MONMOUTH, Ill. — For years, a traditional part of opening night of Monmouth’s Prime Beef Festival has been the flyover by Stearman biplanes during the annual parade. Opening night of the 1965 festival would have dwarfed that display, if only the weather had cooperated.
Earlier that day — Wednesday, Sept. 8 — festival planners had watched the skies hoping in vain for a clearing of the 800-foot ceiling, which would have allowed the famed Navy Blue Angels precision flying team to perform a thrilling 30-minute show over Monmouth Park at 6:45 p.m. But even though the parade, which featured 13 marching bands, went off without a hitch, the crowds that thronged to the damp and muddy festival grounds after the parade went home disappointed.
All was not lost, however. The six Navy pilots who would have performed were introduced to the grandstand crowd at the livestock show, and their leader, Cmdr. Bob Aumack, promised the show would go on at 10:45 the next morning “if humanly possible.”
Thursday dawned clear and sunny. Although nearly 55 years ago, I still vividly remember the weather that morning. I was a member of Mrs. Farr’s third-grade class at Garfield School, which walked three blocks east to Monmouth Cemetery to watch the aerial spectacle. Flying in tight formation, the team took its bright blue Grumman F-11-A Tiger jets through jaw-dropping maneuvers, just 12 inches apart and as low as 150 feet off the ground.
As we watched from the relatively uncrowded cemetery, thousands of spectators jammed all the highways in the area and filled the festival grounds for a glimpse of the free show. Four jets flew in their patented diamond formation with wings nearly touching, while the other two flew as solos, alternating in the act. With the use of afterburners, the planes achieved speeds of a dizzying 500 knots.
Almost as suddenly as they appeared, the Angels dipped their wings in salute and headed toward their second performance of the day — an air show in Milwaukee.
The Prime Beef Festival event had been arranged nearly a year before through the efforts of former Congressman Robert T. McCloskey of Monmouth. Bringing the flight team to town was no easy task.
The crew had flown into Burlington Airport from Kansas on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by a 25-man support team and equipment aboard a C-54 transport plane. Special jet fuel had also been shipped to Burlington to supply the fighter planes. After giving an impromptu show for spectators at the airport, the team checked into the Burlington Holiday Inn, where they would stay the next two nights.
Not wanting to disappoint the Warren County crowds, the pilots volunteered to give the Thursday performance, even though it meant having to give two exhausting shows in one day. For the flight crew, it also meant servicing the jets twice that day. Lt. Cmdr. Bob Cowles, the pilot who performed public relations for the Angels, graciously showed up at Monmouth Park Thursday morning to narrate the show over loudspeakers.
Cowles told the crowd, “We do not do any maneuvers that are not performed by Navy Flyers in combat. The only difference is that we do them in tighter formations and at much lower altitudes than they would be done under normal conditions.” Immediately following the show, Cowles was whisked back to Burlington in a sheriff’s car to rejoin the flight team before it headed to Milwaukee.
Although he was effusive in his praise for the welcome he received in Monmouth, Cowles’s mind might have been in Pensacola, Fla., for his wife had just given birth to a son there four days earlier.
The Blue Angels had been formed in 1946 with the first team flying World War II propeller-driven Hellcats. The Tiger jets had been used since 1959 and would be replaced with F-4J Phantom II jets in 1969.
The Monmouth show was one of about 100 performances given that year, before crowds totaling more than 5 million. Following a rotation to a new flight team that November, one of the Blue Angels jets would crash during a training exercise in Pensacola, killing the pilot.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.