An F-16 Fighting Falcon bearing Las Vegas’ new motto, Vegas Strong, painted in white across its tail stole the spotlight Friday at Nellis Air Force Base as it prepped for this weekend’s annual Aviation Nation air show and open house.
The F-16 produced a thunderous clap as it soared through clear baby-blue skies marked only by a crosshatch of contrails left by practicing fighter jets.
The dress rehearsal for the two-day Air and Space Expo offered an opportunity for about 15,000 family and friends of Air Force members, along with veterans and first responders, to celebrate the military branch’s 70th anniversary before the real crowds roll in Saturday and Sunday. Parents with children in oversized baseball caps and veterans wearing hats adorned with pins sat in lawn chairs lining the tarmac, pointing in awe as aircraft flipped, twisted and swooped above the northeast valley floor.
Nellis officials expect around 400,000 to attend the show over the weekend, up from nearly 300,000 last year. High temperatures for the weekend are expected in the mid-70s, according to the National Weather Service, and intermittent clouds aren’t expected to interfere with visibility.
“The people that are going to be out here today and the Thunderbirds, this is our family,” said Col. Paul Murray, commander of Nellis and Creech Air Force bases. “And especially today, which is dedicated to our families and our first responders, I’m going to be … renewing a lot of connections from over the years.”
New to the show this year are 27 heritage planes added to celebrate the anniversary.
“We have tried to make this a true example of breaking barriers, so we have aircraft from all the generations we have flown, particularly World War II, Vietnam and Korea,” Murray said.
The air show also includes two fighter jets painted to mark the Oct. 1 shooting on the Strip, which killed 58 and wounded more than 500 others. Along with the F-16 that kicked off Friday’s performance, the show features an F-15 with a Vegas Strong tribute painted in orange and black on its left side. A team of 11 quickly pulled together the designs in the week following the shooting.
In addition to the show, there will be demonstrations, including a fire rescue, planes on display, a jet car race and souvenir booths. Attendees can also expect increased security in light of the Oct. 1 incident.
Las Vegas police Sgt. Curtis Bleak attended Friday with his mother, Judy, and children Cameron, 1, and Hannah, 3. For the little ones, the air show was a first.
“I thought it’d be cool to take them out here,” he said. “Have a good time.”
He was waiting eagerly for the headliner, the Thunderbirds, to perform.
“They’re the show of our Air Force and what we’re about, and it’s awesome to see out here. They’re so respected all over the world” — a lesson Bleak hoped to teach his children.
After the Oct. 1 shooting, that lesson was more important than ever, he said.
“You really think about family time. It’s just, it’s important,” Bleak said. “Things are different now.”