Vampire, F/A-18 Tac Demo push aircraft to limit during Great Falls airshow

Gates open at 9:30 a.m. again Sunday, aerial acts start around 11:30 a.m. and run through 4:30 p.m. For info on planning your visit: Airshow weekend rundown

The Thunderbirds are usually the main attraction, but the Great Falls airshow also has other impressive aviators in the lineup.

Jerry Conley, flies the DH-115 Vampire, the world’s first single engine jet.

With a degree in aerospace engineering and time on active duty in the Air Force, Conley said airshows can be a time to encourage young people to consider the military, aviation or engineering since the fighter jets he and many of the other performers fly are feats of engineering themselves.

His plane, the Vampire, is the “great, great-grandfather to all this stuff,” he said as the F/-18 was in the air for a practice run and the Thunderbirds were prepping their F-16s for their practice show.

Development of the Vampire began in 1943, during World War II, as an aircraft suitable for combat that used jet propulsion, which was a new innovation at the time.

“It’s amazing to know in 30 years they went from my jet to F-16,” Conley said.


Thunderbirds performing during the Flight Over the Falls in Great Falls, Montana. Photo credit: 120th Airlift Wing

Conley said 3,300 were built and of those, only four remain. Conley owns two.

“No one has seen this fly in about 40 years,”  Conley said. “To everybody out here, this is brand new.”

He’s the only person outside of Australia flying this plane, he said. This is his plane’s second year on the airshow circuit.

The Royal Air Force used the vampire as a front line fighter until 1953, according to Conley’s organization.

“It still scoots pretty good,” he said.

His plane reaches maximum speeds of 548 miles per hour with a 4,800 feet per minute rate of climb. The fuselage is made of wood, Conley said. “It’s built like a model airplane.”

But you wouldn’t know it watching Conley’s aerobatic show.

He said the airshow circuit is good fun, because where else in the world can you do aerobatics flying at high speeds and low altitudes? Those kinds of maneuvers are generally restricted.

For Conley, a big part of the fun is sharing the history of the plane: “It did it all first.”

One of the metaphorical grandchildren of the Vampire is the F/A-18 and one of the men piloting those jets this weekend is Navy Lt. Jake Riggs.

During the practice runs on Friday, he was flying the two-seater F/A-18F model.

Riggs and the two jets are part of VFA-122 and the unit’s primary role is training aviators coming into Navy jets.

The airshow demonstrations are a sort of weekend gig and are usually a reward for hard work and performance, the Georgia native said.

Students coming into training at the unit are all winged aviators who have flown in other training aircraft. Riggs said the unit teaches them on the Super Hornet, including things like basic flying, dogfighting, shooting missiles and landing on ships.

“When they leave us, they’re ready to join a unit and deploy,” Riggs said.

Every maneuver you’ll see in the show this weekend is part of their training and are skills they’d use in real world operations, Riggs said.

Their show is about 15 minutes long and during airshow events they spend the rest of their time checking out other planes, chatting with other aviators and talking to the crowd.

Growing up in a Navy family, Riggs said he heard all kinds of stories and it’s part of why he became a Navy aviator.

This weekend was Riggs’ first time flying a show in Montana, though they’d pitstopped in Butte before.

“It’s awesome here, I love it,” he said.


Photo credit: 120th Airlift Wing

On Friday, it was pretty windy but otherwise flying is flying and the wide open skies were great.

The Navy team has three different shows they can fly to adjust for conditions at airshows, he said, but it looks like clear skies again for Sunday’s show.

Riggs said the Tac Demo team does a lot of shows with the Thunderbirds and are often performing in Air Force heavy towns, but ribbed his fellow aviators saying people say they like the Navy show better.

“We make fun of each other,” he said, but it’s the typical mix of interservice competition and brotherly love.

Their show Is different from the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels since those shows are about precision.

“Ours is more to bend the jet around and show taxpayers what the jet can do,” Riggs said. “We’re max performing the jet.”

In the F/A-18, Riggs said they’re maneuvers range from -3 to 18 Gs and “we’re going all over the place.”