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AirFest returning to MacDill in March

The free demonstration of air power and aerobatics at MacDill Air Force Base has been scheduled for March and renamed to reflect new realities, according to Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

“We are excited to once again welcome the Tampa community onto MacDill to witness one of the premier aerial demonstration acts in the world, the (Air Force) Thunderbirds,” DeThomas said in a media release,

The event is now being called MacDill Air Force Base Presents Tampa Bay AirFest, said DeThomas.

“The new title is more reflective of the total community involvement required to support and execute such an amazing event,” he said,

MacDill officials are “mindful of current fiscal realities, and plan to create a new type of air show,” MacDill officials state in the release.

“This year’s show will be a little different from years past to include more civilian aerial demonstrations and static aircraft,” said Maj. Matt Parker, AirFest director. “We believe we are creating a template for future military air shows that is fiscally responsible and sustainable.”

AirFest 2013, scheduled for April, was scuttled after automatic budget cuts known as sequestration grounded military flight demonstration teams like the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels, who were set to be the headliners of the cancelled show.

The Thunderbirds, who will be flying 66 demonstrations in 34 locations this year, starting with a flyover of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, will be joined in March by aerial performances by military and civilian aviators, according to the MacDill website. Cargo, fighter and special purpose aircraft will be on display as well.

The announcement is welcome news to Dave “Tanker” Snyder. A decade ago, he served as the wing commander and was getting ready to put on the first AirFest since 9/11.

“This is great,” said Snyder, who served as wing commander between 2003 and 2005, later retiring as a brigadier general. “Though the Defense Department is facing critical budget cuts, AirFest is an important thing to give back to the community and for the locals to get a glimpse for what men and women in the military and our civilians do. It’s great for Tampa Bay.”

The good news comes with a price, said Snyder. A lot of extra work for the base, something, he said, that is well worth it.

“There is a huge amount of work,” Snyder said. “There is scheduling all the military performances, logistics from bringing in volunteers, augmentees and reservists, parking, managing gates, setting up booths and coordinating with Tampa police and hotels. It is a significant military operation to conduct an AirFest for the people and participants.”

Safety is a prime concern, said Snyder, both in the air and on the ground. AirFest 2011 attracted about 150,000 visitors over the two days, according to base officials.

“I think the logistics of getting people in and out is the biggest challenge,” said Snyder. “There is complying with safety and rules of airspace. We have great professionals do that. You have to make sure citizens have good access to base, while protecting the safety of assets and people.”

The event provides several boosts for the area, said Gregory Celestan, outgoing chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Army veteran and defense contractor.

“MacDill is sometimes an enigma at the end of Dale Mabry,” said Celestan, who will be replaced after a year at the chamber help Dec. 19 by Robin Delavergne, executive director of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation. “A lot of people don’t have the chance to see or experience or take advantage of MacDill.”

As far as an economic benefit, Celestan, chairman and chief executive officer of the Celestar Corp., said that AirFest is a two-day boon to businesses near the base.

“Economically, it will be drawing other people from the region into MacDill, and restaurants and businesses for those couple of days AirFest runs will see the biggest business impact.”

DeThomas said he understands that March 22 will be here very soon.

“We know we have a lot to do in a short amount of time, but this is an incredible opportunity that we can provide to the Tampa Bay area, and we are up to the challenge,” said DeThomas.

It is too early in the planning process to say exactly which aerial acts or static displays will appear at the event, said 2nd Lt. Patrick Gargan, a wing spokesman.

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