Historical aircraft come to Columbia to celebrate veterans

COLUMBIA — The “Vampire” soared and flashed across the clear morning sky above the Columbia Regional Airport tarmac. The world’s first single jet fighter made an ear-splitting noise at the speed of 450 mph, leaving a distinct vapor trail behind. It then descended rapidly toward the crowd who stood gaping at the scene.

The historical aircraft that was used in World War II returned for the 29th Salute to Veterans Airshow on Saturday.

Jerry Conley, a former member of the U.S. Air Force and owner of the jet, said this is the second time he has flown the D.H. 100, nicknamed Vampire, at the air show.

“Every time I fly Vampire, it feels like I fly it for the first time,” Conley said. “She’s my girlfriend.”

Conley first started flying airplanes when he was 16. Later, he served in the Air Force for six years until 1984. He said he loves performing at the air show for veterans like himself and honoring them.

“Vampire is the first and it’s historic,” Conley said. “I like kids to see what has changed in the last 70 years.”

The air show began at 9 a.m. in the sunshine at Columbia Regional Airport. Hundreds of people came from all around the country to commemorate and remember the ultimate sacrifice of veterans.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Parachute Team, called the Black Daggers, raised the curtain of the event. The team made its first appearance at the air show since 2006.

After several minutes of the “Seahawk” keenly ascending and plummeting above the crowd, the Black Daggers jumped out of the aircraft from 8,000 feet up in the air. A 1,000-square-foot flag reading “POW/MIA” was attached to the falling members.

Black Daggers member Sean O’Toole said they brought this special flag to honor and remember fallen soldiers, prisoners of war and those missing-in-action.

The demonstrations were paused around 11 a.m. to pay tribute to the honored guests and veterans from World War I to the present.

Retired U.S. Navy Reserve Com. Willis Rief was one of the 10 honored guests. Rief served in the Navy for 20 years, including eight years of active duty and 12 years in the reserves. This was his first time at the air show and marked a special moment in his life.

“I know two of the other honored guests. We happened to be in the same Navy squadron together like 35 years ago, and for one of them it’s the first time I’ve been reunited with him,” Rief said. “So it’s a real treat for me personally on that aspect.”

Rief, who is now in his 60s, said he enjoyed meeting all the young people serving the military.

“The cadets and the drill team are very young people that are going to be our future people doing what I did and (what) people are currently doing,” Rief said. “It’s a very encouraging sight to see.”

Visitors with children enjoyed the kid-friendly atmosphere of the event. Lucy Heritage, 5, appeared excited to see the jets going by on the tarmac. Lucy said she came to the airport with her family including her grandparents and two younger siblings.

“This is my second time. I was here a long time ago. This time, my grandparents came here to visit America from Australia. That’s who I came with,” Lucy said.

Her mother, Treva Heritage, said the first time she saw the Canadian air performance has made her come back to the air show every year.

“The first time we came, they had the Snowbirds. That brings us back every year hoping to see them again. We’ve come here three years in a row and will also next year,” Heritage said.

The air show was stopped around 12:30 p.m. due to inclement weather. All later performances were canceled, including the demonstration of the U.S. Navy F-18 Super Hornet.

Jessica Houston, media chair of Salute to Veterans, said they will reschedule aircraft features on Sunday that could not be run Saturday. The Canadian Armed Forces Parachute Team, known as the SkyHawks, also had to cancel their performance due to mechanical problems with the plane they had borrowed from the U.S. Air Force.

“Hopefully the T-33 will get to fly, which is a crowd favorite from a couple of years ago,” Huston said. “And we’re closing with the Navy TACDEMO Team, F-18 Super Hornet.”

Even though the event had to be cut short, Houston said that the airshow was still a success.

“We still accomplished our purpose and we were able to make it through that salute to the nation ceremony,” Houston said. “We were able to thank our veterans. Still a lot of beautiful hours in there.”

The Salute to Veterans Airshow will be open to the public again from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Columbia Regional Airport.

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