Pilots share joy of flying vintage aircraft at Olympic Airshow

Pilots, patrons, collectors and the curious are flocking to the Olympia Regional Airport this weekend for the 18th annual Olympic Airshow.

The carnival-like atmosphere offers an opportunity for attendees to browse vintage planes from the early 1920s to the late ‘50s. The fully functional aircraft are scattered across the airport’s runway, and clubs like the Cascade Warbirds circulate, giving history lessons to incoming visitors.

Longtime volunteer Gaylan Gaither said the weekend’s motto is “Keep em’ flying,’ a term coined by pilots to encourage each other to continue restoration of the wartime planes.

“I just appreciate aviation and everything it offers,” Gaither said. “I live in Washington six months out of the year, and a big reason is to come back and learn more about aviation at this show.”

The Historic Flight Foundation, founded in 2003, is a charity that encourages young people to get involved with engineering and physics. The foundation uses its 14 planes as motivation. This weekend, Historic Flight brought four aircraft, including a Grumman F8F-2A Bearcat.

The Bearcat was produced during World War II, for the purpose of reaching high altitudes quickly — 10,000 feet in 91 seconds — to combat Japanese bombers during attack.

However, the war ended by the time manufacturing of the Bearcat was complete. So the Blue Angels used the Bearcat to tour the country, flaunting it to prospective naval pilots.

The Bearcat in Olympia this weekend participated in the first Reno Air Race in 1964, which is “the Kentucky Derby of vintage aviation,” said John Sessions, founder of Historic Flight. It can reach 430 mph, and is one of nine left in the world.

Another focus of Historic Flight is training pilots to fly the old planes. Many modern pilots learn to manage a plane, not physically control it, as is necessary with older planes.

“Some of the pilots who are flying the big jets really need to learn how to fly without an autopilot,” Sessions said. “Many of the pilots who are flying commercial airplanes don’t recognize when they’re upside down.”

Brad Engbrecht, an airline pilot for Cathay Pacific Airways in Asia, says commercial airliners are only piloted during the first and last 30 minutes of any flight. The rest of the time, the flight is on autopilot.

“The training has gotten away from hands and feet skills and went to more managing on autopilot,” Engbrecht said. “If you talk to the old-school guys, they’ll tell you it’s really a shame.”

Managing a plane means communicating with ground stations and controlling the GPS embedded in an airliner, Engbrecht said.

Before takeoff, the pilot computes a route and the amount of fuel the airliner will need; then the pilot does a manual takeoff. When the plane has leveled out at 35,000 feet, the pilot presses the autopilot button, and the plane flies itself on the designated route.

Engbrecht brought his Nanchang CJ-6A — a Chinese Air Force trainer plane — to the air show. He appreciates how classic aircraft demand so much.

“I fly airliners for a living, so this is a way to enjoy flying again,” Engbrecht said.


When: Gates open at 9 a.m. Sunday. Opening ceremonies will be at noon, followed by aerobatic performances until about 4 p.m.

Where: Olympia Regional Airport, 7637 Old Highway 99 SE, Tumwater.

Admission: $15 for those 7 and older

Note: Bring your own chairs, as it’s grass seating only this year.

Information: olympicairshow.com

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