The Director of Thunder Over Michigan Leads the Air Show into a New Era

The event returns to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti on July 16 and 17
Thunder Over Michigan
Thunder Over Michigan has become one of the most successful aviation displays in North America. // Photograph courtesy of Yankee Air Museum

Kevin Walsh wasn’t looking to get wrapped up in aviation again when he started volunteering at Belleville’s Yankee Air Museum 25 years ago. “I really hadn’t wanted anything more than to help out and just sweep the floors,” he says.

He ended up president of the museum and co-founder of its annual flagship event, the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show, which will celebrate its 23rd year this month. 

Now, far from sweeping any floors, Walsh is looking to expand the event from its home at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport to other cities across Michigan — and maybe even outside the state. Efforts will kick off with a “trial show” in Muskegon planned for 2023. 

It’s a way to boost the organization’s economic stability but also “an opportunity for outreach — to expand our mission of educating people about aeronautics and its history in America,” Walsh says. 

It was such dedication, in part, that earned him the industry’s most prestigious honor — the International Council of Air Shows Sword of Excellence — in 2021. The award, previously bestowed upon notables like Paul Poberezny, Bob Hoover, and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, recognizes exemplary leadership and innovation in and commitment to the air show business.

Walsh has made strides during his time in the industry, but back in 1997, he was walking a much different path. He’d recently launched what would become a successful 18-year career in physical therapy but was plagued by a nagging sensation that something was missing.

When he was growing up, his father was the director of Canada’s largest military aeronautic display, Airshow London, and the young Walsh got involved any way he could. This included stuffing envelopes and, later, parking cars ahead of the event.

Kevin Walsh - thunder over michigan
Kevin Walsh started Thunder Over Michigan as a small symposium in 1999. // Photograph courtesy of Yankee Air Museum

“As a kid, the air show and the production of the air show were the things I looked forward to most each year,” he says. “I got to see the belly of the beast, and I absolutely loved it.”

So, when he moved to Michigan and discovered the Yankee Air Museum, it seemed like the perfect place to volunteer. The relationship was supposed to be strictly casual — and it was, until a couple of years later, when museum administrators wanted to introduce an annual event. In need of someone with the know-how, they recruited Walsh as their guide.

“I said I’d give them one year and that’s all,” he says.

The first Thunder Over Michigan took place in 1999. At the time, the event was no more than a small symposium. But it was a big success. 

Walsh’s “one year” quickly turned into two — then three, and then four — as the show rapidly built up steam. Crowds were growing, and they wanted more. The museum happily obliged, rounding up additional aircraft for display and, later, adding modest flight demonstrations. By 2004, it resembled a traditional air show, with a mix of air pageantry and historical ground exhibits.

As Walsh slowly recognized his inability to leave the show behind, he also came to feel increasingly disillusioned with his profession. “I don’t believe work should feel like work. I think you should love your job if you can. And at that point in time, sports medicine was starting to feel kind of like work.”

So, when the museum offered him the position of full-time executive director in 2012, he didn’t think twice.

With Walsh at the helm, Thunder Over Michigan has since booked reoccurring visits from the Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and become one of the most successful air shows in North America. It even managed to grow through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Forced to cancel the 2020 event, the museum had offered ticketholders the option of receiving additional passes for the 2021 show in place of a refund. But handing out extra tickets proved tough for a show that, it turned out, would also need to be socially distanced (and still profitable). 

Collaborating with air shows around the country, organizers devised a drive-up format that would allow guests to watch safely from their cars. To make good on all those extra tickets they’d promised, Walsh pitched splitting each day into two shows, which, his team surmised, might just preserve their bottom line. That year, Thunder Over Michigan became the first air show to hold four drive-up performances in a single weekend. Each one entirely sold out.

Organizers had seen the changes as a tolerable nuisance. But postshow surveys showed that an overwhelming 93 percent of customers actually preferred the new format. In-show access to the luxury and convenience of their vehicles, it seemed, held great appeal for the modern audience.

Shocked as he’d been, Walsh remains a staunch believer in heeding customer feedback and has decided to replicate the drive-up format for this year’s show. Beyond that, however, he’s unsure whether it will become the status quo. “As long as our customers tell us what they’d like, that’s what we’ll do,” he says.  

Thunder over Michigan, July 16 &17, Willow Run Airport, 801 Willow Run Airport, Ypsilanti;

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition