Over Memorial Day weekend, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Bethpage, presented its 16th annual Bethpage Air Show. This year’s show, which featured the United States Air Force Thunderbirds for their seventh appearance and the United States Army Golden Knights Parachute Team for their 14th performance, met with packed parking lots that closed all parkways to the beaches on May 26.
The focus this year was, “Female Pilots Take the Lead.” Legendary air show pilot Sean Tucker, whose Oracle biplane Challenger III will be retired shortly to the Smithsonian Museum, performed for the first time with Jessy Panzer for Team Oracle. Panzer, who flew a 13-minute sequence complete with Tucker, hails from Lincoln, NE, and began performing vertical tumbling maneuvers for Team Oracle in November 2018. This marked Panzer’s third performance with Tucker. The esteemed aviatrix is one of the world’s leading female aerobatic pilots. Panzer flew the Oracle Extra 300L alongside Tucker’s Oracle Challenger III as part of her debut for this year’s show.
“There’s a very small percentage of female pilots out there,” Panzer stated. “I would love to see more women in aerobatics.” Currently, only 4 percent of airline pilots in the United States are female, with only 6 percent in bigger aviation corporations like Boeing.
On Wednesday, May 22, air show events began for the press. The theme, “The Future is Female,” glided home with a visit to Atlantic Aviation by 19 female students from Westbury High School, who were hosted by Girls, Inc., an empowerment program that works with several school districts on Long Island to focus on the development of the whole girl. Girls, Inc. combines long-lasting mentoring relationships, a pro-girl environment and research-based programming to equip girls to navigate gender, economic and social barriers, and to grow up healthy, educated and independent.
The Westbury Girls, Inc. program, according to Executive Director Renee Flagler, has been her greatest inspiration. “Seeing them becoming smart, bold and in sisterhood mode—the support from each other—brings girls to events like these. We give girls some amazing opportunities, such as visits to local factories like Estee Lauder. Our girls met with the scientists on site and some of them have gone on to become members of the science community.” It’s important to note that these opportunities, as well as the camaraderie found via weekly meetings at schools, affects positive change in the participants. “Once these girls are out of the program, you see a real change. They come out of their shells, they express themselves more openly and they own who they are. They’re okay with who they are, loving who they are and they don’t feel like they need to measure up to societal ideals. We expose girls to tremendous opportunities and we’re so proud of this program. To be honest, it’s the best job I ever had. It’s not a job at all; girl empowerment is really who I am. It’s so tremendous and so profound. I consider it an honor and a privilege to do this work. I’m blessed to be a part of the journey.”
The 19 Westbury high school students, who ranged from grades 10 to 12, were also treated to an oral presentation by the Geico Skytypers, as well as received backpacks from the aerobatic group. Pilots No. 7 Jim Record and No. 6 Tom Daly were on hand to speak with the girls about career opportunities, which are not just limited to piloting. According to Record, “We’re motivated by the young women who are here today. There are so many great career opportunities in aviation. We have aviation physicians, aviation photographers, aviation attorneys—it’s a huge business, and we need young people like yourselves to be a part of this exciting field.” As Record spoke with the young women, he added, “You are all the future of aviation.” The young students, who wore T-shirts provided by Girls, Inc., exited the terminal in a sea of bright red, the words, “Strong. Smart. Bold.” emblazoned across their backs.
Record noted a very special group with a kinship to Nassau County. The Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots, also known as the 99s, is a 155-chapter strong international organization of female pilots that provides networking, mentoring and flight scholarship opportunities to recreational and female pilots. Amelia Earhart was a founding member of the 99s, which began when she called for a meeting of female pilots after the Women’s Air Derby. All 117 female licensed pilots were invited, and the group is named for the 99 female pilots who attended the meeting and expressed interest in forming a group. In 2014, the Ninety-Nines was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
The Bethpage Air Show, which featured its practice day on Friday, May 24, also celebrated Jones Beach’s 90th anniversary. For the first time, four female pilots were featured in the show, including U.S. Air Force Thunderbird Captain Michelle Curran, who is an experienced fighter pilot who flew the No. 6 plane as the team’s Opposing Solo. No. 10 Captain Lauren Venturini and executive officer on the team, and No. 11 Captain Kassandra Mangosing, the team’s maintenance officer, were also part of this year’s jet team.
This year’s show also included the famous Red Bull Aerobatic Helicopter, which is currently the only full aerobatic helicopter in the world. Piloted by Aaron Fitzgerald, a former U.S. Army paratrooper and Medal of Valor recipient, the helicopter thrilled packed-to-capacity audiences with loops, barrel rolls, nosedives and flips. This was also Pilot Fitzgerald’s debut performance on Long Island. He was joined by four skydivers from the Red Bull Air Force.
George “Chip” Gorman, Deputy Regional Director, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, kicked off Friday’s practice show by stating, “We are thrilled to welcome back the USAF Thunderbirds to Long Island. This year, we’ll be celebrating our 16th Anniversary. Since the show began in 2004, millions of air show enthusiasts have traveled near and far to help celebrate our nation’s military and the Memorial Day holiday weekend. We look forward to another spectacular show this May.” It truly was spectacular. Wayne Grosse, CEO of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, offered his gratitude for the military. “On this 16th year of the Bethpage Air Show, we are grateful for our ability to enrich the lives of those who serve. And we’re so grateful for the sacrifice of those who died for our freedoms.”
Patty Servidio is a contributing writer and columnist with Anton Media Group.