Culpeper AirFest took off tentatively Saturday morning following a fatal plane crash Friday during an evening aerobatic act.
The pilot of a small plane died in a crash near Culpeper Regional Airport, site of the annual aviation event that is Culpeper’s largest, attracting some 10,000 people.
“After I heard about the accident I wondered if they would go ahead with it,” said Culpeper resident Susan Heflin. “It’s such a terrible thing to happen.”
AirFest Foundation chairman Norm Laudermilch said he met Saturday morning with the pilots, who all agreed that the show should go on.
Heflin, who attended the show Saturday afternoon with her two sons and her sister, thought it was a brave choice.
“It’s got to be hard, flying like that right after,” she said. “But they did it in honor of the pilot who died.”
This marks AirFest’s 19th year and the seventh Laudermilch has served as chairman. “We focus a lot on military aircraft. The whole show is a tribute to our nation’s veterans and the important role these aircraft have played as part of that.”
As part of the AirFest on Wednesday and Thursday, nearly 700 fifth-graders visited the airport, where they learned about aviation-related technology.
On Friday, AirFest provided the base for the Potomac Flight, a flyover of Washington, D.C.’s, landmarks and monuments by more than 20 historic World War II-era aircraft, including two DC-3/C47s.
On Saturday morning, a buddy boxing event was held, hosted by the Culpeper Barnstormers and their model aircraft, as well as Girls In Aviation activities, sponsored by Women in Aviation International. Booths provided related crafts and face painting.
Around noon, the full-scale show commenced with Bealton’s Flying Circus, and an aerobatic glider act by Manfred Radius. Culpeper native Steve Nixon impressed the crowd with stunts in an R-22 helicopter, as well as many other performers.
“We loved the Scott Francis performance best,” said Heflin. “It was just amazing how he just kind of parked in the sky and hung there, and the music was just incredible.”
Francis flies one of only 12 MXS aircraft in the world, known for its nimbleness and speed.
“We also are enjoying all the informational booths and the food,” Heflin said.
Pilot Mike McCartin of the Warrior Flight Team, visiting from Florida, flew in several formation stunts as part of a team flying Aero L-39s.
“Our team always performs at this event,” McCartin said. “We’re all volunteers trying to raise awareness and money for Wounded Warriors.”
McCartin is a former Warrenton resident.
“I love this area, my kids attended school here and went to U.Va. I jump at the opportunity to come and fly here,” he said. “The AirFest is a great event.”
Remington resident Alice Fox, holding the hand of her grandchild, said this was the first year she’s attended the AirFest.
“I heard people talking about it and decided to check it out,” she said. “We’ve had such a great time going around to the different planes and learning all their history.”
The climactic act was a deafening but astonishing performance by Marine Corps LTC (ret.) Art Nalls, flying the only civilian-owned Sea Harrier—a single-engine, single-seat vertical, short, takeoff and landing fighter designed in the late 1970s for service with the British Royal Navy.
Known as a “SHAR,” the aircraft delighted the crowd with several high-speed flyovers demonstrating a variety of maneuvers, including hovering in the air and bowing to the crowd.
“It’s amazing he can do that, keep the plane in place like he did, in the middle of this crosswind,” Laudermilch said.
“We try to do things better every year with the show,” Laudermilch said. This year, with Friday’s crash, organizers have had to set aside their heavy hearts to make it all happen.
“We’re so sorry about the accident and our hearts are with the pilot’s family at this difficult time,” he said. “But I think the show has been a great tribute to him.”