VOICES: On its 50th Anniversary, Dayton Airshow seems ‘timeless’

Credit: Photo by Timothy R. Gaffney

Credit: Photo by Timothy R. Gaffney

Fifty years ago, Dayton’s premier annual aviation event took off among a host of aviation “firsts.”

Here were just a few:

  • In January 1974, commercial airline service started at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in Texas.
  • The prototype of the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon made its first flight—by accident, when it unintentionally became airborne during a taxiing run.
  • The Air Force also took delivery of its first F-15 Eagle fighter jet, and Navy pilots started flying the new F-14 Tomcat, the swing-wing fighter later featured in the film Top Gun.
  • In space, the last of three crews to visit Skylab, America’s first space station, ended their record-breaking, 84-day mission.

At the same time, the city of Dayton and the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce took a focused interest in a small, rural air show dubbed “General Aviation Days” at what was then Montgomery County Airport — now Dayton-Wright Brothers — on the Montgomery-Warren county line.

It was the genesis of what is now, a half-century later, the CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show.

The city’s interest coincided with its purchase of the privately owned airfield to serve non-airline aviation needs apart from the airline-focused Dayton International Airport at Vandalia. The September show, renamed “Aviation Days,” drew about 14,000 spectators and featured mainly civilian performers in single-engine airplanes. An antique Ford Trimotor was a featured attraction, according to news reports of the time.

The show was popular, but traffic and parking were a problem. Organizers decided to shift the event from September to late July, broaden its format to include military jets and airliners, and change its venue to Dayton International Airport. They also renamed the event once again, branding it the Dayton Air Fair.

The 1975 air fair blasted off with a flight demonstration of a twin-engine F-15 Eagle fresh from the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis. The show bill also included demonstrations of a Marine Corps Harrier “jump jet” and a supply drop by an Air Force C-123 transport. Some 30,000 spectators also marveled at civilian aerobatic acts and got up-close looks at civilian and military aircraft on ground display.

Since then, the air show has grown and now regularly hosts one of America’s premier jet teams — this year it’s the U.S. Navy Blue Angels — as well as a variety of advanced military aircraft, vintage warbirds and the top names among civilian air show performers.

In some ways the show seems timeless. For example, the F-16 is still in service. In fact, the Air Force F-16 demonstration jet scheduled to fly in this year’s show sports the original paint scheme of its prototype, celebrating the venerable jet’s own 50th anniversary.

Credit: Timothy R. Gaffney

Credit: Timothy R. Gaffney

But the show has always reflected change as well. It was among the first venues to see the B-1B “Bone” swing-wing bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter and the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Even the F-16, while outwardly similar, is far more capable than early models.

This year’s event continued that practice by scheduling examples of the latest trends in aviation. They included ground displays of a General Atomics MQ-9, an armed military drone of the type operated by the Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Wing in Springfield, and an electric, vertical takeoff and landing BlackFly aircraft.

The event has the ability to change lives. I can’t remember how many times an aviation professional at the show told me the path to their career began with a childhood visit to the show.

Once again this year, the show lined up the world’s best pilots and flying machines to raise people’s eyes — and imaginations — to the sky. Some of them may design, fly or support what we see at future shows.

Tim Gaffney covered the air show as a Dayton Daily News staff writer from 1985 through 2006. In retirement he served for several yeas as a volunteer United States Air and Trade Show trustee.

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