BOZICH | The thunder never stops in Wayne Hettinger's Thunder command center
At Thunder Over Louisville, people line up to take a peek inside the command center, the spot on the 24th floor of the Galt House where Thunder producer Wayne Hettinger directs the show.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The planes were spinning and soaring and plunging and twisting and doing all those other remarkable things that inspire several hundred thousand people to line both sides of the Ohio River in downtown Louisville and southern Indiana for an air show punctuated by fireworks.
Wayne Hettinger was not obsessing on the aerial moves from his perch in the command center on the north end of the 24th floor in the Galt House west tower Saturday afternoon.
“I’m the least busy guy in the show today,” said Hettinger, the producer of Thunder over Louisville. “I’ve passed the baton to everybody else. I’m a cheerleader today.
“When the fireworks begin (around 9:30 p.m.), I’ll stand over there against the wall and let other people have a better view. I’ll take a deep breath when it’s over. We all will. But I’m comfortable we’re going to have a great show.”
On Thunder Day, people line up outside the command center as if it’s the start of basketball season. They want to see Hettinger and the community festival he helped to create the way they want to see Rick Pitino or John Calipari.
By 5 p.m. Saturday, nearly 20 people were parked in the hallway outside the door to the command center after they had made their way through two checks of their wristbands and credentials. There was another line of 50 or so folks to board the Galt House lobby elevator just to ride to the 24th floor so they could ease into the second line.
That’s the vibe Thunder over Louisville stirs in people. Where is the guy who makes this party work?
The hallway emptied into two rooms. Turn left and you’ll encounter military personnel coordinating the air show. Captain Josh Ketterer of Lanesville, Ind., bounces between rooms, exchanging information with Hettinger, a meteorologist and others.
“A fun day,” Ketterer said.
Turn right and that is Hettinger’s comfortable spot. A jar of red licorice sits on a table, next to a stack of Thunder posters. Four jumbo TV monitors hang from the wall on the north end of the room providing updates from (left to right) the National Weather Service; WDRB Thunder coverage; Thunder social media Tweets and the schedule of events.
From either room, the view of the Ohio River is spectacular, with people filling in every available viewing space as the day unfolds. Ron Hunter of New Albany found a dry spot 50 yards from the Second Street Bridge at 7 a.m., staking out a space for friends and family. Thunder still stirs that kind of behavior, even in its 27th year.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” said Hettinger, a Louisville native. “We want everybody to go home with a smile.”
Assistant producers and event coordinators fill three of the four available chairs in the command center, fixed on their computer screens. They cued the playing of the National Anthem at 3 p.m. and ensured that the music remained scripted to the aerial acts. All three are attentive to headsets.
The fourth chair remained empty. It was Hettinger’s.
A headset does not cover his thick, gray hair. He has refined and refreshed and reworked the Thunder script – “No Strings Attached,” – since Christmas. He’s ready to open his present to the community.
On Thunder Day, Hettinger is 70 going on 17. He doesn’t have the time or motivation to sit.
Everybody wants to visit the command center to ask Hettinger how he coordinates the planes, music, lights and fireworks. They want a picture. They’d like a poster, autographed if possible. They simply want to say, “Thank you.”
“Wayne absolutely loves this day,” said Hettinger’s wife, Pam. “He still gets excited.”
Nervous that he’s responsible for the most entertaining non-sports event on the local entertainment calendar?
Not Hettinger, Thunder’s producer.
“My work was done at 1 a.m. (Saturday),” Hettinger said. “I was so comfortable today that I stayed in bed a little later (until 8 a.m.).
‘‘I was nervous the first year (1989), because I wasn’t sure we knew what we were doing. Since then, the only thing I worry about is how can we make this thing a little better next year.”
Those are the kinds of notes that Hettinger took on Saturday. What can be done to make the 2017 show better than what he brought to downtown Louisville Saturday, which was designed to be more entertaining than what unfolded in 2015, which was set up to better than the year before? Well, you get the picture.
“The only thing I ask everybody who gets involved is that they need to be in it for the fun of it,” Hettinger said. “When the fun stops, we all go home.”
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