Dayton Air Show: How the Event Took Flight 50 Years Ago

EA-18G Growlers and a vintage F4F Hellcat fighter at Dayton Air Show
Two U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft fly in formation with a World War II vintage F4F Hellcat fighter, June 23, 2019, as a legacy flight at the Dayton Air Show. (U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez)

Aviation fans flock to the Dayton International Airport every summer for the annual Dayton Air Show.

Now in its fifth decade, crowds attend to witness and experience not only the latest in technology but can also catch a glimpse of aviation's past.

Aviation shows in Dayton go back to the earliest days of flight, but the modern-day Dayton Air Show evolved from the events of 1974 when there was a shift in what air shows were and what they would become.

General Aviation Day

In the late 1960s, airplane manufacturers, related organizations and local aviation enthusiasts started observing "General Aviation Day."

Dayton held their first "GAD-FLY" — as the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce billed it — at the Cox Municipal Airport in 1971.

In 1972, the event moved to the Montgomery County Airport and started with a fly-in breakfast. Afterwards, there was a "poker flight" for pilots, who flew to Middletown Airport, Greene County Airport and Moraine Airport and picked up a playing card at each before returning to Montgomery County Airport. The best hands won prizes.

Also, helicopter, airplane and glider rides were provided during the day. Passengers were able to fly in planes and helicopters for 50 cents each and in gliders for $10.

During scheduled times, demonstrations of aircraft and aerobatics were performed by some experimental and stunt planes.

One of the highlights of the day was the Grimes flying laboratory, an airplane carrying 60 different exterior lights powered by 6,000 watts. The public was warned ahead of time to avoid calls about the sighting of an unidentified flying object.

Parked aircraft and a fashion show were also on the program, as they were for many years.

Multiple air shows

In 1974, things changed. The Air Force and local aviation agencies decided to do their own separate "aviation days" on the same weekend.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base held an open house, with gates open to the general public, on a Saturday. The base had not held such an event since the late 1960s.

The "General Aviation Day" was held on the Sunday of that weekend at the Montgomery County Airport.

The WPAFB event was billed as "Community Day," which was capped by a performance by the Air Force's precision flight demonstration team, the Thunderbirds.

The Air Force show also included a band concert, static displays of planes based at WPAFB, and special model aircraft flying demonstrations.

The Montgomery County Airport event included the usual fly-in breakfast and poker flight along with plane rides.

While estimates of the crowd for "General Aviation Day" varied from 15,000 to 30,000 visitors, the Air Force event claimed to have 120,000 spectators for the Thunderbirds performance.

Dayton Air Fair

In 1975, it was back to a single air show, sponsored by the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Dayton Aviation Department, and it combined the best of both worlds.

No longer were military and commercial aircraft excluded. The event was expanded to two days and moved to the James M. Cox International Airport. The name was also changed to the "Dayton Air Fair." Advance tickets for the event cost $1.50.

Kirby Grant, star of the old "Sky King" television series, was the grand marshal. and a hot air balloon rally started the day off each morning.

The afternoon skies were filled with military aircraft and each day the Air Force's new F15 fighter contributed aerobatic shows. The F15 could reach speeds of 1,600 miles an hour and did a vertical climb of 6,000 feet.

Twenty-six year old Pat Wagner, a wing walker, and her husband Bob of Moraine, who piloted a Boeing Stearman biplane, were one of the acts that helped draw crowds to the show that year.

The couple's "girl on a wing stunt," as it was described in a Dayton Daily News article, was a high-flying stunner.

Already an experienced commercial pilot, Pat Wagner told a reporter how she first considered wing walking with her husband.

"When I first did it I had never seen anybody on the wing and needless to say I was kind of leery about it," she said. "But he bribed me saying he'd take me out for a steak dinner if I got on."

The Wagners thrilled a crowd estimated at 50,000 that year. A vertical take off of a Harrier AV-8A and an air drop display by an Air Force C-123 were also crowd-pleasers.

CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show

Today, the CenterPoint Energy Dayton Air Show is one of North America's premier air shows and attracts internationally known civilian and military acts. Performers have included the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Army Golden Knights, U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

This year, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels will headline a lineup of performers and aircraft ground displays in what is expected to be one of the biggest and most special air shows in Dayton history.

Fan favorite Tora! Tora! Tora! will also join the lineup to light up the skies in celebration of the show's 50th anniversary. The Commemorative Air Force production features the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor with replica fighter and bomber aircraft that combines pyrotechnics with a thrilling airshow.

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