For Melvin Barnes, the sight of the famous Air Force Thunderbirds roaring by just a few yards away was more than exhilarating. It was a dream come true.
The former detention officer from Easley has been a Thunderbird enthusiast for years, watching them over and over again on YouTube; but, he had never seen the world’s premier aerobatic team live.
So on Friday he drove his family – wife, Teresa, son Andrew and three grandchildren – from the Upstate to Sumter to see them in person, at a practice event for the Shaw Air Expo, which beings today.
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“It’s a real thrill,” the former detention officer said, beaming. “It exceeded everything I thought it would be. You can just feel it!”
Friday’s practice was open to veterans and those with disabilities – so it was an intimate performance for Barnes, who has multiple sclerosis. This weekend, however, up to 100,000 people are expected at Shaw Air Force Base for the expo, which features 19 performers headlined by the Thunderbirds and the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights, and dozens of displays of aircraft from the pre-World War II DeHavilland Tiger Moth to the modern F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
The show also will feature the Geico Skytypers, S.C. National Guard helicopters and the tiny “jelly belly” L-6 that can land on the back of a moving truck.
The gates open at 7:30. a.m. And the opening act, featuring the Golden Knight skydiving team kicks off at 11 a.m. The Thunderbirds close out the show at about 3 p.m.
The air shows at Shaw began shortly after World War II and are now held every two years. They are both a recruiting tool for the Air Force, a display of patriotic pride and a way to thank the community for their support.
“A lot of this is good old fashioned ‘open the gates and let them come in,’” said 1st Lt. Ann Blodzinski, a Shaw spokeswoman. “We’re always making a lot of noise. So this is a chance to let people walk right up to the planes and enjoy them.”
Visitors are encouraged to bring water in unopened, clear bottles, as well as sunscreen and umbrellas. Coolers, firearms, alcohol, outside food and backpacks are prohibited. Visitors can enter the base through the main gate on U.S. 378, or take a shuttle from Sumter Mall.
Shaw is home to the 20th Fighter Wing, the largest F-16 wing in the Air Force – three squadrons with 85 jets. It is also the new home to Third Army and Ninth Air Force – the planning and logistics arm for the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Unlike other military installations, Shaw is not open to the public as a rule. So this weekend’s show is a bit of a homecoming for the airmen and soldiers stationed there.
Blodzinski was lounging in the grandstands with her husband, Jason, and their two children Callie, 5, and Cade, 2. Capt. Jason Blodzinski is an F-16 pilot with the 77th squadron, “The Gamblers,” who returned in September from deployment over Libya. Two of his friends are now pilots for the Thunderbirds.
“I love flying and aviation so it really means a lot to share it with my kids,” he said.
Callie seemed to also have the flying bug. When asked by her father why F-16s were so cool, she didn’t hesitate.
“Missiles, bombs and guns!” she said.