As good ideas frequently do, the idea for what is now Thunder Over Evans came to Windsor Jewelers’ Donnie Thompson completely by chance but also by careful observation.
“This was back years ago,” he said, although he still shakes his head at the memory. “I was standing at the airport taking a plane to Charlotte and a soldier came in. He was in his uniform and he had a big sack he was carrying and he was about two minutes late.”
Just two minutes. Despite that, the airline worker decided not to bend the rules. Thompson, in shock, watched as the woman told the soldier that he wouldn’t make his flight.
“She turned him down and I thought, here’s somebody just trying to get home and she showed him no compassion,” he said. “I even called in a complaint about it back then. I just thought they deserve more than that kind of treatment.”
Not long afterwards, Thompson was at a meeting with friends Andy Jones and the late Dale Phelon when he told them the story.
“We just said, ‘Hey, let’s do something,’” he said. “We couldn’t do anything about what happened at the airport and the airlines but we can make the military feel good. And that’s really what this is about. It’s a community event to make the military feel good. And you will feel good that day about patriotism and the military.”
The event, headed up by the three businessmen, began as Thunder Over Augusta and was originally held downtown, but Thompson said they quickly grew out of their first home.
“We had it downtown originally at the Common,” he said, “but, I mean, you couldn’t even get a fourth of it in there now.”
Thompson is not wrong. Beginning at 11 a.m., Thunder Over Evans has something for visitors to do all day long and takes up almost all of Evans Towne Center Park.
Because of demonstrations like the K-9 working dogs from Columbia County, a Team FMX motocross show, the Timberworks Olympics of the Forest lumberjack show, as well as aircraft flyovers and skydive drop-ins, there’s something going on at all times.
A schedule of events for Thunder Over Evans is at the bottom of this page.
Also to take part in is an adult obstacle course that’s 128 feet long, a kids zone for the children including a number of inflatables, military displays, both publicly and privately owned, that visitors can check out, and food vendors.
“It’s a good event for children, with lots of things they can play on, things they can see,” Thompson said. “This year there’s going to be a lot of military equipment that’s privately owned that people have fixed up from World War I, World War II and Vietnam, jeeps that belong to private people that are going to be on display. We’ve got one big military helicopter coming in, plus the two you can buy rides on and, I think, other than food and the helicopter rides, everything else is free. For free, it’s good entertainment and kids have a blast. They love it.”
As Thompson mentioned, civilians will have the rare chance to ride military helicopters.
The Army Aviation Heritage Foundation from Hampton, Ga., will bring a UH-1 Huey Helicopter and AH-1 Cobra Helicopter to Thunder Over Evans.
The UH-1 Huey Helicopter first flew in 1956 and was the first helicopter powered by a turbo shaft engine, according to a spokesperson from the AAHF.
The Huey was primarily designed as a troop transport and could carry 10 soldiers including a crew of three. Its combat service included medical evacuation, search and rescue and other general utility roles, according to AAHF.
The UH-1 Huey is the world’s most recognizable helicopter and its look and sound has become one of the most iconic symbols of the Vietnam War.
More than 7,000 Hueys served in Vietnam and they totaled 7,531,955 flight hours, according to the AAHF.
The Cobra was developed out of the requirement by the U.S. Army for specialized fire suppression and armed escort during the Vietnam War.
The first Cobra arrived in Vietnam in August 1966 and was configured with a variety of weapon systems depending on its combat mission.
Cobras flew more than 1 million flight hours in Vietnam.
Huey rides will be $75 per rider. Cobra rides are $300 for a standard ride (6-7 minutes) and $500 for an extended ride (13-14 minutes).
“There’s a lot to do all day,” Thompson said, adding that, with the exception of one thing, visitors can really come any time. “If you’re going to do helicopter rides it’s best to get on in there early, but the shows are timed to where one show goes, and then another show goes and then another one goes, so there’s always something to do.”
And throughout the day, while the public is learning about some of the things that the military does, members of the military who attend will be treated like the VIPs they should always be treated as. Some will be in uniform, brought by bus from Fort Gordon, and others will come on their days off. All will be treated well.
Thompson said members of the 319th Transportation Company, located in Augusta, always volunteer their time at Thunder Over Augusta to serve their fellow soldiers.
“They come out and they want to help,” he said. “They actually prepare the food and serve the food to the military. It’s part of their giving back for their time in the service. It’s a very good group of people and they put in a lot of time preparing the food.”
To find out more about the 319th Transportation Company, a documentary called “Troxler’s Truckers: Memories of Vietnam” can be found at jimmyslens.com/html/filmmaker.html.
Not only will members of the military be fed well, but they’ll also have a front-row view of the day’s entertainment.
After a Signal Corps Band Concert at 4 p.m. and the posting of the colors and a welcome at public message from Major General Stephen G. Fogarty at 4:45 p.m., there will be a few more demonstrations before an intermission at 7 p.m., followed by a Band X concert at 7:45 p.m.
Live music, Thompson said, has always been an important part of Thunder Over Evans.
“We’ve had a variety of bands and we try to get something different each year,” he explained. “Gary Sinise, I think has been here twice and this year we got a Top 40 band out of Atlanta.”
“We have increased the fireworks, I think by 30 percent,” Thompson said of the display, which is already the biggest fireworks display in the area. “It should be great. People love fireworks.”
And they’ll definitely love these fireworks. With a theme of the Vietnam War, which the U.S. is commemorating the 50th anniversary of between Memorial Day of 2012 and Veterans Day of 2025, the display is overseen by Thomson, Ga., pyrotechnician Craig Butler, along with East Coast Pyrotechnics. It will have a soundtrack that includes music from the Vietnam era, a campaign ribbon bar for the war in fireworks and a finale that features 8,000 shells going off in just one minute.
Despite that, Thompson said you really need to be at Evans Towne Center Park to get the full effect of the display.
“Now, you can still see it from parking lots around, but if you want the real effect of it, you need to be in the park,” he said. “You can’t see it from miles away. You’ll hear it from miles away, but you want to see it too.”
“I’m going to tell you that there will be times when you think you’re in a war zone because, I mean, you’re going to feel the pyrotechnics,” he continued. “You can hear this thing for miles when they go off. That’s where we got the ‘Thunder’ from in the name. It sounds like thunder.”
Augusta and its surrounding communities are fortunate, Thompson said, that we are on the cutting edge of the American military.
“With the Cyber Command Center that’s coming, I think it’s the new way they’re going to wage war: electronically,” he explained. It’s a whole different military now. It’s sophisticated and I think Augusta is going to be poised for the future. We have more heavyweight military here than most bases due to what’s going on.”
And Thompson want to make sure the military know that they are an important part of the community.
“This is really about a military day and when you’re there you’ll see that,” he explained. “It’s really about the community. We want to be a part of that community.”
Thunder Over Evans
Evans Towne Center Park
Saturday, May 21
11 a.m.-10 p.m.