- Zachary Hansen The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
At most events hosted at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the focus is on fast cars zipping along the raceway. However, those at the speedway on Oct. 14 and 15 won’t focus on the track. Their eyes will instead be glued skyward.
Those two days will comprise the Atlanta Air Show, which organizers say is the first-ever aerial acrobatic show to be hosted at a speedway. According to Bryan Lilley, president of B. Lilley Productions and the Atlanta Air Show, this event is the culmination of years of interest in merging motor speedways and air shows.
Normally, air shows are hosted at airports or near beaches since they provide easy clearance for TFRs (temporary flight restrictions), meaning there’s a no fly zone around the show’s center.
“When you’re playing a football game, nobody can be in those 100 yards except the players,” Lilley said. “Well, with us, we have a 12,000-foot-by-3,000-foot football field, which is where the players are, i.e., the airplanes, and nobody can be in that area when they’re performing aerobatics.”
Lilley added that the Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the only speedways in the nation that fit the preferred requirements for an air show. The speedway is only about 30 minutes from a top 10 market, and there isn’t a lot of surrounding infrastructure that gets in the way of setting up the TFRs.
Ed Clark, president of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, said that his speedway’s location near the recently renamed Atlanta Speedway Airport also opens it up to an avid audience of aerial enthusiasts nearby.
“One of the key components is just all the people who are either hobbyists or work in the airline industry in this area,” Clark said. “It’s basically a built-in audience that you’re starting with, and I think it’ll bode well for (the show’s attendance).”
The location also makes it easier logistically for large crowds, since the seating, parking, food vendors and restrooms are already accounted for within a speedway. The same can’t be said for a beach or airport runway, where those utilities and amenities typically need to be brought in.
Flying with military precision
The show highlights and features multiple local pilots, such as Buck Roetman and the Sky Soldiers Tactical Helicopter Demo Team, which are based at or fly out of the Henry County Airport.
A member of the F-16 Viper Demo Team is also a Peachtree City native. His name is Maj. John “Rain” Waters, who Lilley jokingly said “has the worse call sign in the air show business.” Waters described it as a “term of endearment” given to him by his fellow wingmen in the Air Force.
The F-16 he pilots puts a lot of pressure on his body. He said it can induce the pressure of over nine times the Earth’s gravity during fast turns, which he said could reach up to 730 miles per hour. Even though he wears a G suit, which gives him about a G to a G and a half of protection, it’s still a workout every time he flies.
“It really comes down to tensing muscles and a breathing technique to keep the blood up in your head,” Waters said. “Pulling that many G’s that many times definitely is exhausting.”
Air shows typically feature a large military presence, and the Atlanta Air Show is no different. Those with a valid military ID card can get 60 percent off show tickets. Any military members who show up in uniform can enter the show for free, and their family members will have access to discounted tickets.
Lt. Col. John Klatt recently retired from the Minnesota Air National Guard after 27 years of service flying the F-16. For the Atlanta Air Show, he’ll instead be flying the Screamin’ Sasquatch, which he built from the ground up over the past year.
“It’s really quite amazing to fly,” Klatt said. “It’ll hover, fly sideways and do some things that are very uncustomary to air show machines.”
Inspiring the next generation
Uncustomary is the perfect word to describe aerobatic pilot Kent Pietsch’s performance as well. It features three acts, including one where he lands his small Interstate Cadet plane on a moving RV.
He also has an act where he turns the engine off at 6,000 feet and slowly makes his way down, which he said is meant to prove an educational point.
“I show that an airplane flies with the wings, not the power,” Pietsch said. “It takes me about seven minutes to get down from a mile high.”
Many of the pilots performing in the Atlanta Air Show, including Waters, originally gained interest in aviation after seeing air shows as a kid.
“I went to air shows as a kid, and I actually saw this demo that I fly now in high school,” Waters said. “So it’s really cool and humbling to be able to come back and hopefully inspire the next generation to join and serve.”
In an effort to help develop interest in STEM-based programs (science, technology, engineering and math), the air show donated 18,000 tickets to the elementary public school system in Henry County.
“Aviation is a very inspiring way to get kids interested in STEM-based careers,” Lilley said. “We saw the opportunity to invite all the school kids out and offer those free tickets to them … and really be inspired by what they see.”