Text Size

Air Show Highlights Space Expo
Thundering space shuttles gave way to the Thunderbirds and roaring rockets made room for a soaring Super Hornet, Eagle and Raptor during the four days of the World Space Expo on Nov. 1-4.

The Thunderbirds break up the delta formation to start their performance. Image left: The two solo pilots split away from the main formation of Thunderbirds to open the team's performance at the World Space Expo. It was the first time the elite aerial demonstration squadron held a full air show at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA/Chris Chamberland
+ View Hi-Res Image

For the first time, the U.S. Air Force's elite aerial demonstration team known as the Thunderbirds staged a full air show from the same runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center used by space shuttles returning from orbit.

"I never thought I would get the opportunity to do it. It's just really neat to do it," said Lt. Col. Kevin "Hollywood" Robbins, commander of the Thunderbirds.

The squadron was joined at the Shuttle Landing Facility by the most advanced fighter aircraft in the American inventory, including the Air Force F-22 Raptor and the Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime for me," said Maj. Paul "Max" Moga, who pilots the F-22 Raptor.

A pair of F-15 Eagles, the Army's precision parachute team known as the Golden Knights and a World War II-era P-51 Mustang also took part in a weekend of air shows over the space center in Florida.

The 920th Rescue Wing demonstrated recovery operations. Image right: An HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter lowers a pair of rescue swimmers into the Banana River during a rescue demonstration by the 920th Rescue Wing. The unit is based at Patrick Air Force Base and is on duty during space shuttle launch and landings in case of emergency. The demonstration was part of an air show for the World Space Expo. Photo: NASA/Chris Chamberland
+ View Hi-res Image

The 920th Rescue Wing, based at nearby Patrick Air Force Base and on-call during all space shuttle launches and landings, showed its capabilities with helicopters pulling an astronaut from the waters of the Banana River in a simulated recovery. The two helicopters then joined up with an HC-130 transport aircraft for an aerial refueling demonstration.

It made for an impressive roster of performers for crowds numbering about 7,000 each day on Saturday and Sunday at the NASA Causeway that links Kennedy and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The air show was one of the highlights of the weekend that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the space age. It was hosted by Delaware North's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The F-22 Raptor flies in formation with the World War II-era P-51 Mustang. Image left: A pair of fighter planes show how aerospace technology has moved ahead. The F-22 Raptor, above, is powered by engines that can steer the exhaust up or down to enhance maneuverability. It is technology NASA helped pioneer with the X-31 program. The P-51 Mustang, which was still in service when the Air Force was formed 60 years ago, was considered the premier fighter of the World War II-era. Photo: NASA/Chris Chamberland
+ View Hi-Res Image

While the jets rocketed overhead, former astronauts John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Al Worden watched the demonstrations within miles of the launch pads where they began their historic flights into space and, in Worden's case, to the moon. They also took part, along with other astronauts, in Expo events at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which hosted the weekend celebration.

The air show performers did not need a reminder that they were flying at the home of American spaceflight.

"(Air Force and NASA history) is just so intertwined, space was just a logical jump from flight and it's fun to be a part of the whole thing," Robbins said. "We don't fight or do anything without help from this organization right here."

The Thunderbords fly over the crowd at the World Space Expo. Image right: The Thunderbirds fly in front of the crowd in a signature delta formation during the World Space Expo. This season's Thunderbirds squadron was the first to include to female pilots. Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The spaceflight anniversary coincides with the Air Force's own 60th anniversary celebration of its creation.

"It's a huge year for us and we're really trying to give people a feel for how far we've come as a service," Moga said. "To be able to be at a show where NASA is celebrating 50 years of its space history is really, really special for us."

Showcasing that history at the expo was a formation of the Air Force's top front-line fighters. The P-51 Mustang, which helped win the European skies during World War II, led with an F-15 Eagle and the F-22 flying on either side.

The Thunderbirds took center sky at the end of each show, blasting through the air with their four F-16s tucked close together and a pair of solo pilots taking turns rocketing toward each other.

A crewman readies a Thunderbird jet for its performance. Image left: A ground crewman for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds readies of the team's F-16 fighter jets for a demanding aerial performance during the World Space Expo. Photo: NASA/Steven Siceloff
+ View Hi-Res Image

The performance came at the end of a Thunderbirds season that saw two women piloting aircraft for the first time. Maj. Nicole Malachowski joined the squadron in 2006 and Maj. Samantha Weeks came onboard this year. Malachowski flew Thunderbird 3 in the diamond formation while Weeks piloted Thunderbird 6 as one of the solo pilots.

Their performance at Kennedy came at the same time two other women, NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Pam Melroy, were commanding the International Space Station and space shuttle Discovery, respectively, some 200 miles in space.

+ Read about the Raptor's performance

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center