US airmen show off jets, smiles at Slovak air show
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 27, 2017
SLIAC AIRFIELD, Slovakia - With an eye towards building relationships with a key NATO partner, a few U.S. airmen braved the heat and the crowds Saturday at one of the largest air shows in Central Europe, taking in the sights while mingling with spectators and military officials.
About 15 countries and 115 aircraft participated in the Slovak International Air Fest 2017.
An estimated 100,000 visitors turned out for the show’s opening Saturday, according to local news reports.
Many of the aerial stunts and static displays at the combined military and civilian airfield, ringed by mountains in the Slovak countryside, were put on by Slovakia’s NATO and allied military partners.
A steady parade of aircraft took to the sky throughout the day, including a dazzling show of aerobatics and colorful smoke trails by the United Arab Emirates’ demonstration team Al Fursan, said to have trained under Italy’s famed Frecce Tricolori pilots.
The U.S. Air Force made a brief overhead appearance when a B-52 Stratofortress conducted a flyover in the early afternoon, making one long, low pass over the airfield before disappearing from view almost as quickly as it arrived. The bomber, from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., is deployed to RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom. While in Europe, it’s participating in military exercises hosted by Slovakia’s neighbor, the Czech Republic. Two B-1 Lancers from Dyess Air Base, Texas, are also involved in the exercise, and a B-1 flyover was on the air fest schedule for Sunday.
Most of the U.S. presence, however, was on the ground. A team of maintainers from Aviano Air Base, Italy, joined two F-16 pilots and their jets from the base’s 510th Fighter Squadron, for a static display that drew lots of curious bystanders and requests for selfies with the Americans.
“This is our first air show in general in a while,” said Capt. Mike Radosevich, a pilot. “It’s cool for us to be here and be the face not only of Aviano, but the U.S. Air Force F-16 community.”
The Air Force also sent one of its more senior officers in Europe, Maj. Gen. Timothy Fay, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa deputy commander, to the show Saturday.
“It is important for us to highlight our commitment, not only to our Slovak teammates, but also to NATO in general,” Fay said.
“This is about teamwork,” he added, “this is about the alliance, this is about how we’re postured and ready here in this theater to give regional security.”
Slovakia has been a member of NATO since 2004, but its strategic location next to Ukraine and Poland has made it increasingly important in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Adam Sterling said Slovakia, part of the former Warsaw Pact, “has cast its lot with the transatlantic alliance.”
But given its history and location, “the Russians have a particular interest here,” he said during a brief interview at the air show. “We deal with a lot of Russian disinformation here, so there’s still a debate and struggle for hearts and minds, if you will.”
Fay spent part of the day meeting informally with senior Slovak defense officials and a few air chiefs from other eastern European countries. He also made a point of walking through the crowds to watch the show and speak to U.S. and other military personnel about their jobs and aircraft. He climbed up the side of a hulking 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzer to peer inside the cab at the invitation of a Slovak army staff sergeant.
“It’s great to meet the hosts and get to know them a little bit on a personal level … and also just to chat with some of the folks here in the crowd,” he said.
The airmen from Aviano appeared just as busy.
“A lot of people are very welcoming,” said Senior Airman John Gonzalez, an electrical environmental specialist. The photo requests were “really surprising to us,” he said. “I’ve been to an air show once before, and it’s totally different. That was in the States.”