It was called the Jet Age Air Fair and it drew more than 100,000 spectators to Bradley International Airport in October of 1959.
Airshow organizers expected between 30,000 to 40,000 to attend – but more than 125,000 actually showed up. The occasion was a runway extension to 9,500 feet in order to accommodate new commercial and military jet aircraft. Baseball star Jackie Robinson, singer Arthur Godfrey, and actor and World War II veteran Jimmy Stewart all made personal appearances. It was a transitional time—a great leap forward to jet travel. The world was fast becoming a smaller place. It was exciting.
My father, then a major with the Connecticut Air National Guard, was a career military officer, so my sister and I and several cousins had easy access to watch the airshow activities and to see and to walk through many airplanes parked on the tarmac. Among the planes available for touring was the enormous B-52 bomber with its eight jet engines. The B-52 actually took off and flew low over the crowd at very low altitude in an impressive display of its power. Other military jets included the huge KC-135 tanker, the F-102 Delta Dagger—capable of speeds exceeding 1,200mph—and the stub-winged F-104 Starfighter—capable of exceeding 1,400 mph—and commonly referred to as a “missile with a man in it.”
The Lockheed C-130, a large cargo plane, was open for tours, as was the C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” a twin-tailed cargo carrier stationed at Bradley. In fact, a C-119 flew over the crowd and dropped out souvenirs attached to little parachutes. There was also an F-86 Sabre squadron from a New York Air Guard unit flying overhead. The fastest flyover of the day, however, was the F-105 fighter-bomber.
The Connecticut Air National Guard’s 118th Tactical Fighter Squadron also put on quite a show with their F-100 Super Sabres. Flying at just 25 feet above the deck at 300 mph, Lt. Colonel John Hoar of Simsbury cut a special yellow ribbon to officially open the new runway extension. The ribbon was made from vacuum cleaner bag material manufactured by the C.H. Dexter Corporation in Windsor Locks. It was the first known aerial ribbon cutting ever done in the United States. Later, a squadron of Connecticut-based F-100’s took part in a flyover. In addition, Command Pilot Captain Norm Turnbull of the Wilson section of Windsor put on an impressive acrobatic display with his Super Sabre, executing barrel rolls, loops, and snap turns at low altitude.
There were a number of commercial aircraft present for observation and touring as well. Among the most popular was the jet airliner that was to dominate commercial jet travel for the next 20 years – the Boeing 707. The 707 had been in service almost exactly for a year prior to the airshow. A Pan-Am 707 flew low over the crowd, and an American Airlines 707 landed, taxied by the crowd and took off again. Since the 707 is generally credited with ushering in jet age commercial travel, it was most appropriate for it to be represented at the fair. Boeing built 1, 011 of this workhorse before ceasing production in the late 1970s.
Perhaps the most thrilling display of the airshow was the precision flying performed by the Thunderbirds, the aerial demonstration team of the United States Air Force. At the time, the Thunderbirds were flying the F-100C Super Sabre. First organized in 1953, the Thunderbirds remain one of the most skilled of the service aerial demonstration teams. They put on quite a show at Bradley that weekend in 1959, dazzling the crowd with barrel rolls, precision turns, and their patented bomb burst maneuver. In the bomb burst maneuver, four members of the team go into a steep vertical climb. While one plane continues straight up, three others arc off in different directions. Then a trailer plane comes spinning up the middle on a delayed basis (see the movie in the gallery of the actual Thunderbird demonstration). It was thrilling to witness. My father’s home movie of this demonstration was taken with a handheld 8mm movie camera. It has remarkable clarity for the technology of the time.
Airshows have been entertaining people since about six years after the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. The Rheims Air Show in France in 1909 is estimated to have had nearly 500,000 spectators! Airshow performers in the first three decades of the 20th century had an exceedingly high fatality rate, estimated by some to be near to 90 percent! Modern airshows have had a good record of safety despite the recent accident that killed at least 11 people in Wisconsin.
Few events have tended to represent the exciting prospects that the future holds better than an airshow. That was certainly true 52 years ago in Connecticut at the Bradley “Jet Age Air Fair.”
Notes, Sources, and Links:
1. "The History of Airshows" by John Sponauer: Atlantic Flyer June 2005.
2. Hartford Courant October 5, 1959.
3. My father, Colonel Francis W. Devlin, took all of the photos of the fair that appear in the gallery as well as the movie of the Thunderbirds.
4. Thanks to Michael Hayes, Patch editor at Durham, for his assistance in preparing the movie for view.