Thunderbirds arrive for MacDill AirFest

TAMPA — If your windows rattled Thursday, no need to worry. That was just the Air Force, not an earthquake.

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The Air Force's aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, arrived Thursday afternoon at MacDill Air Force Base as its F-16 pilots prepared for this weekend's Tampa Bay AirFest 2014.

They took a few spins around MacDill and South Tampa at 600-plus mph to acclimate themselves to the terrain for their weekend performances.

They will practice today, too.

The team is expected to perform at 2:40 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday in the nimble F-16 "Fighting Falcons." The jets are capable of Mach 2 flight — nearly 1,500 mph at 5,000 feet, a little faster as the plane approaches sea level.

Or to put it in less technical terms: "We can get somewhere in a hurry if we need to," said Air Force Maj. Blaine Jones, who is in his third year as a Thunderbird pilot.

Fact of the day: The white paint base on the aircraft is designed to help reduce friction and heat at high speeds.

The Thunderbirds have 11 F-16s, six of which performed the "survey" flight as reporters looked on before the aircraft landed at MacDill.

The birds flew from Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, their home. It was a four-hour flight.

And lest anyone think the planes are all show business, the Air Force can adapt them to a combat role in 72 hours or less.

So tell the kids to behave at AirFest.

As the Thunderbirds race a few hundred feet above the crowd this weekend at MacDill, it will be reassuring to some that these pilots practice five days a week, hundreds of hours a year — even the baker flying aircraft No. 5.

That was Jones' career when he was a civilian. He joined the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Jones speaks fondly of the F-16, kind of like a teenager describing his new dirt bike.

"It's very slick and very fast and highly, highly maneuverable," Jones said. "That's the most fun about this aircraft, how quick and snappy it is."

And don't worry about engine problems grounding the Thunderbirds at AirFest. The squad has never had to cancel a performance due to mechanical issues.

They've been less successful fending off congressional budget cuts.

Forced budget cuts known as the sequester led them to cancel numerous shows, including MacDill's AirFest, in 2013.

William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432.

>> Fast facts

If you go

Gates open at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Opening ceremonies are at 10:30 a.m. Admission is free. For more details, go to www.macdill.af.mil/airfest.

Thunderbirds arrive for MacDill AirFest 03/20/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2014 12:00am]

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