Dillon’s Air and Water Show brings aerobatic pilots from across the nation
Bob Carlton’s small yellow jet streaked across the blue sky above Lake Dillon Reservoir, leaving loops of smoke behind as it twisted through a series of maneuvers. The bright, nimble plane is one of many flown and assembled by pilots as part of Dillon’s “Highest Air Show on Earth.”
While this will be Carlton’s first performance at the air show, he estimated that he’s flown his SubSonex sport jet more than 200 times in the past year.
“It’s really an amazing experience. … You’re very close to the runway, so when you’re going 90 mph in this, you feel like you’re going 90 mph,” Carlton said. “You lift off and it climbs away with great visibility. It’s just magic.”
For the audience, the magic begins when the music cues, and the groups of planes — organized by speed — take to flight. The pilots took off from the Kremmling Airport for Friday’s rehearsal before flying over to the reservoir.
Bob Evans, Dillon Marina manager, said the pilots did the flyover on Friday to look for reference points and landmarks in the area, as well as to test their equipment.
“You’re gonna see planes doing things planes aren’t supposed to do,” Evans said. “Planes aren’t supposed to fly 10 feet above the water. … Planes aren’t supposed to miss each others’ planes by 10 inches.”
But, as Carlton says, that’s half of the fun.
“Airplanes tend to handle like they look,” he said. “By the time you certify an airplane it’s so stable it’s not fun to fly anymore. It’s like driving your grandma’s car instead of a sports car.”
Saturday’s show, which starts at 9:30 a.m., will bring in the SubSonex jet, a beefed up Sukhoi SU-26 designed specifically for aerobatics, two Russian Yaks, a Pitts S-25 and a Stearman PT-17 used as a trainer in World War II.
Kerstin Anderson, marketing and communications director for the town of Dillon, said the show would also feature a mock dogfight between two of the biplanes, and a surprise feature at the end incorporating both air and water.
“We’re bringing out some of the best of the best,” Evans added. Many of the pilots were tracked down through mutual connections with Evans, a former pilot who still has his license, and helps with air shows across the state, including the recent Thunderbirds performance in Aurora.
“There are about 20 of us who do airshows regularly,” Evans said. “This is my airshow family. It’s like a travelling circus — we’ve got a few clowns up there.”
Don Nelson, another newcomer to the show, will bring in his Sukhoi, SU-26, an old Russian aerobatic plane he prefers over the rest. Born in Alaska, Nelson grew up flying as a bush pilot before he served as an air controller for the army in Vietnam. Since his retirement after working as a pilot for United Airlines, Nelson used his mechanical skills and knowledge to enter the world of air shows.
“He built the engine himself, and it has twice as much horsepower as what was originally in his SU-26,” Anderson said.
Nelson said the plane was originally designed in 1983 by the “Russian equivalent of Lockheed Martin” solely for aerobatic performances.
“It was designed for Russia to win the world aerobatic championships,” Nelson said. “ It can do any aerobatic maneuver that is needed.”
After several years of training, Nelson flies the plane in smooth, looping patterns, occasionally throwing the plane to let it tumble dramatically across the sky. But after a few flips he catches a turn in an effortless motion and continues his controlled flight.
For his favorite maneuver, the “torque roll,” Nelson turns the plane as he ascends straight upward.
“The airplane runs out of air speed, and the motor stops. The torque of the engine will start rotating the airframe, and it will start falling backwards straight down through the smoke,” Nelson said. “It’s a good airshow maneuver. It’s dramatic.”
He maintains that it is careful training — no adrenaline rush — that allows him to perform these tricks.
“It’s work. It takes a lot of practice,” Nelson said. “During the show, the G’s I pull are plus eight and minus six. Physically, it’s a heck of a workout.”
Both Nelson and Carlton have their routines sketched out on a piece of paper in the cockpit. While they have the plan memorized, the rough lines help them remember their next move. Of course, depending on weather conditions, wind, speed and torque, a little bit of improvisation can be required.
Carlton said that putting together an announcer script and finding the perfect piece of music is more difficult than performing the maneuvers.
“You’re looking for a certain feel, a certain speed, a certain tempo,” he said. “It needs to change a little bit as the plane goes up and slows down, or flies down and speeds up.”
For him, the reward is when a dramatic maneuver perfectly coincides with a crescendo in the music.
The full event
Saturday’s show will start at 10 a.m., but Evans recommends that speculators arrive early to get a spot at the dock. Starting at 8:30 a.m., Dillon Junior Sailing Club will offer a pancake breakfast for $5 to reward early risers.
During the show, stand-up paddle board demonstrations will get viewers on the water, as well as discounted boat rides, at $20 per person, will benefit the League of Animals and People of the Summit (LAPS). A large section of the reservoir will be closed to boats during the event for the safety of pilots.
In the marina parking lot, several booths with food, drinks and information will be on display, as well as an Air Force Academy glider. The afternoon will come to a close with a performance by the Air Force Academy’s Blue Steel Band, starting at 12 p.m. at the Dillon Amphitheater.
Evans recommended viewing the show from the nature preserve in Dillon, or the scenic overlook off of State Highway 9.
“The reservoir makes a natural amphitheater,” Evans said. “It’s gonna look pretty amazing.”
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