It’s something more than just a sound. You can feel it prickle in the air just before it washes over you. It rattles windows and bones, and stirs the imagination. Like a tidal wave of energy it fills the valley with concussive sound, making thousands of heads turn up toward the sky and marvel.
It is the sound of freedom, something the residents near military air stations nationwide are accustomed to in their daily routines. However, every two years, Luke AFB opens its gates to the public at large, and crowds from all over the Phoenix metropolitan area flood into the base to experience not just the sound, but the sight and smell of freedom.
The weekend of April 2nd, the base saw a record 425,000 people attend the air show, which it billed as “75 Years of Air Power,” and featured many aerial demonstrations which captivated audiences of all ages.
One such act, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” featured Japanese Mitsubishi “Zero” fighter planes from World War II flying in formation. The symbol of the rising sun, a red circle on a white background, which represented Imperial Japan of the early 20th century, gives a beholder an eerie feeling, like there is some sort of danger inherent in their presence.
“They’re going to kill us!” says one 5-year-old onlooker, gripping his father’s hand tightly, and in the other holding a toy F-16 fighter jet up to the sky.
The newest event, however, which was one of the reasons that the air show at Luke saw such high attendance, was the inaugural flight of the F-35 Lighting II Heritage Team. This demonstration team pairs the Air Force’s newest, most advanced stealth fighter with the original Lightning, the P-38. The two aircraft fly side by side to the delight of both fans of old warbirds as well as those fascinated by today’s cutting-edge technology.
“There has been a lot of interest in the media around the country regarding the F-35 and the public really wants to see it fly,” said Lt. Col. Matt Hasson, the chief of public affairs at Luke AFB. “People want to talk about it, want to see it, want to be around it, it’s an impressive airplane, it’s going to be the backbone of our force for years to come.”
Attendance statistics for air shows have shown great fluctuation over the past decade. After a boom which saw a 13 percent rise in attendance all over the county in 2009, the industry took a hit in 2013 due to the sequestration in Congress. The shutdown of the government not only meant that the public was shut out of national parks and monuments, but also that military demonstration teams were grounded until government funding was restored. Acts such as the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, which historically draw the largest crowds at these shows, stayed home and left air shows across the country without a headline act, leading to many cancellations and corporate sponsors pulling their funding.
Luke has been somewhat of an outlier to these stats, as the base’s air shows every two years have shown a steady rise in attendance since 2005. As the birthplace of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s aerial acrobatic demonstration team, it has a long history of keeping crowds entertained with feats of military technology.
Attendance hasn’t been the only changing force in the air show industry however. According to a study conducted by the International Council of Air Shows in 2014, demographic surveys of the attendees have revealed that the crowds are increasingly more educated and affluent. Households which boast a yearly income of over $100,000 make up the vast plurality of attendees, taking over for the more median $50,000-$75,000 income range in recent years.
Additionally, women and elderly people have begun to account for a much larger portion of the crowds, with spectators over 60 making up the plurality at 16 percent.
The arrival of the F-35 as the Air Force’s newest toy could be a boon to the industry as it continues to recover from the 2013 setback.
“Our relationship with the community, the incredible support we have across the Valley, that’s the biggest reason as to why the crowds here were large,” says Hasson. “The presence of a new act created a lot of new interest in the show, people wanted to come out and see the Lightning do its thing in the air.”
The F-35 Heritage Team will tour the country this summer following the inaugural flight at Luke, stopping at 16 air shows around the U.S. and abroad.
Mike Beckwith is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org