On the tarmac with Gary Rower of the Dillon Airshow, the ‘highest airshow on Earth’
2016 Dillon Airshow
What: The “highest airshow on Earth” at the Dillon Marina, featuring eight pilots from across the nation in classic bi-planes and sub-sonic jets high over Dillon Reservoir
When: Saturday, June 11 beginning at 10 a.m.
Where: Dillon Marina, 150 Marina Drive in Dillon
Cost: Free for spectators
The airshow is free and open to the public. Pilots will fly at regular intervals from the start at 10 a.m. to the final performance around 12:30 p.m. The event also includes a free boat and car show, held in the marina parking lot until 2 p.m. Free music begins at noon at the Dillon Amphitheatre with a collection of local musicians, dubbed the Summit County All-Stars. For more info, see www.townofdillon.com.
Earlier this week, Gary Rower flew 11,000 miles in the cockpit of his 1942 PT-17 biplane, a relic from World War II that rumbles and vibrates and feels like anything but a luxury flight when jammed in the open-air cockpit for hours on end.
After two full days of flying from Georgia to the Kremmling Airport — his home hanger, found about 40 miles north of Summit County — the veteran airshow pilot was back on the tarmac under the bright, almost suffocating June sun to prep his red-and-white baby for the fifth show of the summer season: the Dillon Airshow on June 11, dubbed the “highest airshow on Earth.”
As Rower starts giving the PT-17 a bath — “She got a lot of bugs on the windshield in that 11,000-mile trip,” he jokes, but not really — he’s joined by Bob Evans, harbormaster at the Dillon Marina and a fellow stunt pilot. Evans won’t be flying this year thanks to a leg injury, but he’s more than willing to help a good friend like Rower get ready for the show.
And preparation is serious business. Not only does the PT-17 need to look damn good — the public side of the show, the glitz and glamor and gee-whiz — it also needs to run like it was built yesterday, not seven decades ago on a factory assembly line with about 11,000 identical models. Before bath time, the two struggled in the back of Evans’ pickup truck to unload a massive barrel of “Trailblazer smoke oil 19” — otherwise known as the black-and-gray substance stunt pilots jettison during a routine, so that folks far, far below on the ground can trace every stunning movement, like a sparkler trail for grown-ups with sub-sonic engines.
“It’s a never-ending battle to keep this clean and tight,” he says, moving from the fuselage to a stepladder, so he can manicure the top wing. “If you equate it to a motorcycle, there’s a lot of vibration and things want to come loose.
Evans nods while his German shepherd, Allie, bites and yelps at rogue droplets from the hose nozzle.
“You’re seeing the unglamorous side of the airshow business,” Evans tells me while Rower continues to polish the PT-17 with his secret mixture: dish soap and water. “All people see is the 15 minutes of impressive flying, but you don’t see this: the cleaning, the maintenance— everything. People don’t realize there are four days of practice and preparation before the show.”
Apple orchards to F-16s
Rower might as well be royalty in the airshow world. He’s an East Coast native who grew up on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, said he’d learn to fly an airplane to impress a girl and, at 16 years old, flew a Piper Cub out of an apple orchard with trees on two sides and a lake on the third.
“The runway was a grand total of 400 yards long and 30 yards wide,” Rower remembers, pauses and continues with dry good humor: “You could call it tight.”
Rower soon found he had a knack for flying and attended the Air Force Academy in the mid-’70s, when the Air Force was struggling to find pilots in the final few years of the Vietnam War. Soon after graduating in 1979, he went directly into the cockpit of the military’s then-new, state-of-the-air, multi-million-dollar fighter: the F-16.
“There’s nothing that compares to flying an F-16,” Rower says and finishes polishing the final streaks off red on the wing and tail. “There just isn’t. But, airshows are a different kind of flying. You get to go fast — well, not real fast in the PT-17 — but you get to show young kids just how cool it is to fly.”
As if kids — or adults — will forget just how cool and, yes, glamorous life in the air can be after seeing the Dillon airshow. Along with Saturday’s aerobatics from eight pilots like Rower and his stunt partner, Buck Roetman in a Wild Horse Pitts biplane, the day also features a grounded truck and plane show in the parking lot at the marina. There will be dozens of cars, trucks and planes from across the country, including the Air Force X1 supercar outfitted with Vietnam-era A-7 cockpit display.
One of the coolest and, oddly enough, smallest displays is the SubSonex micro jet, owned by retired rocket scientist Bob Carlton. The almost impossibly small one-person jet will be on display in the showroom of Hudson AutoSource today before flying in the show on Saturday.
And what happens when the micro-jet goes airborne?
“I would bring ear plugs and make sure your car alarm is off,” Evans says with a sly, cryptic smile when I ask about the airshow finale.
“If you’re out and about on Saturday and hear a boom or see a plane with smoke coming out of it, don’t call the police,” Gary chimes in. “It’s just fine.”
After the PT-17’s cosmetic work comes an oil change — the guts of Rower’s plane are still mostly from the Vietnam era — and that means the engine must first be warmed up. That requires a quick circle or two around the sole runway at the Kremmling airport, where there is no air traffic control tower or other. No, Rower and the other pilots will all have to carefully coordinate on the day of the airshow to make sure the right plane is taking off at the right time for the 20-minute flight south into Silverthorne.
Once there, Rower likens the effects of flips and barrel-rolls and zero-G falls on his PT-17 and all other planes to something much more grounded: a marathon.
“It’s a little like running a marathon in Dillon: There’s no oxygen for the engine, just like there’s no oxygen for the people, so the plane is getting less power,” Rower explains while fueling the plane for takeoff at the ancient on-site fuel pump. “The air is also thin, so the plane doesn’t like to turn, and it falls really, really fast.”
That’s where experience — the kind of experience only veterans like Rower boast — comes into play. Evans says there are maybe a dozen or so pilots across the nation he considers for the Dillon airshow, and each one is familiar with the strange side effects of aerobatics at altitude.
Rower finishes fueling and starts dressing for the warm-up flight: helmet, goggles, parachute. He taxis away from Evans and then, about five minutes later, howls past the fuel pump, single propeller tearing through the air just enough to lift the wheels off the ground.
“You’ve got to love the sound of that engine,” Evans says, watching as Rower keeps the plane low, low, low over the runway before peeling high into the air over sleepy Kremmling. “Now he’s just putting on a show.”
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