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Air Force Thunderbirds return to the skies in OC this weekend

Two weeks after crash, Air Force Thunderbirds resume demonstration schedule in OC.

The Air Force's famous Thunderbirds will streak across Ocean City's skies this weekend, marking their return to air shows after a crash in Colorado two weeks ago.

The Thunderbirds — a precision aerobatic team of red, white and blue fighter jets — are the headliners of the two-day OC Air Show, now in its ninth year in the Eastern Shore resort town.

At least 300,000 visitors are expected to pack the beach, boardwalk and balconies to watch the show over the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's patriotic, it's family-friendly, it's a great mix of an exciting event right on the beach. It's everything you could ask for," said Jessica Waters, spokeswoman for Ocean City.

The Thunderbirds' appearance was in question after the June 2 crash.

After a performance at the U.S. Air Force Academy's graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo., Maj. Alex Turner's F-16 crashed near Peterson Air Force Base. Turner ejected and was not seriously injured.

After the crash, the Thunderbirds took a "safety stand-down" and grounded their jets. Shows were canceled at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and at the Rhode Island National Guard Open House.

In a statement, Lt. Col. Chris Hammond, the Thunderbirds commander, said team members are confident they can perform a "safe and exciting" show in Ocean City.

"The team's resiliency will be on display at the Ocean City airshow; we look forward to performing another safe, precise and exciting demonstration," Hammond said.

Turner, who flies the No. 6 "opposing solo" jet, won't be performing this weekend. The Thunderbirds will fly five jets instead of six.

Maj. Alex Goldfein, who flies the No. 3 jet, said the show's choreography has been changed "ever so slightly," but the team still will perform maneuvers including loops, rolls, low passes, tight diamond formations and "bomb bursts," in which the jets fly skyward together and then break off in different directions.

"We're feeling great, but it's been a hard couple of days getting back into the swing of things," said Goldfein, who grew up in Fairfax Station, Va.

Ocean City officials had their fingers crossed that the Thunderbirds would perform.

"When we got the news, we were definitely jumping for joy," Waters said. "Being part of their return flight, having the return in Ocean City, makes the event more special to us."

The OC Air Show was prepared to go on even if the Thunderbirds canceled. The show features more than a dozen performers, including military and private planes, helicopters and parachutists. Appearing will be historic planes, including a Czech L-39 jet from the Cold War era and a B-25 World War II bomber called "Panchito."

The air show also will feature a demonstration by the new F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, a single-seat stealth fighter still being tested by the military. The F-35 program has been criticized for cost overruns and production delays.

June has been a difficult month for the military's demonstration squardons, which are valuable recruiting and public relations tools. On the same day as the Thunderbirds' crash, Marine Corps Capt. Jeff Kuss was killed when his Navy Blue Angels F/A-18C Hornet crashed during practice for an air show in Tennessee.

Kuss crashed while taking off for an afternoon practice flight. The crash remains under investigation, and the Blue Angels have not resumed performing. They resumed practicing in Pensacola, Fla., on Thursday.

The Blue Angels, who perform each May over the Severn River during the Naval Academy's Commissioning Week, are scheduled to fly in the OC Air Show in 2017. They're also scheduled to fly in Maryland twice this October, during Baltimore's Fleet Week and at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River Air Expo in Southern Maryland.

The Thunderbirds, in addition to performing in Ocean City this weekend, are scheduled to fly in the Joint Base Andrews Air Show in Prince George's County in September.

The OC Air Show begins at noon today and Sunday. Tickets for designated viewing areas on the beach between 14th Street and 17th Street are available at ocairshow.com, although the aircraft can be seen from spots beyond the ticketed area.

Visitors are encouraged to park for free in the West Ocean City Park-and-Ride Lot and take express shuttle buses for $3 to the air show viewing site.

pwood@baltsun.com

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