TAMPA — About 200,000 visitors are expected to descend on MacDill Air Force Base on Saturday and Sunday to watch the Thunderbirds precision aerobatics team soar thrillingly close to one another.
The Air Force's elite jet jockeys will dazzle the crowd as part of Tampa Bay AirFest, which celebrates the 75th anniversary of the air base. The event is free to the public.
Written in the wheel well of the team leader's jet will be the name of 1st Lt. Joseph Helton, to whom the show is dedicated.
Helton, an Air Force Academy graduate who was based at MacDill, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2009 at age 24. He was the first Air Force security forces (military police) officer to be killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Air Force Security Forces Association.
"These things always have a high and low to it," said Helton's mother, Jiffy Helton Sarver, speaking by phone from her hometown of Monroe, Ga. She and about 40 members of her family, including Helton's three sisters, nephews, cousins and a great-aunt, will be on hand for the ceremony at MacDill honoring Helton.
They're excited and feel honored, she said. "Then you think of the reason why we're going down there, and it's bittersweet."
The Thunderbirds team plans to gather the family in the VIP tent and "give them the red carpet treatment," Capt. Sara Harper, the team's media spokeswoman, said in an email.
Harper said a dedication message to Helton will be read when the six airplanes come together for the first time in the "Delta Bottom Up Pass" maneuver. When the pilots land, the family will be taken to see Lt. Helton's name in the jet.
The Thunderbirds will perform about 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday to close each day's show. But from the show's start at 11 a.m., people will find plenty of reasons to crane their necks. Other air show stalwarts, including the Red Bull Air Force, the Geico Skytypers and the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute team, will be part of a continuous show, said MacDill spokesman Terry Montrose.
All the while, visitors can check out plenty of exhibits on the ground, including the new F-35 jet fighter, an A-10 Warthog, a World War II C-47 transport and P-51 Mustang, which is part of a traveling exhibit on the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
Civilians can get a close-up look at a B-1 bomber, too. It is scheduled to take off about noon Sunday, and if you want to watch it, bring your earplugs.
"It's one of the loudest aircraft we have,'' Montrose said.
The dedication to Helton will begin just before the Thunderbirds take off. A film detailing highlights of his life and service will be shown on large screens.
Helton, who grew up in Monroe, was a cross-country runner, soccer standout and honor student who was accepted to both West Point and the Air Force Academy. He was from a family of veterans and had his sights on a military career since childhood, his mother said. His first drawings were of warships and warplanes.
Sarver chairs the Lt. Joseph Helton Foundation, which raised money to have a statue sculpted in Helton's image. It will serve as a memorial in Monroe to troops who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Col. Dennis Keegan, Helton's sponsor for the Air Force Academy, paid to have a duplicate statue made, which they hope to erect at MacDill. Sarver said she hopes to raise the $23,000 for a pedestal and site preparation from Tampa sponsors. The statue would go up at the security forces building, Helton Hall, which was named for the lieutenant.
Called "an amazing airman'' by his commanding officer, Helton had been in charge of the detachment in Baghdad to train Iraqi police officers.
He was serious when he needed to be, but he also knew how to have fun, his mother said. Her voice still breaks when she talks about him.
"He was always telling me I was way too serious and I needed to lighten up,'' she said.
He was a terrific cook, loved to bake, made fabulous baklava. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday, and he was planning to be home that Nov. 26 to celebrate with his family. He died on Sept. 8.
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.