Thunder from the skies on tap for ShawFest

otaylor@thestate.comMay 7, 2010 

SUMTER - The blue sky, with its lazy cotton-candy clouds, was peaceful until a thunderous crackle that sounded like it was miles away. Like any early storm warning, the noise interrupted the silence of a post-lunch daydream.

Then ... whoosh.

The United States Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron, commonly referred to as The Thunderbirds, was sight-surveying the airspace around Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter on Thursday afternoon, causing a ruckus in the sky.

The whoosh is kind of like listening to, say, a vacuum cleaner mixed with a car wash at full volume with high fidelity headphones. It is loud.

If you're going to ShawFest, the open house and air show Saturday and Sunday, bring ear plugs.

And paper for an autograph.

"They're the rock stars of the Air Force," Maj. Amy Oliver said of The Thunderbirds, the squad of six F-16 fighter pilots who perform gravity-defying aerial routines.

To loosely paraphrase popular rapper M.I.A., no one in the armed services has swagger like fighter pilots. The Thunderbirds wear custom-fitted blue jumpers, and when they were on the ground, they each had on aviator shades appropriate for a top gun. The squad took off from Nellis Air Force Base in North Las Vegas - Vegas? Where else would rock star pilots live? - and flew to Sumter.

The speed breakdown: Eight- and-half miles per minute or, in a car, that would be about 560 miles per hour. The trip took about four hours because the squad had to get gas - from aerial refueling tankers. After docking under the squadron shades on the base, the pilots, who perform more than 80 shows a year, huddled for a debriefing. (The Thunderbirds travel with their own maintenance, public affairs and medical personnel.)

One pilot let a reporter climb the cockpit ladder to peer into his plane's cabin. There's more room to move in the middle seat of a compact car. What rock star travels like that?

"I don't know about that," said John Gallemore, when asked about being called a rock star. "We just consider ourselves to be representatives. We're ambassadors in blue."

The Thunderbirds perform tactical maneuvers, but they aren't a tactical squad.

"We're getting people excited about flying, about the Air Force," said Lt. Col. Dan Palubeckis, the air show director who flies F-16 jets.

The Thunderbird aerobatics, like flying low to the ground, demonstrate the capabilities of the plane, a valuable tool in the Air Force's arsenal. The cockpit bubble gives the pilots an unobstructed view of 330 degrees, said Palubeckis, who also noted the plane's air-to-ground and air-to-air efficiency.

And a sleek, maneuvering plane looks cool. Especially The Thunderbirds, each with a blue bird painted on the undercarriage.

These birds don't just fly through air turbulence; they create it.

"It's fun," Gallemore, who flies in the No. 3 plane on the right wing of the formations, said of his first year with The Thunderbirds. "It's an honor."

One more question: Does he whoosh when he's on the interstate? Gallemore laughed.

"You get all you need here," he said, pointing to the plane.

If you go

ShawFest 2010

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will headline the two-day open house and air show Saturday and Sunday and be joined by several military air demonstration teams.

Showtimes: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, with the flying beginning at 11 a.m.

Free; (803) 895-2019 or www.shawfest2010.com

Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.

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