Thunder Bummer

I spent the weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. I return there each year to work on the ground crew for Thunder Over Louisville. Thunder is an air show that ends with one of the largest fireworks displays in the world. It is the kick-off to the Kentucky Derby Festival. I work for a skydiving team that does several jumps during the show and lands on a sand barge in the middle of the Ohio River. Initially I worked for them as an EMT, and have helped each year to setup the barge, catch the canopies before they hit the water, help repack for the next jump, etc. I also take lots of great pictures from this front-row seat. This was my 10th year.

The April weather always plays games with us. Each year we stand around watching the weather and wonder if it will clear up enough to do our part of the show. Frequently it is too windy or the clouds are too low and we usually have to wait until the last minute to see if the weather will be kind enough to let us do our show. This year, there wasn’t a chance. By 9am, the decision was made – our plug was pulled.

A big front moved in Friday night. It brought intense wind, thunderstorms and some tornadoes with it. Saturday morning there were still low clouds (1900 foot ceiling) and 25 knot winds, gusting around 28 knots. (A “knot” is 1.15 miles, so this is more than 30 miles per hour.) The forecast called for even higher winds. The temperature dropped to 40-45 and the wind-chill was expected to be around 27 by the time the fireworks started. 30-35 knot wind gusts were expected during the day.

Normally we have a briefing around noon where we check the weather, formulate our plans, etc. When the weather is spotty, we normally setup the barge and wait for our time slot. This year, the show organizers pulled the plug at 9am. So, instead of our usual briefing, we hung out in the Galt House Hotel, just chatting and catching up with each other (and eventually drinking, of course.)

Thunder Over Louisville is some 15 years old, and the Aerial All-Stars have been performing in the show since the beginning. They’ve been jumping together since they were in college, but now have gone on with their lives, families and careers and no longer have time to run a professional skydiving team. The time and expense required to practice and stay proficient (and safe) for one show was too great. Dale, the team leader, told me that this was to be their last year doing the show.

Every year when we have our briefing, there is a wonderful energy in the room. Most of us know each other from previous years, although we have to think hard to remember names sometimes. Dale makes his way around to everyone – close to 100 supporters, staff, and crew – and thanks them all individually. He’s surrounded by friends and the energy is always high. After the briefing, we usually split up into air and ground teams. The rest of the day we work and hang out together until show time and after the excitement of a show well done, we chill together and party until late in the night while the audience fights traffic. This year we hung around until noon and started going our separate ways. Some people had storm damage to clean up at home and others found other things to do.

It has been a remarkable experience to share with an absolutely wonderful group of people. I hope that we find some way to get together again and to not loose touch.

As for Thunder, I’m sure it will go on for many years. I’m sure I’ll go up and see it again some day and would love to participate in some other capacity if the opportunity arises.

The show itself seems to be making a come-back from the economic slump and sponsorship loss of previous years. The sound system was kind-of back – paid for through a telethon. The poor weather kept a lot of spectators away. Only 300,000 out of the usual 700,000 attended.

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