TAMPA — The hugely popular AirFest returns to MacDill Air Force Base this weekend, but you need to get an early start if you want to get in.
This year, the military base has about one-third fewer parking spaces because of ongoing major construction projects. By mid-afternoon Saturday and Sunday, MacDill officials expect to be turning cars away.
"There's a lot less parking available, so we've gotten more creative. The rules against parking on the grass will be temporarily relaxed this year," said Lt. Rebecca Heyse, a MacDill spokeswoman. Still, the base has only 11,000 to 13,000 spaces, about 5,000 fewer than usual, because some lots are covered in mounds of dirt or construction materials. "We encourage people to carpool when they can, and arrive early."
The catch is, people already show up early for AirFest. MacDill's gates open to the public at 8 a.m. and the show starts an hour later, but cars typically begin lining up outside the base as early as 6 a.m. to avoid the annual traffic jam. About 300,000 people attended the free two-day event last year.
Once MacDill's lots are full, people must park off the base and walk in, Heyse said. This is more complicated and is not for everyone; late arrivals should wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a healthy walk on a sunny day. There's no official AirFest parking off-base.
MacDill anticipates closing its gates to traffic by 3 p.m. at the latest, but probably sooner. Electronic signs posted along major roads leading to the base will tell drivers when that has happened, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
"When they reach capacity, we'll be making sure that spectators know that well in advance," Davis said. "We'll have officers stationed on the main thoroughfares to divert traffic."
Latecomers who can't drive onto the base Saturday can try again the next day, Heyse said. "Sunday is usually a bit slower than Saturday."
The reason AirFest is so popular is its impressive array of military exhibitions in the air and on the ground. Also, did we mention that it's free?
This year's headliners are the Snowbirds, an elite precision flying team that is the Canadian armed forces' equivalent of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels or the Air Force's Thunderbirds. They'll perform from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. both days.
The U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team will take part in each day's 9 a.m. opening ceremonies before doing their full show at 2:40 p.m.
A multitude of aircraft will be taking to the skies, including F-4 Phantom fighters, KC-135 Stratotankers, B-25 bombers and FA-18 Hornets, the Navy's premier fighter jets.
Down on the tarmac, people can check out hardware such as A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthog" jet fighters, FA-18 Super Hornets, "Super Jolly Green Giant" combat helicopters and the C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest military aircraft in the world.
"It's very impressive. It's what they use to transport tanks overseas," Heyse said.
Once again, an inflatable hangar will offer the "Virtual Army Experience," part video game, part theme park ride and part recruiting tool. It gives civilians a taste of street-level combat in Iraq. Inside, mock Humvees sit in front of projection screens while kids and their parents hunch over faux machine guns, blasting insurgents.
The line for that is usually very long.
All in all, AirFest functions as MacDill's annual open house. Said Heyse, "This is our way to say thank you to the Tampa Bay community."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.
Schedule for Saturday, Sunday
8 a.m.: Gates open
9 a.m.: Opening ceremonies, featuring parachute team
9:20 a.m.-2:40 p.m.: A dozen aerial demonstrations
2:40-3 p.m.: Parachute team's full show
3 p.m. or earlier: Gates close to traffic
3-5 p.m.: Headlining act Canadian Forces Snowbirds
5 p.m.: Show ends
BRING: Identification, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, earplugs, beach chairs, cameras, binoculars and cell phones in case your party gets separated
DON'T BRING: Pets, coolers, large tote bags, glass bottles, alcohol, fireworks, weapons, bicycles, skateboards, scooters, in-line skates or Heelys wheeled sneakers