LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
If you grew up in and around Louisville, Kentucky, you not only have heard of Thunder, but you have HEARD Thunder. For years the event has been putting smiles on the faces of Kentuckiana residents. On April 23rd the Louisville waterfront hosted the 33rd annual Thunder Over Louisville in coordination with the Kentucky Derby Festival.
As the event has grown over the last three decades, so has the process in which the show is executed. Supporting Thunder over Louisville has been a mission Kentucky National Guard (KYNG) Soldiers and Airmen get excited about every year.
"The planning phase for operations starts several months before the event itself," said Maj. Brian Stafford, plans and operations officer, Kentucky National Guard. "While we have the past to reference and work from, we have a few surprises to work out every year."
Stafford expressed that the Kentucky National Guard has two main objectives for Thunder:
First, visibility in the community, from artillery cannons firing to recruiters playing corn hole on the great lawn. Additionally, the 123rd Air wing hosts the air show at the airbase.
"This is crucial for building ties to the community," said Stafford. "Our organization is for our communities."
Secondly, public safety by supporting Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD), through patrolling areas and traffic control augmentation tasks.
The finalized plan is ideally out 30 - 45 days before the mission's start. This year presented some last-minute challenges that forced the timeline to condense. With the final order out just two weeks before the start of Thunder, units were forced to make significant moves in a shorter timeframe.
"I think a lot of the guys look forward to Thunder," said Stafford. "It's a long day, but one of the biggest events in the Commonwealth. Everyone here is a volunteer. To the Soldiers that threw up their hands and said, 'yeah, I want in,' I personally appreciate your willingness to be flexible, and I have no doubt your leadership feels the same."
Some essential moving parts make the Kentucky National Guard an integral part of Thunder's success. Field Artillery (FA), Military Police (MPs), Civil Support Team (CST), and the Mission Command Team (where Stafford is located), including Communications and Intel.
In total, in this year's event, 119 Soldiers and 348 Airmen participated. (These numbers do not include recruiting as they operate independently from the Mission Command Team's umbrella)
Mission Command operates from a forward and rear position. They have a mobile unit on-site and individuals back at the KYNG headquarters, located on Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky.
Communication flows between the National Guard and different agencies utilizing the Mobile Command Center, but we will learn all about that later in the story.
One of the exciting elements of the Mobile Command Center is a large camera on top that records and reports a continuous feed to the rear element for additional security.
"Mission command is the "broad strokes" of the overall mission," Stafford explained with air quotes. "We get everyone linked together, give them numbers based on the requested support, and from there, they initiate their planning process."
In the sections below, we will break down the individual elements Stafford is referring to, beginning with the MPs.
223rd Military Police Co., Louisville, Ky.
"This is what the unit is trained to do," said 2nd Lt. Griffin Pfisterer, executive officer, 223rd MP Co. "It is nothing out of the realm for the 223rd, and it is nothing we are not prepared to take on."
Currently, the 223rd is operating as the battalion's National Guard Readiness Formation, or NGRF. NGRF is assigned to a unit for some time, ideally a one-year assignment.
As the NGRF, Soldiers from this unit focus their training on being the first response when called upon for planned events, such as Thunder or emergency response that requires assistance beyond local agency capacity.
Kentucky Guard MPs work with Louisville Metro Police Department regularly.
Louisville Metro Police Department Stated:
“As the city of Louisville prepares to celebrate the Kentucky Derby, the Louisville Metro Police Department is behind the scenes ensuring logistics and security are in order to provide the safest possible events for the community. None of this could happen without assistance from our partners in public safety like the Kentucky Guard. For years the Kentucky Guard has played an integral role in supplementing manpower and supporting operations for Thunder Over Louisville and Derby festivities. LMPD is proud to serve alongside the Kentucky Guard and is grateful for its contribution to the safety and security of the residents and guests of the city of Louisville.”
Operations for Thunder are similar to those expected from an event of this scale. Soldiers link with local police in small teams. The small joint elements patrol a 12-block radius surrounding the event. In addition to patrolling, MPs provide traffic control and stationary positions.
All Soldiers are accounted for in their own on-site Command Center. This year, 61 Soldiers from the 223rd assisted LMPD for Thunder.
"My role, alongside our operations sergeant, is controlling where our soldiers are located with LMPD — managing any issues that arise. Additionally, tracking and mobility efforts, if we need to move from one location to another," said Pfisterer. "-- and then, of course, being the liaison from the Guard to LMPD."
Thunder is the kick-off for Derby Season, which starts a busy season for the 223rd MPs. Throughout the month, the unit will coordinate with LMPD with a primary presence at Thunder and Derby specifically.
"Always glad to be here to support the needs of LMPD and get our guard Soldiers out on the street so they can do what they are trained to do," said Sgt. 1st Class Brad Shaffer, operations sergeant, 223rd MP Co. "They look forward to being out in the community representing the Guard and their unit."
2/138th Field Artillery Bn. Lexington, Ky.
Every year, event attendees look forward to the BOOM the 2/138th FA Bn. brings to Thunder. Have you ever wondered what it takes to get that kind of firepower on the downtown Second Street Bridge?
The 2/138th FA Bn. trains to fire year-round. Staying on top of the unit's qualifications, mission capability, and readiness is the standard, not the exception.
"Typically, we have anywhere between 18 and 21 personnel to man the mission," said Master Sgt. James Marcum, non-commissioned officer in charge, 2/138th FA Bn., Thunder over Louisville. "This year, we have 23."
Accompanying those 23 Soldiers are six – 105mm howitzers, 300 blank ammunition rounds, six palletized load system, or PLS, used for freight transportation, one light medium tactical vehicle (LMTV), one HUMVEE, and a general services administration, GSA van.
Preparing to maneuver from the Lexington Armory to the downtown Louisville firing location begins three days before the first cannon salute. Soldiers come in and got to work cleaning, lubricating, and ensuring all functions are a go on the guns and securing ammunition for the mission.
Then it is GO time! The guns and ammunition are loaded and positioned for an early Thunder convoy.
"It is always fun watching the large vehicles turn around on the bridge," laughed Marcum. "I've never counted, but it feels like it is at least a 21-point turn."
Atop the bridge, Soldiers break down into groups based on the mission's specific needs. The howitzers are a two Soldier function. One loads the gun, and the other fires at command.
The remaining 11 oversee the ammunition detail, maintain the safety of the area, and are on standby should anyone get hurt.
"The cannons are choreographed with the fireworks via the Thunder of Louisville Festival Command Center," said Marcum. From the Festival Command Center, located in the Gault House, I look at a screen -- when the fireworks go off, I give the command, and the cannons go off simultaneously for an intense sound effect."
ALL six cannons fire simultaneously, in coordination with the fireworks display. Now that is some THUNDER.
When the sky goes dark after that final blast fires, the Soldiers immediately transition their operation into returning to their home station. They quickly clean up the ammunition brass, load the trucks, and roll out. The unit is back in Lexington, typically between 2-3 a.m.
"This is my 18th Thunder," said Marcum. "It is always a great feeling -- the crowd loves us, the festival command appreciates us, and understands how much it adds to the overall show, but most importantly, we are the Guard, and this is what we do, and we love it."
41st Civil Support Team (CST), Louisville, Ky.
Perhaps one of the Kentucky National Guard's most "behind the scenes" units is the 41st Civil Support Team. Chances are, if you ask your neighborhood Guard Soldier what the 41st Civil Support Team does, even they may shrug their shoulders in uncertainty.
Like the MPs, the CST operates on-site from their own Mission Command Center during Thunder. CST works in coordination with several organizations. They plan their operations predominantly with LMPD's Weapons of Mass Destruction Department.
The unit's strategy and mission planning include a joint force partnership between Louisville's FBI, secret service, airport police, the state's Radiation Team (RAD), and LMPD's Hazardous Incident Response Team (HIRT)
CST Soldiers linked up with HIRT during Thunder to conduct roving patrols. On these patrols, the teams have backpacks equipped with surveying equipment to scan for elevated radiation levels.
In total, 27 CST Soldiers provided support for the event. Nineteen from Kentucky and seven from outside CST programs from Illinois, Colorado, and Vermont.
These teams continually sweep the surrounding areas before and during the event. They are looking for and responding to all potential hazards or suspicious property left unattended that could threaten the event's overall success.
The team's survey readings are sent to the CST mission command for immediate processing from their physical location.
"Our entire element here is gated off, but with the ability to get out fast," said Lt. Col. Noy Boriboune-Holbrook, commander, 41st CST. "If we ever needed to react, we would jump on the Polaris, and another team would drive through the gate to get there, but we are designed and set up here to go right through the barriers if ever needed."
Of course, no one wants to see command centers driving through barriers on a beautiful day like we had this year for Thunder. The event is for good friends, good food, big smiles, and squinting eyes searching for the fast and loud birds in the sky.
"All these different agencies coming together is the only way this works," said Boriboune-Holbrook. "We work together, train together, share knowledge and resources across agencies to be the best response team we can be as a whole. We are hidden for a reason. Citizens want us here, but seeing us can make them afraid something is wrong. It is not a concern we want them to have."
“The silent professionals," echoed WO1 Aaron Brady, survey team leader, 41st CST. "You may not see us, but know we are here if needed."
Kentucky National Guard G-6: Wireless Communications
Have you ever thought….
What channel are we going to use — what frequency will we be on?
We need to be able to talk to the Air Guard — how are we going to be able to speak to them?
We need to be able to communicate with LMPD — how are we going to be able to reach them?
If there's an emergency during the event, how will we manage and communicate that to the necessary individuals?
Not likely, unless you are Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Ragsdale, emergency communications manager G-6 (wireless shop), Kentucky National Guard.
"Our full-time primary mission is to give the operations and command staff capabilities to communicate," said Ragsdale. "Interoperability, things like radio frequency, has to be coordinated across multiple agencies."
Ragsdale and his team are strategically placed next door to the Mission Command Team trailer to provide all the systems needed to connect all parties involved…. KYNG Mission Command (forward and rear). MPs, Artillery, Thunder Mission Command Center, CST, LMPD, Air Guard, Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport... everyone comes together right here.
If you are counting mobile command centers — this is number three, and it doubles as the MPs' command headquarters.
The Kentucky National Guard has been given a permanent space within the "tower" for the first time this year.
"In the past, setting up "comms" to city/state agencies has been a temporary thing," said Ragsdale. "Days before a large-scale event, we go up there, set everything up, and break down after. By working with our LMPD partners, we can now stage stuff permanently, making our ability to communicate more effective than ever before and ready at a moment's notice."
Every "Behind the Scenes" team we spoke with was asked a specific question…
"How has your training differed over the months leading up to Thunder over Louisville?"
Even now, we are shocked to report the answer was unanimous… "It didn't."
"There's a saying that I like to say," Ragsdale answered. "If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready. We maintain this equipment. It is always operational, not only for pre-planned events like Thunder or Derby but also disasters like the tornado we experienced in December."
Kentucky Air National Guard: 123rd Air Wing, Louisville, Ky.
Located just 7.1 miles south of the Great Lawn's festivities is the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Air Wing Base, where most aircraft launch and stage.
Being the 75th anniversary of the Air Force, coupled with the first traditional Thunder event in two years, there was energy on the flight line that radiated excitement, joy, and an eagerness to do what the airmen were trained to do.
"Our entire job here, first and foremost, is the safety of the aircraft and the personnel that are out here launching and recovering for Thunder over Louisville," said Senior Master Sgt. Greg Howard, production superintendent, 123rd Aircraft Maintenance Group (AMXS). "That includes all the fighters, heavy aircraft, aviators, aircrew, and ground personnel with anything they need to be mission successful."
A fundamental approach to that safety-focused mission is to pair tenured Thunder personnel with the first-timers. There is a wide span of Thunder experience among the 123rds ranks. For many, this was their first-time experiencing Thunder as an Airman. For at least one, however, this year marked his last. Senior Master Sgt. Tim Nash, b flight chief, 123rd Maintenance Group (MXG), said this year would be the last Thunder of his career after working the event for the past "25 - 26 years," he struggled to recall. “It will be strange to be in civilian clothes next year.”
"You know," said Nash. "Every year is the same. We start planning months out, and it's meeting after meeting, till you find yourself a week out, and we don't know exactly what airplanes are coming. The schedule is still fluid. Then suddenly you hit two days before - then the day before- and it starts to solidify – it always works out."
This year's air show featured aircrafts as small as a civilian-owned P-51 Mustang, approximately 32 feet long, up to the C-17 Globemaster, measuring 175 feet.
"The Kentucky Air National Guard is a long-time partner and friend of the Kentucky Derby Festival," said Matt Gibson, KDF President and CEO. "We have one of the top air shows in the country thanks to their continued support in recruiting military air acts to perform at Thunder Over Louisville and providing the space to put all those airplanes the weekend of the show."
A big driver for the unit this year in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Air Force was to locate a 75-year-old aircraft. The team found B-29, named FiFi, owned by the Commemorative Air Force Texas Wing, that fit the billet.
The four-engine, propeller-driven bomber by Boeing was retired in the early 1960s.
"If I remember right, Thunder started as a little tiny show here at Naval Ordnance," recalled Nash. "Then it went to the fairgrounds, and then it went downtown, and that is when Thunder started integrating air shows."
After all the meetings, what felt like a thousand plus emails, and the 14th flight schedule revision, the Air Guard found themselves prepared to sit in the pocket of doing what they love.
"Anyone that joins the Air Force knows - we fly," said Howard. "That is why they joined. Thunder gives our Airmen a chance to experience, not just the aircraft they signed up for, which is the C-130J that we have at the Kentucky Air Guard. Still, they get to see all these other aircraft, put their hands on them, and be a part of something bigger than they are normally exposed to. As a senior enlisted officer, that is the magic we want to see in the future of our force."
133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Frankfort, Ky.
A week later, the howitzers have been secured back in their armory. The MPs, CST, and Mission Command Team have shifted their focus from Thunder to upcoming Derby Festival events. In a small office located in the Guard’s Frankfort headquarters, the final mission the Kentucky Guard has for the 33rd annual Thunder Over Louisville comes to a close.
In total, 11 Soldiers from the 133rd MPAD, arrived at Thunder with the intent to capture the organization’s history and tell the story of our Guardsmen.
The team took photos, short videos showing what our Soldiers do, audio, video interviews, released Soldier and Airman profiles, and published a full story on the day of the event. We have since distributed an artillery feature video across social media platforms, the National Defense Archive, and the KYNG website.
We close out this year’s event with this behind-the-scenes look into Thunder Over Louisville.
Mission complete. Next stop, the 148th Annual Kentucky Derby.