- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops fighting for freedom abroad will be honored at home this weekend at the 48th annual Joint Services Open House at Andrews Air Force Base.

“They can’t be at air shows. They’re in Iraq or on the ground with the Army,” said Cpt. Elizabeth Kreft, spokeswoman for the Air Force Thunderbirds, the precision flight team headlining this year’s event. “We’re telling their story of why they serve.”

Lt. Col. Kevin Robbins, leader of the six-pilot team of F-16s who was asked to join the Thunderbirds by his wing commander, said he is more concerned about representing the service members fighting for the country than with pleasing crowds.

“I didn’t join the Air Force to fly air shows,” Col. Robbins said. “My favorite thing is representing” pilots in the field.

The event, which coincides with Armed Forces Day tomorrow, begins today and ends Sunday. Events today are open only to Defense Department personnel. Events tomorrow and Sunday are open to the public.

The open house features some of the world’s best military and civilian pilots and showcases the armed forces’ latest technology.

This year’s acts include Red Bull aerobatic pilot Kirby Chambliss, the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team and stunt pilot act Team Oracle.

Career stunt pilot Sean Tucker, 55, of Team Oracle, said more than four decades of experimenting with physics is what makes him able to appear to defy it.

“It’s only taken me 41 years to become an overnight success,” Mr. Tucker said.

Doing stunts sometimes only 25 feet from the ground, the Salinas, Calif., native twists, turns and even “cartwheels” his custom biplane through air to dazzle crowds.

Always pushing his plane to the limit, during a practice run last week he recorded a maximum of 91/2 times the force of gravity.

Mr. Tucker said he has logged about 20,000 hours or about 27 straight months in the cockpit and practices three times daily to perfect his routine.

“No matter how good they say I am, I don’t believe them,” Mr. Tucker said. “You have to be the best in the world to make a living out of this.”

Paying homage to the lost practice of barnstorming, the Geico Skytypers will entertain crowds with a dogfight-themed show and giant messages in the sky visible from miles away.

Flying six of 11 remaining 1940s-era SNJ-2 Navy fighter planes, the Skytypers comprise a show team and a skytyping team that perform daring stunts and “print” messages in the sky with letters sometimes as tall as the Empire State Building.

Skytyper flight leader Larry Arken said the messages, which last for several minutes, stick with people and fans frequently remind him of messages they saw years prior.

Mr. Arken, 38, originally from New York City, leads formations for teams of handpicked pilots who all must have at least 8,000 hours in the cockpit to be selected.

Mr. Arken has been flying for 30 years and is a captain for American Airlines.

“It’s very rewarding to be able to put a smile on people’s faces,” he said.

All the action won’t be in the air, however.

Patrons can expect to sit in the cockpit of some of the country’s most advanced military planes, tanks and helicopters.

The U.S. Postal Service will also be offering a sneak preview of two new stamps to be released in June depicting Air Force One and Marine One, the president’s jet and helicopter.

After World War II, the military began using air shows as recruiting tools, which led to the founding of the Navy’s Blue Angels in 1946 and the Thunderbirds in 1953.

The groups were created to showcase new military technology and skilled pilots to draw new recruits.

The Thunderbirds performed at Andrews’ first open house in 1959. The event was timed to coincide with Armed Forces Day, set aside as the third Saturday in May by President Truman in 1950.

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