Steve Kutalek, 68, and his son Harrison, 14, a Civil Air Patrol cadet, flew down from southern New Jersey in Kutalek’s single-engine Mooney plane, where they landed at a nearby airfield to attend the expo.
“There’s just nothing quite like being at a show and hearing the roar of the planes flying by,” Kutalek said.
Moments later, an F-35 flew overhead, approaching almost silently and passing with a bone-jarring bang. At an air show, the sound is rousing. In war one could only imagine the fear it would inspire.
The plane put on a spectacular show, flying low to the ground and then rocketing straight up, spinning upside down and screeching back to the ground.
The biennial fair was supposed to take place last year but was canceled due to the pandemic. This year coincided almost to the day with the 75th anniversary of the Air Force. The Air Force was created on September 18, 1947 by the National Security Act of 1947 as a separate branch of the military.
There were plenty of high-profile guests to celebrate, but mostly in the VIP tent closest to the runway. Generals, colonels and majors socialized with guests, including some of their counterparts from other nations.
In the huge concrete parking lot behind them, viewers of the free event could climb aboard or get up close and personal with an alphabet-and-numbers soup of planes and helicopters, including the UH-1N Huey helicopter, the F-22 Raptor, the KC-46A Pegasus and the HC-130J Combat King II.
Maj. Kory Cookson greeted visitors as they boarded the Andrews Flight Line’s C-5M Super Galaxy. The cargo and troop carrier is the largest aircraft in the Air Force and, at seven stories, the tallest aircraft in the world.
Cookson, 32, the plane commander, said that flying the monster plane was similar to flying any other plane. “You lose sight of how big it is in the air.” But on the ground, he said, “it feels like you’re moving a building.”
With all their impressive feats and exciting aerobatic figures, these are of course weapons of war. And expensive. The Biden administration’s proposed 2023 budget for the US Air Force and Space Force is $194 billion, up $12 billion from 2022, according to Defense News Weekly.
The event is a showcase of what much of that money bought – like the B-2 stealth bomber – and is also a promotional tool for the military. In addition to the numerous hot dog, hamburger, and ice cream stands at the fair, there were also recruiting stations for each branch of the military.
It’s also a way for the Air Force to pay tribute to its history by flying over vintage aircraft, including a WWII-era B-17 and B-25.
Narongrit Dulsaeng, 19, a University of Maryland student enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program, brought classmates Dinh Huynh, Veerapetch Petchger and Jeff Tran to the show.
“I wanted to bring my friends and share what I know with them,” Dulsaeng said. “Obviously it’s cool to see the planes, but it’s also very impressive to see how far we’ve come with these technological advances.”
Tran noted that this year’s event will have far-reaching implications given the war in Ukraine and tensions in Eastern Europe.
“If we put up a display like that, other countries will definitely notice,” he said.
If there was a star at the air show — and every show needs a star — it was the Thunderbirds, the US Air Force’s F-16 demonstration squadron that creates breathtaking flight displays that require a combination of exquisite precision and ice through the veins .
The planes fly at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour and generate closure rates of 1,200 miles per hour as they head towards each other before turning in designated passes.
In some formations, the F-16s zoom through the air in close proximity to one another. About 18 inches at points.
“It’s extremely tight,” noted the team’s commander, Lt. Col. Justin J. Elliott, 40, in the cool, calm manner pilots use when discussing situations that make other people’s stomachs turn. “Significant wingtip overlap, meaning we hit when they miss – up, down. So the challenge lies not only in the unity of the formation, but in its stability.”
“I wouldn’t call it scared, but I would call it 100 percent focused,” Elliott said with a laugh in an interview last week. “You can’t take your eyes off the ball.”
The team, based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, flies twice daily during the training season in preparation for events like Saturday’s exhibition.
Elliott said his squad hopes to leave the crowd watching the maneuvers with a sense of pride and belonging.
“This demo is designed to show you that no matter where you are from or how many generations you live in this country, we are your Air Force,” he said. “When we get this right, we unite divided times and we encourage and inspire people to give the best version of themselves for something bigger than themselves. That’s what this is about.”
Organizers said they expect about 75,000 visitors over the weekend for the free event, which resumes at 9am on Sunday