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'Skywriter' Hammond set to thrill Wings Over Batavia crowd with unique pyro-musical show

By Mike Pettinella
Nathan and Alex
Nathan K. Hammond, left, and Alex Jameison stand in front of their "Ghost Writer" airplane today at the Genesee County Airport. They are preparing for the Wings Over Batavia Air Show on Saturday and Sunday nights. 
Photo by Mike Pettinella.

If you’re one of the many Western New York residents who happened to catch the cool messages in the sky on Thursday afternoon, you may be wondering who flying the airplane and just how did he or she perform such tricks.

The pilot of the plane – a 1956 de Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk – was none other than Nathan K. Hammond, well-known on the air show circuit for his skywriting.

A native of Rhinebeck, a small village in Dutchess County, who now lives in Kentucky, Hammond is part of an all-star cast that will be performing on Saturday and Sunday at the Wings Over Batavia Air Show at the Genesee County Airport.

The Batavian caught up to Hammond and his assistant, Alex Jamieson, another former Rhinebeck resident now living in North Carolina, earlier today prior to the show’s “dress rehearsal” at the Saile Drive facility.

“(Skywriting) is what we do to help the air shows that we’re at,” said Hammond, 42, acknowledging that he created quite a buzz with his antics. “While some people can make their airplane do amazing things, such as Michael Goulian’s airplane here behind me (Goulian pilots an Extra 330SC, arguably the world’s premiere aerobatic competition and air show plane), one of the things I can do with this airplane is to write in the sky.”

Hammond explained that he loads the plane with smoke oil consisting of a lightweight mineral oil with a lot of paraffin in it that, when injected into the exhaust, expands about 800 times its size.

“So, one cubic inch of oil becomes 800 cubic inches of smoke. We flow a whole lot of smoke and a whole lot of oil and are able to fill the sky and be able to draw those messages that you can see when we're two miles up in the sky,” he said. “We did lots of smiley faces, lots of hearts, and we did lots of butterflies over top.”

He said he was born and raised in the air show industry, down the Hudson (River) in Rhinebeck.

“I went to college and got a business degree so I could run an airport, and that’s what I do – 9 to 5 at my airport in Kentucky, running a business at the airport that maintains airplanes,” he said. “Then, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I get to go out and play.”

Hammond said his career is supported by his wife, Kelley, who coordinates the night show.

“Everybody has seen a skywriting over top during the day. The next step is Saturday and Sunday night when we’re going to load about 200 pounds of 'pyro' – of fireworks – on the wings of this airplane and fly with the fireworks that are coming off the ground and have a pyro-musical like you have never seen,” he said, his voice sparked with enthusiasm.

The Wings Over Batavia show will be Hammond’s ninth of the season – and he still has another eight more after this.

“We used to (fly) just in the summer months, but now our first show starts in January, and our last show is December 4th,” he said. “We follow about 70 degrees (temperature-wise). We start in Florida, and we end in Florida.”

He called the layout at Genesee County Airport a “perfect venue for an air show,” noting easy access to multiple towns, with Rochester to the east and Buffalo to the west – “with nice roads that lead in and out.”

“It’s a big, giant airport with lots of space so that everybody gets a front-row seat.”

Hammond also raved about the roster of performers for the Batavia show.

“The lineup for this show is nothing but headliners. You don’t see these performers gathered in one place, except maybe in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which is the second largest air show in the world (and) the largest in the western hemisphere,” he said. “If you miss this show, you have missed out on a monster opportunity to see the best of the best of the best.”

At this year’s Oshkosh show, Hammond earned the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship.

Jamieson, who has been helping Hammond for the past five years, said they connected “over our love for antique airplanes” at the old Rhinebeck Aerodrome.

He said the plane was built as a training aircraft but also has the right stuff for aerobatics.

“This one has a more modern inline-six engine – a Lycoming IO 540, with about 300 to 350 horsepower,” he said. “It’s quite a hoot of an airplane to go up and do aerobatics.”

When you add the fireworks component, the show's bound to be extra special, Hammond said.

"We'll make our appearance during the fireworks, and then we've got a whole bunch more surprises in that time," he said. "So, at night what's neat is ... we bolt about 200 pounds of fireworks on the wing tips of the airplane. So, we'll actually have fireworks coming off of the airplane while there's fireworks coming off of the ground. It is going to be a bright, spectacular event."

batavia air show arrivals aug 29 2023
Nathan K. Hammond arrived in Batavia on Tuesday in his Chipmunk skywriting plane.
Photo by Howard Owens.

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