by Gary Zanardi
The two-day air show Thunder Over Niagara culminated on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in the skies over Pennsylvania. The show was both a tribute to this nation's military and first responders as well as a solemn remembrance to the victims of that terrible day.
Col. Allen D. Ferry, 42nd Infantry Division chaplain at Ground Zero, may have summed it up best during his invocation: "Freedom is precious because the price paid for this freedom is the blood of Americans; perhaps the blood of your loved one."
The ceremonies, which drew an estimated 150,000 people over the weekend, began with the roar of a B-1 bomber flyover, followed by a parade of vehicles from local law enforcement agencies, firefighting companies and military units. The U.S. Marine Corps Band, stationed in Albany, Ga., played the military service anthems and "God Bless America."
On the reviewing stand was the 9/11 steel artwork monument crafted by Steel Crazies of Buffalo, flanked by the commanders of the two units that call the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station home - Col. Allan L. Swartzmiller, commander, 914th Airlift Wing, and Col. Jim S. McCreedy, commander, 107th Airlift Wing.
There was a Ground-Zero flag transfer from New York City Fire Capt. John Ashker to Sgt. Lloyd Van, 4th Light Armored Battalion, USMC. There were audio recordings heard from 9/11 victims and first responders at Ground Zero. And, the MacKenzie Highlanders Pipes & Drums from Youngstown played "Amazing Grace." There was a scarcely a dry eye in the audience.
Local organizations abounded at this family-friendly event. Scouts from Boy Scout Troop 325, under troop leader Matt Kessler from Elma, sold programs with benefits going to the United Way and the Niagara Military Affairs Council. Grand Island's Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9249 handled a beer sales location. The Wounded Warriors group was represented on the ground by a restored WWII B-25 medium bomber and in the air by their demo team flying a WWII P-51 fighter.
On the tarmac, visitors could be up close and personal with a variety of military aircraft, including the B-52 bomber, F-15 fighter, V-22 Osprey, C-17 Globemaster, C-5A transport, as well as two Soviet warplanes - the Sukhoi SU-26 and MiG-17.
The non-profit organization, Western New York Heroes, is dedicated to making a difference for Western New York veterans and troops.
"We offer financial assistance for veterans in need with our Bridging Hearts and Grant A Wish programs," said Laura A. Friend, development director for WNY Heroes. She approached this writer, a total stranger, gave me a hug and said, "Welcome home." I was a Vietnam vet who had returned home from duty more than 40 years ago. ... It was that kind of day.
Bringing the U.S Air Force Thunderbirds to the Niagara Falls air base began 18 months ago. Merrell A. Lane, chairman of the Niagara Military Affairs Council, and John Cooper, the air show chairman and co-chairman of NIMAC, worked with local community leaders and air base representatives to put this show together. Lane stated that the Thunderbirds perform 60 shows a year in the U.S. and around the world. It was their decision to come to the Niagara Falls airbase on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. They wanted to do a performance in New York to honor the victims and heroes of that day. The Niagara Falls air base was a perfect location. It is the only active Air Force reserve base in New York state.
Capt. Ryan Riley, left wing, Thunderbirds Air Force Demonstration Team, stated: "It is an honor and pleasure to be here in New York to represent the Air Force on the 10th anniversary of 9/11."
The Niagara Military Affairs Council was founded in 1995 for the purpose of keeping the Niagara Falls air base open. It acts as an advocacy group with the local community and political leaders as well as the air base command personnel to make the case to the powers in Washington to keep the airbase open. In this, they have succeeded to date.
Aerial demonstrations from the Navy's F-18 Hornet, the Soviet MiG-17 flown by Randy Ball, a P-51 fighter from the Wounded Warrior Demo Team, a barnstorming act by Kent Pietsch, Sailplane Aerobatics by Manfred Radius, and a very loud NOCO Jet Car all preceded the six F-16 fighter aircraft of the Air Force Thunderbirds Demonstration Team. With clouds and rain looming on the horizon, the team flew a variety of dazzling formations and maneuvers that awed the audience. On more than one maneuver, it appeared that two of their aircraft were headed for certain collision. Their expert training and precision flying created the drama and suspense that kept the audience on its feet throughout the show. Hollywood could not have done it better.
And as if by some divine providence, the weather was held at bay until the last F-16 landed and its pilot disembarked to sign autographs for enthusiastic fans - young and "not so old" alike. Only then did the rains come.