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Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds are go!

The crack Air Force squadron headlines the list of other dynamic aerobatic performers at the 2019 Florida International Air Show

 

Jet planes will fly wing-to-wing. Smaller aircraft will roll and tumble across the sky like so many gymnasts in the clouds. Parachutes will mushroom aloft.

And nowhere in the crowd at the Florida International Air Show will there be eyes gazing at the tree line at Punta Gorda Airport. All eyes will be turned to the sky.

The 38th edition of the Air Show, scheduled for Nov. 1-3, promises to feature more speed, more pyrotechnics, and more jaw-dropping aerials than ever before. The event opens with a nighttime show on Friday, Nov. 1, that includes a spectacular fireworks display.

The Florida International Air Show is an all-volunteer organization that relies on about 400 volunteers. The show benefits nonprofits in Charlotte County, many of which will have a presence at the show. Last year, the Air Show distributed funds to 23 local nonprofits.

Attendance this year is expected to more than double, thanks to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, which are the headliners among the numerous other aerobatic acts.

“It’s going to be very, very exciting,” said Dana Carr, Air Show board president.

The show drew 20,000 last fall — but Carr expects this year’s attendance to top 45,000 because of the presence of the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds, whose last flight at the Florida International Air Show was in 2014, are scheduled to perform Nov. 2 and 3.

“It has been a while since they’ve been here, so there’s a huge, pent-up demand,” Mr. Carr said. “In addition, this is their only 2019 show in Florida, so we’re expecting their fans from all over the state to be on hand for the performances. “We’re excited about the Thunderbirds coming. Their appearance has created a huge buzz. We anticipate record attendance.”

The Thunderbirds demonstration squadron was created in 1953, making it the third-oldest flying aerobic team in the world. It was formed after the Navy’s Blue Angels in 1946, and the French Air Force’s Patrouille de France in 1931. The Thunderbirds perform about 64 shows a year.

The squadron is composed of six F-16 jets performing formation flying and solo routines. The stunts have names such as the Calypso Pass — two fighters pancaked with one inverted — the Diamond Opener, the Delta Blast and the High-Bomb Burst.

“The jets can fly as fast as 1,500 mph, and can reach 50,000 feet. About 29,000 pounds of thrust hammer from the back. The pilots can pull up to 9 Gs — nine times their body weight. So, if the pilot weighs 200 pounds, he would be pinned in the cockpit by 1,800 pounds of thrust.

The show will be the last on the road for the Thunderbirds in their 2019 schedule. After Punta Gorda, the team is scheduled to return to its home, Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, and perform its finale Nov. 15-17.

“This will be our last show on the road before we do our closer at home,” said Maj. Jason Markzon, the Thunderbirds’ advance pilot and narrator. “One thing you have in our season, which starts in March and ends in November, you’re on the road 200 days a year. To finish the season in Florida is going to be exciting for us. I know we’re going to bring a lot of energy to Punta Gorda.”

The Thunderbirds may be the stars, but they are not the only attraction.

RedLine: return from tragedy

When RedLine Air Shows, the air aerobatic team out of Cincinnati, had to cancel from last year’s Florida International Air Show because of the death of one of its pilots, the possibility that RedLine had perished with him was real.

“The hours that pass immediately after, you’re not sure what you’re going to do,” said Ken Rieder, RedLine founder.

He was in the air performing with Jon Thocker when the latte pilot “became disoriented” and flew his plane into the ground at a show in Culpepper, Virginia.

The tragedy occurred just days before RedLine was scheduled to perform at the Punta Gorda show. Mr. Rieder, after considering honoring his commitment with a solo show, took his wife’s advice and canceled. When he informed Mr. Carr of his decision, the Air Show board president didn’t hesitate.

Punta Gorda was the “first show to call me and say, ‘Keep the deposit; you’re hired for next year,’” Mr. Rieder recalled. “It put a tear to I my eye. I’m looking forward to coming back.”

“We really wanted to support him during that difficult time,” Mr. Carr said. “It had only been a week. A lot of things were up in the air. He called me and offered a refund right away. I turned him down. I said I was confident in his ability to rebound and come back next year.”

Next year is here. And RedLine, which performed to oohs and aahs in Punta Gorda in 2017, is back with its two-plane formation aerobatics — and Mr. Rieder will pilot the plane delivering fireworks at the Nov. 1 evening performance.

Mr. Rieder promises a performance that will elicit gasps from the crowd.

In one of the stunts, the RV8s cross paths as they fly away from the crowd. To the folks on the ground, it looks like they’re going to hit.

Following the choreographed near miss — and after the fans catch their collective breath — the pilots perform the stunt again – only this time the planes are inverted.

“We’re different because we’re a formation act,” he said. “We do loops, rolls, switchbacks.”

Sharing the skies

In addition to the Thunderbirds and RedLine, the Air Show also will feature acts such as the McCart jet-powered truck; the DASH AeroSports L-39 Albatross; Matt Younkin in his twin Beech 18; the GEICO Skytypers Airshow Team; and the U.S. Special Operations Command’s premier aerial parachute demonstration team floating in the sky. Also on hand will be Patty Wagstaff — a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team who has won the gold, silver and bronze medals in Olympic-level international aerobatic competition — who made her Florida International Air Show debut in 1998. She is the first woman to win the title of U.S. National Aerobatic Champion — and one of the few people to win it three times.

Returning as the air boss (the individual who controls the event environment, including air space and other aviation activities) is Wayne Boggs, star of the PBS documentary/reality show “Air Boss, ” who is recognized as one of the top air bosses — and undoubtedly the most famous — in the nation.

In addition to the action in the sky, more than 25 aircraft — including a P-51 Mustang and a Huey helicopter — will be on static display all weekend. Demonstration equipment from all branches of the military also will be on exhibit.

Mr. Carr offered a couple pieces of advice to those who plan to attend the Air Show.

“The biggest thing right now is to purchase tickets ahead of time,” he said, noting that discounts are available to online buyers. “You’ll save money and avoid lines. Second, come early. If you wait and come at noon, there’re going to be some lines. Coming early doesn’t mean you’ll have to sit and twiddle your thumbs until show time. With the static displays, food, drink and other vendors, there’re easily four to five hours of entertainment on the ground. There will be plenty to do up to the show beginning.”

Mr. Rieder is excited about delivering the opening night’s fireworks on Friday. The pyrotechnics will be strapped to his wing tips for the show.

Mr. Carr called the fireworks display, “airborne pyrotechnics on steroids. When the aircraft is lit up and pyrotechnics are coming off the wing tips, it’s really spectacular.”

“I’m not bragging, but it’s the best out there,” Mr. Rieder said. “It’s going to be something else.”