Blue Angels' super-sized jets arrive early for drive-in airshow at Arnold Palmer Regional

·4 min read

May 27—Members of the Blue Angels Navy jet demonstration team are "chomping at the bit" to perform high-flying maneuvers for spectators after the covid-19 pandemic scaled back last year's airshow season to less elaborate flyovers.

This weekend, they will celebrate their 75th anniversary of thrilling crowds by bringing a full six-jet program to the annual Shop 'n Save Westmoreland County Airshow at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.

Provided potential rain showers don't interfere, "You're going to see a high show," said Captain William Huckeba, among the group of Blue Angels pilots who arrived Thursday to prepare for the event. "That's the most exciting thing, where we take a lot of maneuvers vertical, with rolls as well as loops."

That includes the Diamond 360, where the team's new blue-and-gold Super Hornet jets fly together in close formation.

"That's where you're talking about aircraft flying about 18 inches apart," said Huckeba, 31, of Hoover, Ala. "That's pretty incredible, just really showing the precision of the diamond flying."

It's the first year for airshow crowds to see the Super Hornets, which are more powerful, and about 40% larger, than the jets the team used over the previous three decades.

"From the crowd's perspective, it might look like we're actually closer to them than in years past," Huckeba said. "It's really just due to the size."

With the recent widening of the airport runway, from 100 feet to 150 feet, there will be plenty of room for the larger jets and for the new C-130 Super Hercules transport aircraft, an English import that Huckeba normally pilots. Affectionately known as "Fat Albert," the transport brought about one-third of the Blue Angels' 150-member support team to the Arnold Palmer airport. It also will be featured in tactical demonstrations.

Among those keeping the jets in top shape is AE2 Andy Bennett, 30, a member of the avionics crew who originally hails from Honesdale, Wayne County. "Coming back to Pennsylvania has been fun," he said, noting he hopes to reunite with family, along with his wife and children, who are making the trip north from the team's Florida base.

Huckeba, meanwhile, is expecting a visit from his father-in-law, who lives in Pittsburgh. "We're excited to be here with all these rolling hills," he said.

The Blue Angels began this season in mid-April, at the Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Fla., which was held with some pandemic-related protocols in place, Huckeba said.

With planning completed during the pandemic, this weekend's show in Unity will have limited in-person attendance. Tickets are sold out for a VIP spectator area. Remaining attendance will follow a drive-in format, limited to 1,000 vehicles each day. Spectators are expected to remain near their vehicles, in their designated parking spots, and are asked to wear face coverings when walking to use portable toilets or to patronize vendors.

Tickets cost $100, for up to eight passengers per vehicle, and are available only at Shop 'n Save supermarkets. They must be reserved for one of the two days and won't be sold at the gate, which opens at 11 a.m.

As of Thursday morning, about 90% of the tickets had been sold, and the remaining ones were going fast, according to supermarket representative Rich Haeflein. He said remaining tickets would be found at the Shop 'n Save stores in Latrobe and on East Pittsburgh Street in Greensburg.

Airshow planners are making a special effort to reach out to fans who can't attend in person. The event will be livestreamed on the airshow Facebook page.

Also, a quartet of pilots in smaller aircraft — including two 1945 warplanes — will fly over various communities in Westmoreland County beginning around 10:15 a.m. each day. The "Heroes' Tribute Flight" also is meant as a salute to first responders and essential workers who have provided vital services in the region during the pandemic.

Other scheduled airshow performers include an Air Force F-22 Raptor demonstration team, the Navy Leap Frogs parachute team, a Coast Guard helicopter search and rescue demonstration and a comedy act presented by Greg Koontz.

Intermittent closures will be in effect through Sunday on some roads near the airport, including: Route 981, between Henry and Schmucker roads; and portions of Airport, Earhart, Haines and St. Xavier roads.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, or via Twitter .

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