Kevin Jackson checks out Barksdale's 'Defenders of Liberty' airshow held on 24 April
After discovering the two previous 'Hawgsmoke' worldwide bombing and tactical gunnery competitions for the A-10 Thunderbolt II had taken place in rather low-key fashions in 2000 and 2002, with little prior publicity by the host units, I was determined to make it for the 2004 competition. Well, with over seventy Warthogs from every conceivable USAF A-10A unit, wouldn't you?
So contact was made to the 917th Wing Public Affairs people at Barksdale AFB for details. The 917th WG is the parent unit to the 47th FS, the Air Force Reserve A-10 unit that took the honours of 'Best Team' at Hawgsmoke 2002 and as such were tasked with hosting the 2004 event.
Told that the dates for Hawgsmoke 2004 were from 29 April - 2 May at the former England AFB, now Alexandria Regional Airport in central Louisiana, I planned a trip of ten days to take in the whole of Hawgsmoke, for which I would be producing a article for a magazine, and the conveniently timed Barksdale Open House the weekend before.
After a long but uneventful flight to Shreveport, via Dallas, I arrived late Friday afternoon to bright sunshine and warm temperatures that felt great after a long chilly winter in the UK. Unfortunately I could not reschedule my arrival, as this was also the preview day for the Barksdale 'Defenders Of Liberty' Air show, access to which was granted only a week before. It was also the only chance for good weather as I was to discover.
Saturday dawned to grey skies and the forecast of worse to come. I made my way to the base, worked my way through a full car search and very thorough luggage search: "Can you click the camera shutter a few times to make sure it is a camera?" - was the best line from the cops working the gate. Post 9-11 security was very tight but the security forces were good-natured and everyone appreciated its necessity at a base on the front line of the war on terror. I had my camera bag searched three times that day and also went through airport style metal detectors and wands a few times to boot.
Barksdale's annual two-day air show is the biggest in the region, bringing large crowds from the Ark-La-Tex triangle and, as home to the 8th AF, is well supported by military hardware and entertaining civilian acts alike. Of course, 2nd BW and 917th WG B-52Hs dominate the base, with an impressive number lined up alongside the public car parking area. The static display had the other two heavy bomber assets that make up the 'Bomber Triad' with the B-52H, a B-1B from the 34th BS/28th BW 'Thunderbirds' and a B-2 from the 393rd BS/509th BW sporting mission markings from what I assume was Operation Iraqi Freedom, though the crew were a little vague when asked! Other visiting 8th AF assets included a 9th RW U-2S and a 55th WG RC-135W.
At around midday the announcement over the speakers was not good - I was deep in discussion with a Reservist Boom Operator in the back of the KC-10A when we were interrupted: "We have a storm front heading our way, can you all vacate the ramp areas and return to your cars as there is a strong risk of lightning." So I headed to hangar one to sit out the storm with a few hundred other people. Well, it rained bucket-loads just like it always does in Louisiana in the spring and by the time it finally cleared it was decided to attempt to complete the full flying display with minimal breaks. This turned out to be rather entertaining tightly packed two-hour display, highlights including the Pacific war 'Tora-Tora-Tora' displays by SBDs, a Hellcat and a B-25 with lots of pyro-explosions and the awesome display by 'Spanky' and 'The Dude' in the FA-18F Super Hornet of VFA-122 from Lemoore NAS, with almost constant vapour clouds over the wings in the damp conditions. They definitely stole the 'heavy metal' show with their very aggressive manoeuvres. Best civilian act from my point of view was Jimmy Franklin's Jet Waco, with his son Kyle wing-walking. When he fired up the small jet strapped underneath it seemed like the Waco was on fast-forward! I normally go and get a hamburger and a beer during these civilian acts but I'm glad I saw this routine, top-notch entertainment.
It was to be a two-day show but more heavy rain overnight and all day Sunday resulted in the cancellation of the second day entirely, a real shame for the organisers and base personnel who worked hard to proudly showcase their base for the local population. From a personal viewpoint I could not believe that the weather in the Deep South could do that to me after flying all that way - I expect dodgy weather in the UK, not in America! Oh well, at least that must be the last of the bad weather over with; surely it can't be any worse? My luck must change for Hawgsmoke in a few days, right?
thanks to 2d Lt James Ivie, 2BW PA for his assistance at Barksdale AFB