Thunderbirds roar into Dover

Maj. Nick Krajicek parks his Thunderbird on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base on Thursday.( Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The thunderous roar of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team invaded the airspace over the city of Dover just after 11 on Thursday morning.

If people didn’t get the chance to see them — many motorists were pulled over onto the shoulders of Del. 1 and other roads near Dover Air Force Base — they certainly got the chance to hear the F-16 Fighting Falcons as they arrived full throttle for this weekend’s “Thunder Over Dover” air show and Open House.

Maj. Nate Hofmann, the right wing pilot for the Thunderbirds in the No. 3 jet, said arriving in a different city for an air show never gets old.

“Sometimes we’ll look down and see the traffic buildup and it’s humbling,” Maj. Hofmann said. “We’re doing something very special and the fact that people will stop what they’re doing just to watch … it’s just special.

“This is my first time to Delaware and I can tell you just flying around the Dover area, I just love it.”

Three of the Thunderbirds fly over Dover Air Force Base on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Thunderbirds will be the featured performers in the air show and open house at Dover Air Force Base on Saturday and Sunday. The event, which is free and open to the public, will run from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. both days.

A Thunderbirds’ practice performance is expected to take place today at 1 p.m. during “Military Family Day.” (While area residents may see and hear plenty of aerial action today, the event does not open to the public until the weekend.)

Lt. Col. Ryan Orfe, who has been organizing Thunder Over Dover full-time since February, is both excited and thankful that the event is almost here.

“I’m really happy,” Lt. Col. Orfe said. “Any large-scale event like this is going to have a little bit of hiccups along the way but we’re dealing with them as they come and everything’s coming together really nice.

“The ramp is transforming from just a long line of C-5s and C-17s to an Open House static display and parking area. We’re really excited to see it coming together.”

Indeed, concession tents were put up, portable toilets were lined up and aircraft were arriving throughout the day Thursday.

First Open House since 2009

Lt. Col. Jason Heard, who is the commander/leader of the Thunderbirds, said his team is happy to return to Dover for the first time since 2009.

Thunderbird lead solo pilot Maj. Alex Turner talks with the media at Dover Air Force Base on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We’re very excited,” Lt. Col. Heard said. “(Dover) is a very important base for the Air Force, a major center for our strategic airlift, and a lot of movements come in and out of here on their way to the contingency operations in the wartime places.

“So it’s really a vital base for our city and there’s a longtime relationship between the community here and the Air Force.”

The seven Thunderbird pilots were impressed when they got a glimpse of a C-5M Super Galaxy sitting just down the runway at the air base when they landed at Dover.

“From what I understand it’s a completely different challenge to fly such an enormous aircraft,” said Maj. Alex Turner, the lead solo pilot for the Thunderbirds in the No. 5 aircraft. “It’s just a different skill, for sure.

“I very much respect the work that they do here in the 436th Wing and the amount of airlift they provide for our nation, I think it’s about 25 percent of our national airlift right here, so that’s pretty impressive.”

Air show attendees should keep an eye out for Maj. Turner. The number on the side of his plane and on his uniform is upside-down for a reason.

He will be the one that will most likely scare the daylights out of people with an unexpected pass from the rear during the Thunderbirds’ performance.

Attendees will also become familiar with classic Thunderbird maneuvers such as the Arrowhead Loop, High Bomb Burst, Cross Over Break, Calypso and others as they show off the power and fury of the F-16.

Performing on base is ‘special’

Lt. Col. Heard said every show is special in its own unique way, but he really likes to get the chance to perform on military installations.

“It’s always special,” he said. “Our mission is to recruit, entertain and inspire the next generation of airmen. When we can do that right on an Air Force Base and for it to be free to the public and we can have our currently serving military members as well as veterans at the show, it means a lot to us.

“We’re really proud to represent 660,000 active duty Guard and Reserve airmen and getting to do that right here at Dover Air Force Base is incredible.”

Maj. Turner said the Air Force has been a part of his family for his entire life, so flying as the lead solo pilot for the Thunderbirds is something he has always wanted to do.

“It’s a thrill,” Maj. Turner said. “I’m an Air Force brat, my father was a B-52 radar navigator, so I traveled the country growing up with my family. I remember going to air shows and sitting on shoulders pointing at the jets just like the Thunderbirds, going, ‘Hey, that’s it. That’s what I want to do.’

“Hard work is typically the foundation to everything but there’s a little bit of luck in timing that I’ve felt in my life and it’s a privilege to be a part of the team.”

Lt. Col. Heard said that people who were impressed with seeing the Thunderbirds in the sky on Thursday should definitely come out to this weekend’s show.

“That wasn’t even a practice,” he said. “That was a site survey, so we were taking stock of any obstacles and making sure that we understood all the visual references that we need to put on a safe and dynamic show.”

Maj. Hoffman said the Thunderbirds will fly over the Delaware Bay during some of their maneuvers and the jets actually perform smoother over water.

“Believe it or not these 100-foot (light) towers along the flight line are a concern because we’re down at around 150 feet (at times during the show),” said Maj. Hoffman. “But actually, the show site is great.”

Two days of aerial awe

The Thunder Over Dover air show will begin with an opening ceremony at 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday and will feature several aerial performers throughout the day, highlighted by the Thunderbirds’ dazzling show of precision pilot skills from 3 until 5 p.m. both days.

The air show will also feature the USAF Academy Wings of Blue and Army Special Operations Black Daggers parachute teams, a C-17 demonstration team, a flyover by a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, World War II aircraft and more.

People will also be able to get up-close-and-personal with static aircraft and some of the airmen who fly them.

“It gives a lot of interaction with our airmen on base to tell their story and we can listen to the stories that the community has as well,” said Lt. Col. Orfe, who is prepared for up to 150,000 visitors each day. “You get that one-on-one interaction back and forth.

“We’ve got airmen from across the base volunteering for parking, security detail, the med tents, the concession stands, manning the aircraft, hospitality … there’s a whole litany of stuff that guys and girls are volunteering for here on base to help make this happen.

“As we like to say, ‘We’re all, all in’ for this Open House.”

Reach staff writer Mike Finney

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