LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – For the first time in six years, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will rumble through the skies at the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo.
“The Sun ‘n Fun air show is a big one. It’s one of the biggest ones in fact in the entire world and we’re really excited to be here and be a part of that,” said Lt. Col. Justin Elliott, commander and leader of the Thunderbirds.
The Thunderbirds are based out of Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fighter pilots are assigned with the Thunderbirds for two years and perform more than 60 demonstrations a year.
“We’re really focused on the inspiration part this year. The United States are in divided times – I think we can all see that right now. Nothing unifies a country more than a beacon of excellence that we can all rally around,” Lt. Col. Elliott said.
The Thunderbirds will perform Saturday and Sunday at Sun ‘n Fun, with a practice demonstration on Friday.
At one point, the jets are just 18 inches apart, going 600 miles per hour.
“A lot of people think that’s wing tip clearance between the two jets. It’s not. The wing tips overlap by a good 10 feet. The 18 inches is from the helmet, the canopy of the #4 jet to the wing of the #1 jet underneath,” said Lt. Col. Elliott.
It’s something to aspire to for young pilots learning how to fly.
“It’s a high paying, high-demand field and people are able to make good careers and earn really good livings but a lot of people just don’t have the resources to get that first step in and that’s what we’re able to provide,” said Nick Poucher, chief of staff at Lakeland Aero Club.
Young people in the Lakeland Aero Club program can get their pilot’s license before their high school diploma.
During the week of the Sun ‘n Fun expo, they will build a plane engine for two up-and-coming aero clubs in the area, the Aspiring Aviators Aero Club in Winter Haven and the Infinity Aero Club in Tampa.
For the 230,000+ people expected to attend the Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo this week, it’s like a family reunion.
“With everything going on in the last couple years, a lot of our international friends didn’t get to make it. A lot of hugs in the room this morning for our first air show briefing. It was great to see everybody,” said Andy Ovans, director of air operations.
Ovans is planning the popular night show Wednesday night where never-before-seen skills are planned.
“We’re introducing something – hoping the weather holds out for Wednesday night. We’re going to do something that’s never been shown publicly before. We’re going to fly airplanes on top of a drone show, trying to do something special and be different,” said Ovans.
The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo runs Tuesday through Sunday.