The Fort Lauderdale Air Show is Back, and So Are the Thunderbirds

Air Force Thunderbirds (U.S. Air Force photo)
Air Force Thunderbirds (U.S. Air Force photo)

Standing on the tarmac of the Sheltair terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in a blue jumpsuit and aviators, Maj. Scott Petz is feeling nostalgic on the eve of the Fort Lauderdale Air Show.

Petz was an 8-year-old in South Dakota when he first laid eyes on the U.S. Air Force's elite crew of sound-barrier-busting pilots, the Thunderbirds. To be more specific, young Petz went wide-eyed for the Thunderbirds' ground maintenance crew, the operatives who fueled and serviced the sleek F-16s just before takeoff in a way that resembled a "choreographed dance."

"I was like, 'Holy smokes, these pilots don't look very old at all,'" Petz recalls, standing in the shadow of a red-and-white F-16 parked near the airport's north runway. "These maintainers got me hooked, and you don't even get to see them at a traditional beach show."

A pilot in the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fighting squadron for two years, Petz aims to be highly visible for the returning Fort Lauderdale Air Show, set to soar over Fort Lauderdale beach on Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8.

Petz, who has logged 2,000 hours in the cockpits of F-16s, will be narrating the 43-minute Thunderbird stunt demo, as it pulls heart-in-your-feet acrobatics -- upside-down twirls, massive vertical climbs and stomach-churning synchronized dives -- over the Atlantic this weekend.

Ask Petz what it takes to go from awed 8-year-old to Thunderbirds hothead, and he quotes the action film "Top Gun." He acknowledges the clich�, but yes, he craved the "need for speed."

"The types of people that fly these jets are Type-A personalities -- very aggressive people -- that always want to be on the tip of the spear, out there winning the war," says Petz, 36, of Las Vegas. "You never stop feeling like that juvenile kid. Your only job is to fly the hell out of this aircraft."

Joining Petz and the eight-jet Thunderbirds squadron will be a handful of military warbirds and civilian stunt planes, says organizer Bryan Lilley, who brought the rebranded Air Show (it's now stylized the Ford Lauderdale Air Show, thanks to a title sponsor) back after a -year hiatus.

Years of rough patches have marred the Air Show in South Florida. When Lilley took over programming the Air Show in 2012, bad weather cut short the Thunderbirds' performance. In 2013, the U.S. Air Force pulled out thanks to government sequestration budget cuts. Construction at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport forced the cancelation of the 2014 Air Show, and A1A road construction killed off the 2015 edition, Lilley says.

Lilley is quick to hype the lineup of warbirds taking flight this weekend, describing the flight sequence as "the best performer lineup in North America."

"There won't be another one like it for another decade," Lilley says. "Mother Nature seems like she attended the planning meetings this time. To getting all this military support together at one air show, in perfect sync, it's like winning the lotto. It's really rare."

Here are a few more Air Show particulars to know before you go:

Hours

The Fort Lauderdale Air Show vendor booths and displays will open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and aircraft demonstrations will begin at 11 a.m. each day.

Sky rockets in flight

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds: The crowd-pleasing Ambassadors in Blue dropped out of the 2013 edition of the Air Show, and the loss of high-powered aircraft clout marred the festival that year, Lilley says. "If you take the patriotic element away from an air show, you're taking the heart out of the body," Lilley says of that air show. Now, they're back: The eight F-16 fighter jets, which fly in formation, pack 30,000 pounds of thrust apiece, can go 1,500 mph and pull nine Gs, or nine times the force of gravity. (Saturday and Sunday)

Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds: The red-and-white 431 Air Demonstration Squadron will fly nine 7,170-pound Canadair CT-114 Tutors, all piloted by active-duty men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Each jet packs about 2,700 pounds of thrust. (Saturday and Sunday)

U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter: Billed as a "Heritage Flight," the single-seat, single-engine F-35 stealth warbird will perform acrobatics alongside a P-51 Mustang, a World War II-era fighter-bomber, as a showcase of new and old Air Force technology. (Saturday and Sunday)

U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet: The wild gray yonder, with its flaming afterburners and streaming contrails, can pull about 1,200 mph at altitude. The combat jet saw action during the Gulf War and a 1986 operation in Libya. (Saturday and Sunday)

U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier: About 22,000 pounds of thrust enable the Harrier to hover like a helicopter at take off and shoot up vertically at supersonic speeds. Twin Harriers, each of which pack missiles, bombs and an onboard 25 mm cannon, will launch over Fort Lauderdale. (Saturday and Sunday)

Parking

While the area south of the Sunrise Boulevard-A1A intersection will be open (but bumper-to-bumper), Sunrise Boulevard north to Northeast 14th Court (the beach across the street from Hugh Taylor Birch State Park) will be closed until 5 p.m. Monday, May 9. There are 38 public beach parking lots, garages and metered spaces between Oakland Park Boulevard and Southeast 17th Street ($1-$3 per hour). Visitors can also pay $20 at the Galleria Mall garage (lots open at 8 a.m.), the Air Show's official parking area, and take free shuttles to the beach.

Tickets

General admission is free, but premium seating is abundant for photographers, hobbyists and aviation lovers. The Flight Line Club VIP section ($169 Saturday and Sunday) near Northeast 14th Court includes a shaded seat, box seating, lunch and drinks. The Drop Zone Beach viewing area ($22-$34, includes lunch and beach-chair seating) stretches from Sunrise Boulevard north about two blocks, while the Photo Pit (Saturday is sold-out, and $129 for Sunday) gets you closer on the beach.

Other entertainment

Air Show food and vendor displays can be found north of Sunrise Boulevard and behind the Drop Zone Beach area. A free Friday Night Sound Waves performance will serve as an official kickoff party for the Air Show from 5:30 to 9 p.m., with appearances by stunt pilots and performers, and music by classic rockers Mr. Nice Guy. The music gets going on Las Olas Boulevard and A1A, then moves to Tsukuro (225. S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.) from 6:40 to 7:20 p.m. and then Blondies (229 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd.) from 8 to 9 p.m.

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