Thunder Over Dover: Thunderbirds wow Dover Air Force Base families

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE — Military families turned out in droves Friday for a preview of the Dover Air Force Base’s open house and air show, Thunder Over Dover.

Toting infants in carriers and pushing children in strollers, families arrived throughout the morning, gathering for the 1 p.m. performance of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the centerpiece of the two-day event.

Macklin Risch-Bitler, 4, sat on his dad’s shoulders and clapped his hands in excitement as he watched paratroopers drop from the sky. Headphones clamped on his ears and wearing a jumpsuit like his dad’s, Macklin was ready for the Thunderbirds appearance.

Staff Sgt. Jacob Risch, a load master at the base, said Dover’s air show was his son’s second one.

“Every chance I get to take him out, I bring him out,” he said.

Maj. Alex Turner flies upside down over Maj. Witt Collins during the Thunderbirds Calypso Maneuver during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The aerial maneuvers of the six Thunderbirds pilots commanding F-16 Fighting Falcons visibly awed the crowd sitting in chairs, gathering on blankets and standing with heads tilted to the sky as the planes zoomed overhead.

Jessica Hauer said she had goosebumps watching the show with her husband John, who is a full-time civilian reservist, and seven children.

“They love going to Daddy’s job to see what he does,” said Jessica, who is pregnant with their eighth child.

Ssgt. Mitchell Simpson points so his son Elijah, 3, can spot paratroopers during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“I’ve never seen the Thunderbirds. I think I was just as excited as the kids were.”

Nine-year-old Olivia’s favorite trick was when the planes flew apart in different directions. Sister Abigail, 7, liked the diamond roll, and brother, John III, 6, said, “I liked the part when the two airplanes crossed.”

He also had high compliments for the lunch served by Mission BBQ.

Most children interviewed Friday named the Thunderbirds as their favorite aspect of Family Day.

The team returns, along with nearly two dozen other aerial performers today and Sunday.

Ssgt. Jacob Risch and his son Macklin Risch-Bitler, 4, watch paratroopers during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

That’s when the general public will have its opportunity to access the base and see the show up close.

Gates open at 9 a.m. each day and activities run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with opening ceremonies at 10 a.m. both days.

Activities include a kids’ zone with bouncy houses, food and drink vendors, merchandise tents and dozens of displays related to aircraft, military groups and emergency response operations.

Civilian and military workers stationed at Dover said they appreciated the opportunity Friday to bring their children and grandchildren to the base to show them what they do and what goes on behind the gates along Del. 1 and Bay Road.

April Higgins, a flight chief with the Logistics Readiness Squadron, said she will volunteer today and work in the Emergency Operations Center Sunday. So she was excited to bring her 12-year-old son Caleb Owen to the air show and open house Friday.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to bring him on because I was stationed overseas for awhile,” said Ms. Higgins, who had been at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “I think this is awesome.”

Six-year-old Hudson Gardner sat with his siblings to watch Australian strongman Grant Edwards, commander with the Australian Federal Police, practice for his weekend attempt to pull a C-17 Globemaster III in an effort to set a world record for the heaviest aircraft moved by a human.

“Dad, he’s not pulling it,” said Hudson as Cmdr. Edwards strained against his harness.

Cpt. Dustin Ash helps strap his daughter Evalyn, 5, into a seat on a C131 transport plane during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“Keep watching,” said dad, Jason Gardner.

As the kids waited to see the plane budge, another performance caught the crowd’s eye and heads swiveled toward the air field and the sky above as seven members of the Army Black Daggers floated to the ground in black-and-red parachutes.

Hudson, along with siblings, Reese, 8, and Cannon, 3, had visited their grandmother, who is a fire dispatcher at the base, earlier in the day and were looking forward to more activities of the air show.

“I wish the airplane blasted off,” said Hudson, pointing to the C-17.

Jessica Avelino, who moved to Dover after her husband was stationed here four years ago, took a photo of their three children, ages 5, 3 and 1, with the paratroopers Friday.

Air shows are a regular part of family life; their oldest son has now attended three events.

“They like getting a chance to look at what he does,” Ms. Avelino said.

After catching sneak peeks of the Thunderbirds flying in the area since they arrived earlier this week, anticipation has been building for the official air show this weekend.

The Thunderbirds perform a Low Bomb Burst during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“We can see them rehearse. (The kids have been) been watching them from the backyard and they’ve been asking, ‘Is today Friday?’” she said.

Ken Hamm, an avionics technician who lives in Smyrna, explained the inner workings of a C-17 on display to his grandson Jacob Evans, 14.

Paratroopers from the Army Black Daggers Mass Exit Show during Family Day at Dover Air Force Base on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

In addition to walking the grounds and viewing the various aircraft on display and touring the cargo planes that fly out of Dover, Jacob said his favorite part was the Thunderbirds — he’s seen videos, but never the aerial tricks in person.

“It’s an opportunity to show him what we do,” Mr. Hamm said. “He was the only one available today. The other two (grandchildren) are coming tomorrow.”

Ashley Dawson is managing editor of the Delaware State News. Email adawson@newszap.com.

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