As 11-year-old Austin Reyes walked through a giant plane at MacDill Air Force Base, he grinned and snapped photos. The KC-10A Extender at AirFest isn't the plane that the Clearwater boy hopes to fly when he joins the Air Force one day — he'd prefer the giant C-17 Globemaster, but it was still exciting, he said.
Nearby, 14-year-old Justin Collins fired at enemy troops from a Humvee. He had just been briefed on his mission and was now carrying it out in front of large projection screens at the Virtual Army Experience.
Collins of Seminole plans to join the Coast Guard, or if that doesn't work out, the Army. He wants to be a firefighter, but he says he wouldn't mind combat.
"I'd like to shoot the guns," he said.
Though recruiters were scarce at the annual AirFest, which opens the usually off-limits base to tens of thousands of visitors, the event is one of the best recruitment tools. And it's the perfect time to remind people that at least one employer still has plenty of positions.
The approach at AirFest is subtle: impress people with massive planes, wow them with thundering flyovers and hand out trinkets emblazoned with the Air Force logo.
At the Virtual Army Experience, the mission is to inform and inspire.
"A lot of people hear Army, and they think of frontline troops," spokesman George Munro said. "But we're trying to inform them there are hundreds of jobs in the Army. You could be a cook, if you wanted to."
Historically, recruitment numbers rise during poor economic times, but many of the enthusiastic airplane lovers in the crowd are still much too young. They're the teens who watched Top Gun with their dads, and kids who brought their model airplanes to the air show.
One was 4-year-old Nathan Merritt, who opened his mouth wide and slapped his hand against his forehead as a Thunderbird ripped through the sky upside-down.
He gave that a thumbs-up.
The crowds peaked at about 75,000 just before the Thunderbirds took to the skies, officials said. Their daring formations were the highlight of the day. The crowds gasped as two closed in on each other at nearly 1,000 mph, seeming to barely miss each other.
Maj. Kirby Ensser, 33, was the right-wing pilot in the famous diamond formation. When he performs, he's focused on his next precise move. They sometimes fly just 3 feet from each other, he said, so there's no room for error.
But the work on the ground is his favorite. That's when he gets to sign autographs and ask children what they want to be when they grow up.
He says he doesn't want them to think he's just another military recruiter, even though that's one of missions of the Thunderbird pilots.
"I just like to talk about freedom, and what that costs," he said. "To me, that's the most fun."