Thunderbirds highlight AirFest 2016

- The skies over South Tampa will be a busy – and noisy – place this weekend as the popular AirFest airshow returns to MacDill Air Force Base, once again featuring the Air Force’s airborne ambassadors, the Thunderbirds.

However, a strong line of storms has delayed the start of the show. Saturday's flights won't begin until at least 1 p.m., base officials say.

The Thunderbirds' red, white, and blue F-16 jets had arrived Thursday to begin preparing for this weekend’s event while also offering outreach flights to VIPs like FOX 13’s Walter Allen and Food Network chef Robert Irvine – both of whom fared well, despite undergoing maneuvers at high speeds and nine times the normal pull of gravity.

“I do want to note that I never used the little white bags,” Walter said as he triumphantly climbed out of the cockpit.

VIDEO: Watch Walter Allen's flight

“I didn’t pass out, didn’t use my sick bags, and I remember all of it,” Irvine said proudly.

Irvine joked with the crews afterward – “Cooking is a lot easier than actual flying,” he noted – and the muscular chef even paused to compare biceps with some of the fittest members of the maintenance team.

The mission for the Thunderbirds pilots is a serious one, though.  Major Scott Petz has been in the Air Force for over 18 years, and he knows the value of events like this.

“Seeing the Thunderbirds when I was 9 years old made me want to be become a pilot in the Air Force and join the Air National Guard,” he explained. 

Now, 18 years later, he has this advice for anyone coming to their first air show.

“You’re going to see a lot of aircraft making a lot of noise,” he said.  “But more importantly, you’re going to get a chance to interact with the Thunderbirds and other performers, which is what we want to do.  We want to shake little kids’ hands, we want to thank people for their service, and we want to represent the Air Force.”

It’s been two years since the last AirFest at MacDill, which drew an estimated 200,000 people to the base.  Admission is again free and gates open at 8 a.m.

Provided the weather clears, Saturday's flights will start at 1.  Sunday, performances are scheduled to begin at 11:15.

LINK: Schedule & more information

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