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Aviation Nation features both familiar and firsts at Nellis

Updated November 15, 2019 - 10:29 pm

The Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons thundered through the sky Friday, arcing high above the sun as veterans, service members and their families watched in awe during a run-through for this weekend’s Aviation Nation 2019 at Nellis Air Force Base.

Capt. Michael Brewer, right wing number 3, was among the Thunderbirds who performed at the practice show.

Brewer said he served as a commercial pilot for five years before he was “called” to join the Air Force.

“When we’re flying, it’s 45 minutes of intense concentration. It’s a surreal feeling. I’m 18 inches away from the boss’ wingtips,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “The whole world is rotating around the jet.”

This year’s biannual air show, which is free and open to the public Saturday and Sunday, will depict the history of American aviation and salute the recent accomplishments of America’s military in operations around the globe.

“It’s very important to both the base and the community because it really ties the community relations with the base,” said Brewer, whose grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. “To be here, home, in Vegas is very special.”

Busy skies above busy streets

The skies above Las Vegas will be almost as busy as its streets all weekend as maneuvering military jets show off their capabilities. Falling just days after Veterans Day, Aviation Nation also will pay tribute to U.S. veterans and their service to this country. Veterans service organizations, including the VA of Southern Nevada and Veterans of Foreign Wars, will host booths at the event.

“This also gives the public an opportunity that they most likely won’t have before in coming to the base,” said former Air Force Maj. Bob Jones, who now serves as director of Aviation Nation. “More importantly, they get to, up close, meet the men and women of their military.”

Officials are expecting more than 200,000 people to attend the show over the two days. Because of crowds, guests are encouraged to arrive early at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where buses will transport them to the base, and download the Nellis Life app to keep up with traffic and find out what they can and can’t bring.

When visitors arrive, the gateway to the air show will be a passage through the world’s largest cargo aircraft — the C-5M Super Galaxy.

On Friday, a blonde toddler wore a camouflage diaper as she walked with her parents. Parachutists jumped from aircraft, prominently displaying an American flag as “The Star Spangled-Banner” played.

Veterans sat in lawn chairs along the tarmac, pointing in awe as aircraft flipped, twisted and swooped above the northeast valley floor.

Air Force Capt. Michael Espinoza, in plainclothes, hoisted his 17-month old daughter Emma inside a military tank, showing her the vantage point where a tank gun is usually placed.

“This is a good opportunity for her to come out and experience what I get to experience every day,” he said. “We love it.”

Later, an F-16 bearing Russian colors and an F-22 with American colors conducted a mock dogfight. Then helicopter pilots mimicked a rescue during combat.

Also performing was aerobatic air show pilot Julie Clark in her T-34 “Free Spirit.” Clark, a former commercial airline pilot, chose Aviation Nation for the last performance of her storied 41-year career as an aerobatic pilot.

Aircraft run the gamut

More than 30 aircraft representing some of the earliest flying machines in America’s aviation history were on display alongside some of the nation’s newest military aircraft.

Also present was an F-15 with a “Vegas Strong” tribute painted in orange and black on its left side, commemorating the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds of others injured.

This weekend will be the first time the F-35 Demo Team will perform at Aviation Nation. The event also will feature the first fly-by of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of remotely controlled operations.

This year’s air show also features 17 aerial demonstrations by the C-17 Globemaster III and KC-135 Stratotanker, a USAF Heritage Flight featuring the F-35 Lightning II, Special Operations Command Para-Commandos and more.

Though the event is usually held every other year, the event will not be put on in 2021, Jones said, because a special event is planned for 2022 to celebrate the Air Force’s 75th birthday.

Aviation Nation this year will overlap with Sunday’s Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon, which will see Interstate 15 ramp closures and road closures in the heart of the resort corridor and downtown Las Vegas. It will also overlap with a Golden Knights game Saturday and an appearance by many top Democratic presidential candidates Sunday evening at the Bellagio. All these things are expected to contribute to traffic issues.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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