Retiree to direct air show for third time

Air Show

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John Vanderlaan 

It takes teamwork to host an air show in the Flathead Valley. With shows in 1999 and 2005 under his belt, volunteer air show director John Vander Laan knows all about that.

And he’s in the middle of that challenge yet again, leading the charge for a third time in 15 years as the Flathead Valley prepares to welcome the U.S. Air Force’s elite Thunderbirds demonstration squadron in July.

“You gotta have a lot of cooperation,” Vander Laan said about all the work that goes into organizing the two-day air show, sponsored by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce. “There are a lot of resources that are required that most people don’t see.”

And as air show director, it falls on 79-year-old Vander Laan to help pull those resources together.

A retiree who volunteers with the Kalispell Chamber, the Small Business Development Center and the Service Corps of Retired Executives, Vander Laan relies on his 40 years of business experience to make things go smoothly.

But even with that, an air show still means more than half a year of intense planning. “We started in November and we’ll be working all the way through July 20. That’s when the show starts,” Vander Laan said.

Hundreds of volunteers are recruited and coordinated. Sponsors are sought. Performance acts are signed and events and traffic control are planned. Local hotels are approached to make sure enough rooms will be available for pilots and crew at government rate ($110 a night) at the height of the tourist season and during an event that can draw about 40,000 spectators.

And everything must be tightly arranged so the air show fits in with the regular commercial flight schedule at Glacier Park International Airport.

“We cause havoc at the airport for probably five days,” Vander Laan said. “It’s a lot of headache for a lot of people. But it can be done.”

One of the Thunderbirds members was in Kalispell on Friday to meet with Vander Laan and scout security and proposed accommodations for the squadron’s pilots and their F-16 jets.

This will mark the first time the Air Force Thunderbirds have been in Kalispell since 1993.

That was first air show Vander Laan ever saw. He saw it a few years after he moved permanently to the Flathead Valley from Dallas. And as a general aviation pilot and former crew chief on a B-47 in the Air Force, the show was love at first sight for Vander Laan.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Vander Laan said. “When I found out they were going to have more, that’s when I decided to get involved, that it would be fun.”

Vander Laan approached the Kalispell Chamber and his friend and fellow Kalispell Rotary Club member Gib Bissell about volunteering to help with the next air show. They didn’t just let him help out. They made him air show director.

“I think they were looking for a fish and I took the bait,” Vander Laan said. More than a decade later, he’s still on the hook.

With Vander Laan as air show director, Flathead Valley hosted the Navy Blue Angels in 1999 and again in 2005. In both of those years he was named the Kalispell Chamber’s chairman of the year for his volunteer work.

“The first one went so smooth I can’t believe it,” Vander Laan said about the show in 1999. “It was just smooth as glass.”

KALISPELL COULD have hosted the Navy Blue Angels again this year, especially after turning down a chance to host an air show a couple years ago because of the local economy’s downturn.

The economy is still slower than Vander Laan would like to see it, but this year’s show with the Thunderbirds features a first-ever twist that was just too good to pass up. Captain Jason Curtis, an Air Force pilot from Kalispell, is training to be the Thunderbirds’ opposite solo in next summer’s performances. He’ll be flying with the squadron’s lead solo pilot and four diamond-formation pilots.

Curtis, who is 31, grew up in Kalispell and learned to fly while going to Flathead High School, paying for his lessons by cutting grass. He’ll make his Thunderbirds homecoming flying an F-16 at speeds of 500 to 700 miles per hour.

“We thought, ‘Wow, what a hook. It’d be great if we could have the Thunderbirds flying here with him.’ He’s a terrific young man,” Vander Laan said. The Air Force and the International Council on Air Shows agreed, awarding Kalispell a slot that hundreds of communities were vying for.

Some of the air show’s other events have been set.

That includes civilian performances by Kent Pietsch, who will fly his 800-pound stunt plane, the Iron Eagle Aerobatic Team, and an appearance by Shockwave, a jet-powered Kenworth tractor.

“And we’ll have some other things that are not pinned down yet,” Vander Laan said. “Maybe a B-1 stealth bomber is going to do a fly-by. That’s possible. And there’s two or three others we won’t know about for a while.”

Vander Laan, who turns 80 in a couple of months, is turning to another young man, Chris Parson, director of the Small Business Development Center, to volunteer as deputy air show director this year.

“I asked him to do that with the idea that when the next one comes around we have someone who understands the mechanics and can jump in here,” Vander Laan said. “The chances of me doing it again are thin to none.”

He said he’s also counting on the community to step up and help make this air show as successful as the others he’s directed.

“Both shows in the past have been very well received and I think this one will be, too,” Vander Laan said. “We need to get the biggest crowd we can possibly get. It costs a lot of money to do this. So we need the support of the community.”

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at

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