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Soaring back in time: Thunder Over the Rock Air, Space Show

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --

Heads whip from left to right as two red, white and blue F-16 Fighting Falcons soar past, seemingly inches away from each other, and the cheering crowd below gawks with amazement.

This may be the sight many may see as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds showcase precision and accuracy at the Thunder Over the Rock Air and Space Show at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Oct. 27-28.

People from across the nation gather at air and space shows every year to see the military’s largest crowd-drawing headliners, such as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, perform. These events are so inspiring; sometimes new recruits stand before the crowd to take the oath to begin their commitment to U.S. military. 

The Thunder Over the Rock Air and Space Show is expected to pull in approximately 250,000 people from across Arkansas and the Memphis, Tennessee, area to showcase aircraft from Little Rock AFB and across the Air Force.  

“Having the air show here gives us the opportunity to put our planes in the air and bolster our Air Force heritage,” said Ben Herrington, 314th Airlift Wing historian.

Air shows weren’t always a way for the military to showcase its aircraft and service members. In the early 1900s, pilots and small groups of aviators flew to earn money, promote the support of aviation and entertain.

The small showcases turned into competitions between pilots to determine who could fly the highest, fastest and farthest. Crowds would gather to gape at the stunts as pilots pushed the envelope. The danger behind the demonstrations, as well as the perfection in their performances, is what gave these shows its excitement.

The first major international air meet was held in Reims, France, in August 1909. The meet was very successful in drawing a crowd, and the U.S. followed about five months later with its first air meet in Los Angeles, California, with about 175,000 observers.

Air meets didn’t change much until after World War I, which opened up the “barnstorming,” era. Instead of people venturing to a meet location, aviators and pilots brought the show to the people. Performers traveled from town to town, similar to the circus. Whole towns would shut down at a few days’ notice of the shows arriving so that everyone could witness the stunts.

The military adopted the idea of using air shows as a public outreach following World War II. The B-17 Flying Fortress toured as a recruitment tool and a way to sell war bonds after it was the first official aircraft to complete 25 combat missions in World War II.

Instead of aircraft being novelties, they became a form of transportation in the military. It became essential to have support from the public to improve the military’s air power.

Aircraft were used as forms of transportation in the military, not just novelty aircraft, so the support from the public to improve the military’s air power was essential.

 Those military tours slowly turned into full-blown air shows where the public could engage with service members and experience air power first hand. Today, while the excitement is still what draws crowds, attendees can rest easy knowing organizers and performers go to extreme lengths to ensure a safe event for all.

The upcoming Thunder Over the Rock Air and Space show is Little Rock AFB’s time to demonstrate its heritage, and show how its personnel fly, fight and win every day through the power of partnerships and agile combat airlift.

 “Hopefully we can show the citizens of Little Rock and the surrounding areas how much their support has helped build combat airlift into what we see today,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. David Carruth, 61st Airlift Squadron pilot. “Spreading the past, present and future of air power to all of the families that attend will always be one of our main goals, and in the end, we truly want everyone to have an unforgettable experience.”