Thunderbirds offer faster, louder air show for Dover

Note the No. 5 is upside down in recognition of its daring feat. Photo by Andrew West/Delaware State News

DOVER — It had been eight years since the Thunderbirds’ last visit.

Hopefully, we’ll not have to wait that long again.

“The Thunderbirds do their schedule about two years out, so bases have to put in their requests early,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Orfe, director of the Thunder Over Dover open house at Dover Air Force Base. “We’ve already done that for 2019.”

Up until February, he was assigned to the 3rd Airlift Squadron with the C-17s on the base. Planning for the open house became a full-time job and a team of people there coordinated everything from snow fences to port-a-potties to rental cars to make the show a success.

Certainly, the red, white and blue Thunderbirds bring a unique excitement to the area.

We have seen scores of people parked along roadsides, perched on docks, lining sidewalks and parking lots as folks quickly ducked out of their offices.

On Friday, the F-16s were in the air for a show for service members and families.

“Watched from the street in front of my house,” wrote Rhonda Tyndall in a post on the Delaware State News Facebook page. “Looked like one plane was about 100 feet above my house! I’m sure it was farther, but how exciting!”

Our Facebook page had a live video from our office parking lot.

Most every day offers an air show of some degree given our proximity to the base.

But this one was faster and louder than the usual sights and sounds that we get with the monstrous C-5M cargo plane and the C-17, its nimble stable mate in Dover.

“Is that the sound of freedom or war?” asked Melinda Parks Long in a post.

***

On Thursday, the Thunderbirds gave jetside interviews to the local media.

The sounds of the flightline occasionally interrupted us, reminding this editor of work in the garage area at Dover International Speedway — especially with Delaware State News writer and longtime NASCAR reporter Mike Finney alongside.

Looking down the flightline, we asked Lt. Col. Jason Heard, leader of the Thunderbirds, if he had been in Dover before.

Indeed, he had. He hopped a C-5 from here for a flight to England once.

From aerial imagery he studied in advance of the show and some pre-show briefings, he knew a little about Dover Air Force Base’s 70-year history in the U.S. Air Force.

The Thunderbirds align during a vertical maneuver during Saturday’s Thunder Over Dover performance. Photo by Andrew West/Delaware State News

“I would say Dover has an incredible collection of aviation and Air Force history,” said Lt. Col. Heard. “The base itself has been here for a very long time.

“The collection of airplanes you have is second to none, other than Wright-Patterson, the museum there.

“It’s an incredible base. It’s our strategic hub for airlift. Everything that goes through here goes on to Europe, goes on to the Middle East, goes on to supply our fighting men and women who are supporting our way of life.”

Lt. Col. Heard was asked if he ever envied the C-5 pilots.

“Yes,” he said. “They have a bathroom they can stand up in.”

***

Major Nate Hoffman, pilot of the No. 3 F-16, and Lt. Col. Heard each talked about getting to know an area in their survey flights upon arrival.

Dover Air Force Base is surrounded by farmland, marshes, the bay, the capital buildings and community neighborhoods.

The Thunderbirds’ home base is in Las Vegas, so Delaware offers quite a change from their usual scenery.

Lt. Col. Ryan Orfe

“Just flying around the local area, I love it,” said Maj. Hoffman. “I love the bright green and how it looks from the air and it’s cleaner than Atlantic City. We flew from Las Vegas just a few weeks ago and it’s all desert out there.”

Delaware’s flat, open terrain makes flying here a little less tricky.

Interestingly. Maj. Hoffman talked about how much the Thunderbirds like flying over water. Some of the show takes them out over the Delaware Bay near Kitts Hummock.

“Every one of us loves beach shows because the air over the water is so much smoother than it is over land,” he said.

The fields of corn and soybeans around here, though, offer a less smooth ride.

“If you have a lot of agricultural or farming land, depending on what’s growing there, you have plots of uneven heating so all of these uneven temperatures on the ground lead to turbulence,” Maj. Hoffman said. “If you’re crossing fields, you typically have a bumpier experience than you do over water when the air is more stable.”

***

We hope readers are enjoying the shots our chief photographer, Marc Clery, has taken at the air show.

He mentioned Thursday that he first shot the Thunderbirds at Dover in 1977.

Saturday’s front page was a great capture of the “Calypso Pass.” One plane is upside down below another, creating quite a daring mirror image as they pass in front of the crowd.

We met the pilot, Major Alex Turner, of the No. 5 plane which is known for its upside down feats. The number is even placed bottoms up on the plane and the pilot’s suit. He was describing how the tails of the planes are very close to touching — less than 10 feet. There are times when the tail is actually overlapping the one on the bottom.

“There’s a very specific method to the madness,” he said.

The pilots control all of it.

“You’re flying the jet through a computer,” Maj. Turner said, “but every single input is pilot driven. There’s no air show button.”

Major Ryan Bodenheimer pumps his fist at the cheering crowd Saturday after the Thunderbirds’ Thunder Over Dover performance. Photo by Andrew West/Delaware State News

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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