Nuclear heritage on display at Barksdale Air Show Preview
Living near an airport may not seem ideal – especially when you’re trying to sleep. But for a young boy in Green Bay, Wis., the house in which he grew up was prime real estate.
“I got to see airplanes flying every day,” remembered Benjamin C. Kempen. “I was able to go to an air show when I was somewhere around 8 to 10 years old. I got to see the airplanes flying and what they did, and really fell in love with aviation.”
So much so that Kempen – now Maj. Benjamin C. Kempen – is a pilot in the United States Air Force and stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base.
“I’ve been flying ever since and absolutely love it!” A little more than a year ago, Kempen spread his wings. In April 2018, he was named director of the 2019 Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Air and Space Show. More than a year of planning will culminate the weekend of May 18-19, when the 87th event takes to the skies. Admission and parking are free. Gates open at 9 a.m., and the show starts at 11 a.m.
“The air show is a great opportunity for Barksdale Air Force Base to show the community our mission, how great our airmen are, as well as the relationship we have built over time, and to honor the members that have gone before us – our veterans,” Maj. Kempen explained. “Also, a big component of the show is recruitment – inspiring that next generation to go into the military, to pursue the sciences, to pursue aviation, and set us up for success in the future.”
For 86 years, the Air and Space Show has been a mostly-annual event. However, following the 2017 show, the decision was made to have it every two years.
“That provides us the opportunity to make a great show,” Maj. Kempen said, “because we have two years to plan it instead of one year.”
No less than 15 acts/performers are scheduled for this year’s show. However, two of the most popular draws in years past – the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels – will not be flying over Barksdale.
“We had them a lot in the past,” Maj. Kempen said. “It’s an opportunity for them to go to other places that don’t normally have an act like that. For this year specifically, they looked to diversify their locations a little bit, which led us to also looking to diversify our acts.”
To that end, the Canadian Snowbirds will make their first Air and Space Show appearance in 10 years. The official Canadian aerobatic team, which features nine aircraft flying at the same time, will close the show each day.
“(They) are on the same tier as the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels,” Kempen said. “You will certainly not be disappointed in what they present and the show they put on … There’s a lot of birds in the sky, and they can do some pretty neat things with those different airplanes.”
One of the goals for this year’s air show is to “highlight the nuclear heritage and reinvigorate the importance of Barksdale’s nuclear-capable mission in defending the nation.” To that end is one of this year’s acts.
“We were able to get Tora, Tora, Tora,” Kempen said, “which is the World War II enactment of the Pearl Harbor attack, which essentially started World War II. We know the end of it was essentially the beginning of the nuclear age. That’s where the B-52 component started.”
Speaking of, there will be a B-52 and B-2 flyover. Both aircraft are nuclear-capable bombers. You will also be able to see a flyby “demonstrating our air fueling capability, which is also part of our nuclear mission,” Kempen said.
“We wanted to incorporate the nuclear theme,” Kempen said, “but we’re trying to be a little different this year by having different acts, so not everything looks the same. We tried to get some variety, so it really is an experience for everyone at the air show.”
When it came to choosing exactly what you will see this year, Kempen received some help from the Military Affairs Council. The MAC is a civilian group which “educates and encourages the people of the community so we build a very strong military and community relationship,” Kempen explained.
“Some of the individuals in that group have been doing air shows for years,” Kempen said. “Back in April 2018, I sat down with them, and we talked over some of the options available. Between their input, the input from (Wing Commander) Colonel Miller, and the theme of the show, we put together our desired plan.”
This is Kempen’s first air show to direct. He has help from a team of 50-60 people and 1,200-1,500 volunteers. They are planning for an on-base crowd of 100,000 spectators. Kempen said there may be as many as 70,000 others watching from areas off the base.
“It has been a very exciting challenge,” Kempen said. “God has given me an excellent team. I have wonderful people I have been able to work with, but it does take a significant team to put on an air show – to go from a military base with full security – to open it up and allow people to see something that’s a little different. For a two-day event, it does take significant muscle movement.”
While you won’t be able to roam the entire Air Force base, you will be able to visit parts of Barksdale which are usually closed to the public. For example, you will park your vehicle where B-52 pilots usually park their aircraft.
“We park all of the spectators on the ramp,” Kempen said. “We bring them through the base, and we bring them all the way onto the flight line, where it is normally covered in B-52s. We move all the B-52s and allow people to park right on the ramp.”
Basically, the air show is a once-every-two-years opportunity to feel like you’re stationed at Barksdale.
“You’re completely immersed in Barksdale and the military environment,” Kempen said.
While you will spend a lot of time looking up at the sky, there are times when you will want to keep your head down – or at least level. That way, you won’t miss an opportunity to meet some of the pilots, with whom you will be able to visit and take pictures.
And you will hear stories from throughout the United States.
“It’s kind of neat to bring all these airplanes together and realize this person might be from Washington, this person might be from North Dakota,” Kempen said. “But everybody comes to Barksdale for this weekend and realizes that the Air Force is one of those melting pots where you bring the whole U.S. together to make a great military.”
“All of the pilots, they fly different aircraft, so they have a different story to tell,” Kempen said. “They are from all over the United States. They’re stationed at different places, they have different experiences, so being able to talk to them, you can hear their story.”
And the Air Force hopes once you hear their story, you may want to write your own story. Recruiters from Active, Guard and Reserve duty will be available to tell you everything you want to know about joining.
For more information on the 2019 Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Air and Space Show, you may visit www.barksdaleafbairshow.com.