Rochester International Air Show: Art or War?

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[Photos: Adam Montoya, 8/25/19]

On a perfect August Sunday, I joined tens of thousands to watch the 2019 Rochester International Air Show, oohing and ahhing as the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and F-16 Fighting Falcons dazzled and entertained us with airborne ballet.  Many gathered on the bridges in Genesee Valley Park and along Scottsville Road with lawn chairs, lunch baskets and smart phones poised upward. Inside the Greater Rochester International Airport, spectators toured airplanes from World War Two and saw up close the Thunderbirds and Fighting Falcons.

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On one of the bridges spanning the Genesee. (top) In jeans next to his mother is Adam Montoya who took the above photos. Adam was raised in Pittsford and now lives in New Mexico near Kirkland AFB where he has seen and photographed military aircraft of many varieties. [Photo as well as all subsequent ones: David Kramer, 8/25/19]

I enjoyed watching the sky embroidered with smoke plumes, sensing the air bristling with the noise of roaring engines, and marveling at the skill of the pilots.  At the same time, part of me could not but think, is this — the deafening noise, the sky filled with planes — also what war feels like?

On the Genesee bridges as the planes soared over us on their return to the airport, I wondered if this is what suburban Londoners experienced in 1940 or Berliners in 1943: startled civilians watching Luftwaffe or RAF bombers en route to destroy the heart of their cities.  Or when biking the wooded trail, even more horrifically, was this what Vietnam felt like when soldiers or civilians were strafed or napalmed?  Or at the airport where you can see Rochester in the distance, I imagined the unimaginable, drone aircraft swooping over the city dropping bombs.

Most of the people I spoke with were thrilled with the spectacle as well they should be.  At the same time, I did meet a few who sensed the closeness between the beauty of the spectacle and its closeness to the horrors of war.

When I mentioned my feeling to one man taking pictures from the bridge, he concurred, calling the spectacle terrifying when the image of war is conjured, adding that the roaring of the jets designed for excitement in peacetime is meant to terrorize in wartime. He imagined how magnified the terror would be if the planes were dropping incendiaries.

Two women were awed by the impressive techniques of the airmen and airwomen flying in tight formations.  When I mentioned war, they agreed.  The women wondered how people with PTSD or refugees from any recent war respond to the airshow. For some, it must be painful.  The women wondered if the show could be done with civilian aircraft, akin to the old barnstorming days when daredevils walked on the wings while mid-air, but reasoned none existed able to match the Air Force planes.¹  One of the women also did not like fireworks that scare her dogs (and maybe some people too).

From Gagan's RIT Class of 2019 shirt

From Gagan’s RIT Class of 2019 shirt

On the wooded path, I met Gagan Deep Singh Ahuja.  From India, Gagan was wearing his RIT Class of 2019 shirt, having recently graduated with an MBA.  A deeply philosophical man who practices meditation and yoga, Gagan is starting an organization to reform schools. Rather than stunting children with “success” regimens, we should nurture them as if flowers. Gagan was carrying binoculars but no camera; he “loves observing, not capturing.”  He spoke of kayaking on the river, stopping to look into a deer’s eyes for 30 minutes.

Gagan came to the show after seeing airplanes from the 1930’s and 1940’s flying over Rochester earlier in the week. His elderly yoga teacher had actually flown in one of the same planes.

When I brought up the comparison with war, Gagan paused, then said that the airshow was not a bad thing.  He did note that some of his friends trembled when first hearing and seeing the planes, thinking it was an air raid. Gagan also said people living in Syria experience aircraft in the sky far differently than Rochesterians who have known peace their whole lives.

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Gagan Deep Singh Ahuja

Fundamentally, Gagan enjoyed the show because it is “the government showing its art and demonstrating a pinnacle of human achievement.” He marveled at how far air travel has come since the 1930’s.  Gagan’s term stuck with me.  The air show is art, the pilots painting swirling lines on the clouded canvas.

Gagan did have a slight feeling of sadness because the planes are also weapons of war.  As he said, nobody likes war and the planes remind us that for all the good technology can do, it is can also be a tool of destruction.

On the grounds of the airport, I wandered around several aircraft from wars past and got as close as allowed to two  F-22 Raptors.  Doc1-page0001

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(third from bottom) In front of the Memphis Belle is Bevin Lynn, guide at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, wearing replica WAC uniform (Women’s Army Corps). (second from bottom) F-22 Raptors (third from bottom) The Raptors remind me of Germany’s fastest jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, that failed to thwart the Allied bombing offensive. From Rocket Fighter (1971) by William Green [David Kramer’s collection]

There I met Matthew, a Civil Air Patrol Cadet and student in the Pittsford district, and Lt. Colonel Candi Jones, Squadron Commander.  An all volunteer organization, the Civilian Air Patrol has its headquarters at the airport.

Lt. Colonel Jones explained that the Civilian Air Patrol was formed in WWII, first consisting of men who wanted to be pilots but fell short of physical qualifications. The CAP has expanded ever since.  Amongst other activities, Jones’ squadron has tracked downed aircraft, spotted local areas that have lost power, helped with missing persons and assisted aircraft that make hard landings at the airport that trigger emergency signals.

(left) Matthew, a Civil Air Patrol Cadet with Lt. Colonel Candi Jones, CAP Squadron Commander

(left) Matthew, a Civil Air Patrol Cadet with Lt. Colonel Candi Jones, CAP Squadron Commander

According to the 2018 Civilian Air Patrol FACT SHEET, amongst other activities, the CAP conducts 90 percent of inland search and rescue in the U.S., provides 450 chaplains and 500 character development instructors who minister to youth and adult members and help comfort survivors and victims of disasters, and provides disaster-relief photography and support to local, transports time-sensitive medical materials, bloproducts and body tissues when commercial resources are unavailable.

The CAP reminds me that airplanes can be vehicles of destruction, but also an artistic medium and a force for good.

¹ Adam Montoya researched civilian aerial teams:

“There are actually 4-5 world wide — Patriots Jet Team (US based), Breitling Jet Team (French),  Baltic Bees (Latvian), Flying Bulls (Czech)  —  all flying the low cost Aero L-39. The Aero is still expensive, but can be bought on the used market for less than 400k.  For a jet, I think of that as low cost. So my answer to the question (could civilians do this?) is yes.  They are doing it now.  Perhaps one of these teams could be invited for a second Rochester air show.”

SEE ALSO ON CIVIL WAR REANCTMENTS Bitten by the Civil War bug at the Tinker Homestead Encampment

Recreation of "Rebel Veterans furl the Stars and Bars for the last time before starting for home" from The Golden Book of the Civil War: "Monroe Wildcats" representing the 1st Tennessee Dismounted Cavalry. Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum 8/6/16

Recreation of “Rebel Veterans furl the Stars and Bars for the last time before starting for home” from The Golden Book of the Civil War: “Monroe Wildcats” representing the 1st Tennessee Dismounted Cavalry. Tinker Homestead and Farm Museum 8/6/16

SEE ON TRENCH ART War (literally) made into art at the Military History Society of Rochester

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POW Internment Camp, Cobb’s Hill, Rochester, NY Trench Art Box, by German prisoner, December 1944