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July 28, 2014

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Crowds brave chill for thrill at Aviation Nation air show

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Two Thunderbirds make a “mirror pass” during the annual Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force Base Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012.

2012 Aviation Nation

The Air Force Thunderbirds perform during the annual Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force Base Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. Launch slideshow »

If you go

General admission to Aviation Nation is free. No tickets are required. Parking is available at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where shuttles will take people to Nellis. ATMs are available. Event organizers encourage the use of hearing and sun protection. Gates open at 9 a.m.

Swarms of hooded figures braved the high winds and low temperatures to watch planes climb, dive and spin in ways that sparked the imagination and seemed to defy physics.

As chilly temperatures and snow flurries occupied other parts of the valley, a bold few wore shorts and T-shirts at the Aviation Nation air show at Nellis Air Force Base Saturday, but many who stood wide-eyed with tilting heads and dropping jaws were clothed more for Arctic exploration than an aviation festival.

The free show, which continues Sunday, features exhibits of vast cargo carriers, small planes, fighter jets, combat helicopters and big-wheeled ground artillery. The greatest attraction perhaps is the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's demonstration unit, who will perform the last show of their season at Aviation Nation. The team's hangar is at Nellis.

People jockeyed for position at the airfield fence to watch them soar. The six red-nosed F-16’s faced the audience, the cockpit of each slowly closed, like helmets coming down on great suits of armor.

Pedro Rodriguez, who was there with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, watched the spectacle while staying warm inside a cargo plane.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Rodriguez had always wanted to see the air show, the acrobatics and seemingly impossible maneuvers, but his daughter gave him the final nudge to go, he said.

Huddled by the fence, shrunken with cold but still smiling, people watched the planes take off. Gray and black clouds that greeted spectators earlier had given way to sunshine.

At once the planes swept across the blue background with white smoke trailing. One group of four clustered in a diamond, rolled and moved through each other in a precise dance.

The one-hour show was filled with large swooping dives, spins and high-speed passes. The crowd ooh’d and ahh’d at the aerial acrobatics of the Air Force’s elite pilots.

The tens of thousands attracted to the show were greeted by vendors selling souvenirs such as hats and pins and treats such as funnel cake.

“Hey, guys, I’ll make you a deal on some T-shirts,” one vendor said as he pointed to a shirt: “I kill zombies like a boss.”

But most people were content to watch the aviation demonstrations, and the largest masses gathered toward the end of the day to watch the Nevada-based Thunderbirds.

Jared Eichelberger sells clothes at air shows with his uncle, Darell Bloom, a Marine veteran. Eichelberger said the valley Nellis Air Base is located in has especially good acoustics and the nearby undeveloped areas give pilots more flexibility.

“Because there are no residencies, they can do more maneuvers. It’s kind of freaky, but it’s awesome,” he said.

The gates will open again at 9 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, with the air demonstrations commencing at 10:30 a.m. There is no charge for admission.

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