Air show brings Walsh back to Levittown roots
Homecomings often have an air of sweetness about them, mostly due to the way they present opportunities for one to reflect on the experiences that helped mold and shape one’s life. For Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, returning to his native Levittown will be no exception, as he has fond childhood memories of delivering papers, running on the cross country team and playing lacrosse and ice hockey.
“I grew up on Red Maple Drive,” Walsh recalled. “My father coached baseball. Playing ball at Whelan Field was always really cool.”
Even though Walsh’s return to the town of his youth inevitably conjures up feelings of nostalgia, that doesn’t mean he won’t be bringing along ample traces of his adult life, as he will be piloting Thunderbird number 7 in the 14th annual Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, held on Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28. Walsh serves as the director of operations for the U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron, something he sees as an awesome responsibility and a surreal experience.
“I never thought I’d be coming back as the pilot on number 7,” said Walsh. “Any time you get to go home after not being there for a while, it’s special. But to do it on the Thunderbirds is pretty awesome. It’s not too often I get to come home—maybe once or twice a year.”
Walsh’s journey to directing the squadron necessitated he gain plenty of flying experience; he was already a natural competitor, which he attributes in part to his background in sports. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Walsh officially entered the air force in 2002 and has more than 2,300 hours of flight time and more than 500 hours of combat pilot experience under his belt. Prior to his time on the Thunderbirds, Walsh was an instructor at Leeuwarden Air Base, an F-16 weapons school in the Netherlands, from 2004-14.
“It was pretty amazing,” Walsh said. “But I’m not going to lie—things started to get stale.”
So Walsh sought a role that would test his skills in both piloting and leadership, and found it as the brains and heart behind one of the most popular air shows in the country. According to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds official fact sheet, the squadron’s ultimate mission is to “plan and present precision aerial maneuvers to exhibit the capabilities of modern, high-performance aircraft and the high degree of professional skill required to operate those aircraft,” which helps the air force to foster community relations and reinforce the public’s confidence in the unit. Naturally, there are a lot of logistical intricacies involved in a show that’s a bona fide spectacle, and Walsh understands his task as something of a balancing act.
“My job is to make sure that we put on a good, safe show for the pilots,” Walsh said. “It’s very large. There are 130 people and 11 planes. Getting all of these people to work towards the same mission is always a challenge. Planes are fickle.”
Equally challenging, according to Walsh, was the process of keeping the show fresh, exciting and different from the previous years. However, he is confident that those who attend this year will have much to look forward to.
“It’s a new team and there are a lot of modified maneuvers,” Walsh noted. “So people may not necessarily recognize all of them. So I think they’ll get a really good show.”
The Bethpage Air Show will also mark a year and a half for Walsh as director of operations, significant in that Walsh will only be able to occupy his current position for another half-year. Walsh said that the two-year limit for squadron directors exists so that other pilots with combat squad experience can get a chance to lead the team. However, he also suggested that the team’s rather grueling schedule could be a factor; a typical season runs from March through November.
“We do over 70 shows in 35 locations, across [a span of] 220 days,” Walsh said, adding that he has given some thought as to what he hopes his next endeavor will be, though he remains unsure. “The next logical step for me would be to be commander of a fighter squadron.”
But that’s all in Walsh’s future. For now, he is content to bridge together his present and his past.
“My parents still live in Levittown, and my sister lives in Wantagh,” Walsh said. “They’ll come out to the Jones Beach show. So I’m excited for that.”
The 14th annual Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach will take place on Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, from 12 to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.bethpageairshow.com.