A LIGHTNING II Demonstration Team, the Boeing EA-18G GROWLER Legacy Team and the first public display by the Luftwaffe Airbus A400M ATLAS outside of Germany. Incredibly, organizers were able to add the Fairchild Republic A-10C THUNDERBOLT II Demonstration Team and the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron BLUE ANGELS for a lineup that was probably the best of any air show in North America.

Also flying in both shows was the Yankee Air Museum’s Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Yankee Lady’, escorted by three North American P-51D MUSTANGs

S. Clish
North American B-25J MITCHELL - © by Shawn Clish
Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress - © by Shawn Clish

Modern military hardware is nice, but visitors are drawn to Thunder Over Michigan to see warbirds and this year’s theme was Mitchell Madness. An incredible fourteen North American B-25 MITCHELLS attended the event and took to the skies during both the morning and afternoon displays each day.  This was the second time that the MITCHELL was Thunder’s marquee aircraft as the 2007 edition of the show featured 15 B-25`s. Also flying in both shows was the Yankee Air Museum’s Boeing B-17G FLYING FORTRESS  ‘Yankee Lady’, escorted by three North American P-51 MUSTANGs. Finally, Jim Tobul joined the Boeing EA-18G GROWLER team for the Navy Legacy flight in his Chance Vought F4U-4 CORSAIR while Scot Yoak flew North American P-51D MUSTANG  ‘Moonbeam McSwine’ along side the Lockheed Martin F-35A LIGHTNING II and Fairchild Republic A-10C THUNDERBOLT II in a three-ship Air Force Heritage Flight.

Lockheed C-130J SUPER HERCULES "FAT ALBERT" - © by Shawn Clish
US NAVY BLUE ANGELS - © by Shawn Clish

Friday morning started out beautifully and since the clear sky and brilliant sunshine weren’t supposed to last I wanted to get as many photos of the aircraft that had already arrived as possible. My priority was the BLUE ANGELS and more specifically their new Lockheed C-130J SUPER HERCULES, “Fat Albert”. This was the second show I attended that featured the BLUE ANGELS and their new planes but I wasn’t able to get close to “Fat Albert” the first time. I enjoyed walking around the few Mustangs and Mitchells that were on the ramp and waited for the first practice session scheduled for 11am. The BLUE ANGELS performed their full display and since they were parked a short distance away, it was a pleasure to watch their professionalism both on the ground and in the air. They were followed by a rehearsal from the USAF THUNDERBIRDS in a rare opportunity to see these two amazing teams back-to-back.

USAF THUNDERBIRDS - © by Shawn Clish
B-25 Line up - © by Shawn Clish

With the construction that seemed to be everywhere at Willow Run there wasn’t enough room for all of the performers, so the USAF THUNDERBIRDS, Lockheed Martin F-35A and Boeing EA-18G all operated out of nearby Selfridge Air National Guard Base. All three of those acts, along with the A-10C and A400M that were based locally, flew on Friday. Following their displays the airspace was reopened allowing the rest of the participants to arrive ahead of the weekend air show. By Friday night, there was a very impressive lineup of B-25 MITCHELL`s, a fitting tribute to the hard work required to produce this event.

I was excited about the 8:30 start to the flying display, since the sun angle is perfect in the morning with Thunder’s current layout.

Shawn Clish
Lockheed Martin F-35A LIGHTNING II - © by Shawn Clish
US NAVY BLUE ANGELS - © by Shawn Clish

Saturday was a very long day at the show. Since there were morning and afternoon displays, photographers were allowed in at 5:30, ahead of the general admission vehicles at 7. It was also an early start for the pilots and crews as the morning’s air show briefing occurred at 7, much earlier than many of the performers were used to. 1500 cars were efficiently parked on the grass field that was previously used for VIP tents as well as general admission seating. I was excited about the 8:30 start to the flying display, since the sun angle is perfect in the morning with Thunder’s current layout. Unfortunately, multiple layers of clouds obscured the sky and made for rather dark conditions.  Mother Nature did make up for this with a high relative humidity, resulting in vapour pouring off many of the acts. The A400M surprised everybody with a perfectly flown high speed, banking pass producing a lovely vapour dome over its wings. Not to be out done, the F-35A practically disappeared multiple times as Major Kristin ‘Beo’ Wolfe threw the LIGHTNING II around.  The morning show was closed by the BLUE ANGELS in their new Boeing F/A-18E SUPER HORNET, an aircraft known to produce a lot of vapour. Multiple times large vapour cones made the blue and yellow jets vanish, especially when Commander Ben Walborn flew the sneak pass in the #5 jet along the show line.

Typically, I don’t enjoy breaks at air shows, but since this one had such an early start it offered plenty of time to roam the grounds, visit the displays and eat some lunch. 

Shawn Clish
North American B-25J MITCHELL - © by Shawn Clish
USAF THUNDERBIRDS - © by Shawn Clish

There were two hours between shows to allow 1100 cars that purchased the morning event to vacate while allowing an equal number of cars in through the gates for the afternoon segment. Typically, I don’t enjoy breaks at air shows, but since this one had such an early start it offered plenty of time to roam the grounds, visit the displays and eat some lunch. 
The weather also cleared for the afternoon program and there was some welcome sunlight on the B-25`s as they opened the display at 1:30. In fact, all of the displays had more enjoyable conditions to perform in, especially the THUNDERBIRDS who traded places with the BLUE ANGELS and closed this portion of the show.

Chance Vought F4U-4 CORSAIR - © by Shawn Clish
North American P-51D MUSTANG - © by Shawn Clish

As was mentioned earlier, it was a long day at the airport and after the flying finished at 4pm there was a long wait until sunset for the photographers that were part of the Night Engine Run. This was the third time that the night event was part of Thunder Over Michigan and it has produced some spectacular results. There was a lot of maneuvering required by the organizers to make sure we had three subjects to photograph as one aircraft was moved to Selfridge ANGB, another was sold ahead of the show and a third broke down on Saturday afternoon.  In the end, the participants were Lou Horschel’s North American P-51D MUSTANG ‘Mad Max’, Jim Tobul’s Vought F4U-4 CORSAIR ‘Korean War Hero’ and Yankee Air Museum’s North American B-25D MITCHELL ‘Rosie’s Reply’. Once again, the night proved to be an incredible success and even though many had been at the airport for over 17 hours, everyone left in very high spirits.

It was such a pleasure to be back at Willow Run. This was my 15th time attending Thunder Over Michigan and after last year’s absence, I took extra pleasure walking the ramp and interacting with friends. A huge thank you and congratulations to the event organizers for the work they did, especially with all of the extra coronavirus and construction related issues that had to be overcome. As usual, they put together an incredible lineup for fans to enjoy, possibly even the best collection of aircraft at any show in North America this season. I look forward to being back next year from July 15 to 17 when the BLUE ANGELS will once again be performing.

For more about Thunder Over Michigan and the history of Willow Run Airport please check out last year’s article that I wrote in place of there being an event. 

Shawn Clish / CHK6

This website or its third-party tools use cookies, which are necessary for its functioning and required to achieve the purposes illustrated in the cookie policy. You accept the use of cookies by closing or dismissing this notice, by clicking a link or button.