For the first time since 2007, McConnell Air Force Base will open its doors to the public this weekend for an air show and open house featuring the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration and more.
As many as 150,000 people are expected to converge on the air base in southeast Wichita Saturday and Sunday, said Lt. Col. John Pantleo, air show director.
For the first time, the two-day event will include an evening air show on Saturday night open to the public, he said.
"It's almost like we're having two shows and expecting two crowds," he said.
The goal, he explained, is to give people a reason to stick around into the evening, thus lessening the crush of people leaving the show once the afternoon portion ends and needing transportation to their cars, Pantleo said.
"We figured we would have some entertainment and reduce the load on our transportation capabilities," he said.
Visitors who do stay for the evening show will be treated to a MiG-17 afterburner demonstration, a twilight performance by the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon from Washington, D.C., music by the Wichita band Big Fat Fun, and more.
But for most people, the air show's biggest draw is the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which execute precision aerobatics at jaw-dropping speeds in F-16 Falcons. McConnell usually holds an open house every two years, alternating between the Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels as the big draw.
The Thunderbirds will perform in the midafternoon both Saturday and Sunday, and the pilots will sign autographs after each show, Pantleo said.
Besides the Thunderbirds, the aerial show each day will feature Navy Super Hornets, a Learjet 24, a twin Beech 18, an Air National Guard demonstration by John Klatt and a C-17 Globemaster III.
As always, there will also be planes on display on the ground, including a B-1 Lancer, an F-16 Fighting Falcon, a KC-135 Stratotanker, a C-130 Hercules and, from the civilian side, two P-51D Mustangs, an Fm-2 Wildcat and the Boeing Superfortress that is known as B-29 "Doc," housed permanently at the Kansas Aviation Museum.
McConnell also is featuring special ceremonies at 11 a.m. Saturday honoring World War II veterans, and at 11 a.m. Sunday honoring Gold Star Mothers, who have lost sons or daughters in military service.
About 100 World War II veterans plan to attend the ceremony on Saturday, Pantleo said, and about 14 Gold Star Mothers will attend the event on Sunday.
Pantleo said McConnell typically has open houses every other year, although the event was canceled last year when a major act such as the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels couldn't be booked. The base opens its gates to the public for several reasons, he said.
"The biggest thing is, too often the military is kind of this black hole that nobody really knows what's going on," he said. "We want to bring in the public so they can see what the military has in the way of equipment, see what various warbirds have flown in the various wars."
The open house also is a way to say thanks, he said.
"Most of us out here are deployed quite often and we leave our families behind and it's our friends and neighbors who end up helping to take care of our families when we're away. So this is kind of a unique opportunity for us to show appreciation."
If you go
What: An open house featuring the Thunderbirds, aerial acts, static displays, vendors
Where: McConnell Air Force Base
When: Gates open at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Opening ceremony at 11 a.m. each day.
Aerial demonstrations begin about 11:30 a.m.
Evening air show begins about 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How much: Free.
For more information, go to www.mcconnell.af.mil or 316-759-3141.