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Smoky Mountain Air Show pilots ready to split the skies

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Lt. Ryan Chamberlain demonstrates the device that opens the canopy to the F/A-18 Hornet at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
Lt. Ryan Chamberlain demonstrates the device that opens the canopy to the F/A-18 Hornet at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
The Blue Angels' maintenance crew tends to the F/A-18 Hornets after they arrive at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
The Blue Angels’ maintenance crew tends to the F/A-18 Hornets after they arrive at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
A Blue Angel support staff member cleans the canopy of a Blue Angel at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
A Blue Angel support staff member cleans the canopy of a Blue Angel at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
Captain Jeff Kuss greets the media and guests gathered for the arrival of the Blue Angels at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.
Captain Jeff Kuss greets the media and guests gathered for the arrival of the Blue Angels at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base on Thursday.

Never mind that the event isn’t until this weekend.

The Smoky Mountain Air Show was already drawing plenty of attention Thursday as participants settled in at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base.

As the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team tore up the skies practicing for the show, drivers along Alcoa Highway pulled over to watch, and people in parking lots got out of their cars to snap photos and videos with their phones.

Saturday and Sunday promise much more of the same, as organizers hold the first air show in Knoxville since 2000.

“It’s going to be loud, and it’s going to be fast,” said Maj. Craig Baker, pilot of an F-16 fighter that will take part in the show.

Baker, who along with wing man Capt. Adam Fuhrmann flew their F-16s in Thursday from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, was talking about the 15-minute act he will perform, but it could describe the Blue Angels and other acts as well.

Other acts in the show, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. both days, will include Greg Koontz of Koontz Airshows, Matt Younkin of Younkin Airshows, the Commemorative Air Force’s Dixie Wing World War II Warbirds, Aeroshell Acrobatic Team and Jacquie Warda’s Jacquie B Airshows.

Performing in an air show is a real change of pace for a military pilot, Baker said. His routine at Shaw is quite different.

“On a typical training mission, we will go out in two- or four-ship elements and train against each other or against targets on the ground,” he said.

Actual combat flying does not necessarily involve close-in dogfighting like that seen in movies such as “Top Gun,” Baker said. While the maneuvers he and the Blue Angels will perform this weekend demonstrate what the planes and pilots are capable of, it’s really about putting on a show, he said.

“Honestly, it’s a lot different from the flying I usually do,” he said. “There are a lot of waivers I have in place on Air Force instruction, as well as FAA rules, that allow me to do what I do close to the ground and really fast.”

For an Air Force or Navy pilot, it takes a lot of training to be able to get those waivers and be considered capable of performing at an air show, Baker said.

His act Saturday and Sunday will involve flying at speeds as low as 115 mph and as fast as 600 mph — nearly the speed of sound. This will take place at altitudes of from 200 feet up to 15,000 feet.

Baker said one of the most difficult maneuvers he will do, but one of the most special to him, is the Heritage Flight he will perform with a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. With the World War II P-47 rumbling along as fast it safely can, Baker will throttle his F-16 down to nearly stalling speed to keep pace with the Thunderbolt wing tip to wing tip.

“It’s a way to honor those who have gone before us, and those who are fighting right now,” he said.

Parking for the Smoky Mountain Air Show opens at 8 a.m. Static aircraft displays, vendors, exhibits, a children’s area and music stage will open at 10 a.m. Opening ceremonies are at 11 a.m. Aerial performances begin at noon and conclude at 4 p.m.

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