For over 35 years the Andrews Air Force Base Joint Service Open House had been a major happening in the Washington DC area each May. Last year the USAF 11th Wing announced the cancellation of the Joint Service Open House. The open house was to be a bi-annual event. Then in 2014 it was decided to cancel the Open House indefinitely.
Andrews Air Force Base began hosting the Joint Service Open House in 1976. The country was in the middle of its bicentennial year. One of the big attractions at that open house was the SR-71 Blackbird. The SR-71 operations were shrouded in secrecy. The USAF Thunderbird and their new F-16 Fighting Falcons were the main event at the 1983 open house. They were upstaged by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Red Arrows. An RAF Tornado also gave a flight demonstration that year. The 1985 Open House had a controversy over the Northrop F-20 Tigershark. The F-20 was not permitted to perform at the Open House. It was put on static display. The reason given was the purpose of the Open House was to showcase current capabilities rather than prototype aircraft. Later that month that F-20 crashed at Goose Bay, Labrador its pilot Dave Barnes died in the crash.
Either the US Navy Blue Angels or the USAF Thunderbirds would perform as the main event about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They would alternate years. This meant the crowds at the open house would build up throughout the day and reach its peak for the performance by one of these teams. An exception to this crowd pattern was 1986. That year one of the opening performances was the Smithsonian’s mechanical flying pterodactyl. There was great interest in this radio controlled model of a prehistoric flying reptile. Rather than soaring like an eagle it fell like a rock.
At the 1991 Open House many aircraft had kill and mission markers from the Gulf War painted on them. In 1999 there was a change. Security was much more visible. The 89th Air Wing Commander banned food/beverage coolers from the show area. The B-52 and B-1 were in a roped off area. That Open House also had problems with the performances. The USAF Thunderbirds couldn’t perform because they were grounded. Major General Glen Moorhead, commander of the Air Warfare Center, decided to ground the team because of a mishap at Patrick AFB on April 25. The Army Golden Knights couldn’t perform on the Saturday Open House because of high winds. The winds also prevented the 82nd Airborne Division mass jump. On Sunday the Golden Knights performed an abbreviated show because of the cloud ceiling.
The bad luck followed the Open House into the year 2000. The Open House was to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Armed Forces Day. All three U.S. military demonstration teams were to perform. The weather made visibility below minimums so these teams, and many other aircraft, couldn’t perform on Saturday. Some helicopters and the Harrier did put on aerial demonstrations. When the USAF Thunderbirds were departing Andrews AFB on May 22 Thunderbird Number 5 couldn’t find Number 4 on radar. Thunderbird Number 6 followed Thunderbird Number 5. They may have flown over the restricted airspace over the Vice-President’s house. Thunderbirds Numbers 5 and 6 flew within 700 feet vertically and 4,800 feet horizontally of an American Airlines MD-80. These two Thunderbirds also flew within 100 feet vertically and 1.83 miles horizontally of a private single-engine plane. Thunderbirds 7 and 8 were also off course. Fortunately there was no damage or injuries because of these errors.
The 2003 Open House was also marred by bad weather, which delayed the show’s start. Attendance was very light and there seemed to be fewer static displays than usual.
The weather was clear for the 2004 Open House. Attendance was light when the gates opened but picked up as the day wore on. There were about a dozen anti-war protestors near the Andrews AFB main gate. Security had become noticeably tighter.
In 2006 the base restricted parking. The aerial demonstrations moved along at a fast pace. There was almost no time between the end of one show and the beginning of another. The Canadian Forces Snowbirds performed that year. One of the Snowbirds dedications was to Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard , who was killed while fighting in Afghanistan on May 17, 2006.
The 2012 Open House theme was to commemorate 100 years of U.S. Marine Corps aviation. A large percentage of the displays and demonstrations were of vintage aircraft, primarily World War II aircraft. The Open House seemed to place more emphasis on celebrating the past rather than demonstrating present capabilities. It wasn’t known then but it would be the last Andrews Open House.
The Andrew Air Force Base Joint Service Open House is now part of the past. Images and memories of the 36 years of Andrews AFB open houses tell the story of military history during this era. Will open houses return to the Washington, DC area? Is the fate of the Andrews AFB Open House a sign of the U.S. military phasing out open houses?