Q&A with Thunder Over Louisville Producer Wayne Hettinger

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Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed, organized, and edited for space and clarity.

After a two-year hiatus from her beachfront home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thunder over Louisville is back downtown.

The same goes for Wayne Hettinger, who has produced the Kentucky Derby Festival star since its inception in 1989.

The theme for this year’s show, fittingly, is “The Legend Returns.”

As he heads to Thunder, The Courier Journal asked Hettinger a few questions about his story and why he thinks this year’s 24-minute display – which will celebrate the Air Force’s 75th anniversary – will be the best nowadays.

Here is what he said:

What exactly does it mean to be the producer of Thunder Over Louisville?

As a producer, I produce the whole overall concept and how we put those concepts together. And then I have teams that help me. In other words, I explain the general idea and how I see it, one folding into the other, and then I ask for their support in doing so, very honestly.

It wasn’t until Thunder that I knew anything about fireworks. … The same thing happened with the plane. …And needless to say, I was having a great time learning and working with these people because I was stepping into worlds that you just had no experience with. You just learn and get there as fast as possible.

Tell me a bit about your company, Visual Presentations Inc.

My company is 44 years old and I started… making multimedia slideshows for companies. And that’s how it started, doing their sales meetings and meetings where they needed visual support. It was my roots. I graduated from the Cincinnati Art Academy with a background in graphic design. And, as I said before, my drawing board just kept getting bigger.

Were you nervous in those early years of betting on Thunder?

I was getting into things that had never been done before. It was my ignorance that paved the way. I didn’t know you couldn’t do this, and you couldn’t do that. I just kept going. And you know, because now we were involved with two states, three cities, shutting off the Ohio River, diverting airspace because it’s on a direct route to the airport. There is a railway bridge. We’re going to have to stop the train. There were many hurdles to overcome. I guess the best thing I did was get everyone excited about the concept, and it was amazing how three cities jumped on board and it got state support. He just grew and grew.

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It’s been two years since Thunder stood at the water’s edge. Will this year’s Thunder look like a return to normal?

There is no doubt in my mind. You’ve heard the term timing is everything. And this particular show, we started creating five years ago because we knew the 75th anniversary of the Air Force was coming up. So we immediately started planning five years ago, because it was going to be very involved in getting the Air Force green light. It’s been a long five-year ride, including in the last two years several trips back and forth to the Pentagon with the Air Force, to get their approval, to support it the way they’re going to do it.

The timing is just perfect for us back on the waterfront, the Air Force’s 75th anniversary. I know everyone is excited to come out after what we’ve been through with the two years of COVID. I pray that we have good weather. It would be dynamite all around.

Tell me a bit about new static air display at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base.

This will be the first time since 9/11 that we will have the static air show. It’s a chance for people to see this plane on the ground, to talk to the pilots. You see these planes flying, that’s one thing. But to stand right next to that plane and watch it and get a chance to see them and talk to the pilots, that’s a whole other platter of entertainment. It’s something the average person doesn’t see very often.

Wayne Hettinger troubleshoots connections in the Thunder Over Louisville control room at the Galt House in this 2016 file photo.

How do you keep things fresh while respecting tradition?

It’s really a compromise because you want to make it new and exciting and different. But at the same time, several elements have become an icon of the series, and people are waiting for those icons to happen. And I’m referring to the bridge waterfall or Bogey’s March entering the finale.

When you look at him as a producer, he’s the same old lady. We have to give her a new dress and come in a different way to keep her beautiful. It’s kind of the formula, what you face every year. What can we do to add a new twist? Because we have to keep that level of excitement up there.

Do you have any pre-Thunder rituals?

A: It’s always been lucky, a bean soup lunch, and we call it “get ready and stock up.” (Hettinger explained that he takes the signal from NASAwhere it is a long Kennedy Space Center launch day tradition)

What does the day of thunder look like?

On the day of the show, everyone thinks I’m upside down when in fact I’m done. …People don’t realize that we’re putting on one of the biggest shows in the country that will air from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., and we’re going to do it without a single rehearsal.

I’m here to make a decision if we have a problem, but other than that, I’m like everyone else. I relax and enjoy the hell of a show.

Thunder was canceled in 2020 due to COVID. How did you spend this day?

It happened so fast. The whole concept for the show was in place. The music tracks have been made. We were in go mode, then it just stopped. … It was hard for all of us because our whole heart had been put into it.

We did a Zoom call with a lot of key people. We toasted, and we talked about the good times, the bad times, and we laughed a lot. And about six more toasts.

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How was planning last year modified version of Thunderwho’s seen an abbreviated airshow and multiple fireworks launch sites?

You wouldn’t believe how much we learned from this. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to have to reinvent the wheel.’ That’s when it was decided that if we can’t bring the community together, how are we going to bring the event to the community?

It was a huge undertaking. … You realize quickly, you know, we’re not going to be able to just put explosives on the truck and drag them through town … So in a weird way, I was having fun with it because it was exciting to trying to figure out a new way to approach it.

Tell me a bit more about the music for this year’s show.

We completed the trail just after Christmas. It’s going to be a totally different take this year. Again, we were figuring out how to rearrange this. We received a lot of comments. The younger crowd will love it. They will be there a lot. Frankly, there are several songs in it that I had never heard until we put them in the track.

This is where I’m very careful as I get older to train the younger one so I don’t cram an old man’s thoughts in front of everyone.

Where does the code name for your control room “Pappy” come from?

It goes back to my days in the army…I was 25 and the old man. My company commander was younger than me. … Now I’m the daddy of all these people. I mean, my God, the guys who fly on the show weren’t even born when I started this.

All of us who were in the army went where Uncle Sam sent you. And I did all my touring in Fort Knox, never left for Vietnam. I was blessed, to say the least. And quite honestly, it has been my great personal effort ever since to honor those who have served, because there was never a doubt in my mind that someone took my place in Vietnam.

I read that the “Star Wars” movies were your favorite movies?

They totally changed the movie industry. When your experience is in production and you see what George Lucas was doing and things that had never been done before, it was mind blowing. …And then musically in “Star Wars,” the John Williams tracks, I mean, there’s no one on the face of the earth who doesn’t know the whole original “Star Wars” soundtrack. … I grew up at the dawn of the whole space race. I was an absolute rocket fanatic. I loved all of that when I was a kid. … I had a huge love for NASA and what they were doing.

How come you never get tired of planning Thunder?

Well, that’s definitely a good question. And not only have I been asked this a lot, but I have asked myself this a lot. You know when people retire and all they want to do is go golfing? Most of my life has been my golf game. I was so lucky to have fun with my job.

Journalist Matthew Glowicki can be reached at [email protected], 502-582-4000 or on Twitter @mattglo.

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