Thunderbirds swoop in

Brad Nettles // The Post and Courier

Four of the Thunderbirds team fly over the Charleston Air Force Base on Wednesday afternoon.

Ear plugs are advisable. So is muscle ointment, to soothe necks that constantly will be looking upward and from side to side.

The Air Force Thunderbirds team arrived under a screech of high decibels Wednesday to begin two days of practice before Saturday's 2011 Air Expo at the Charleston Air Force Base.

On cue, six sleek F-16 Fighting Falcons touched down after giving base personnel a brief but speedy show of their maneuvers.

The planes crisscrossed the tarmac so fast, it was hard to keep up with which direction they were coming in from. The pilots will be back in the air this afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m. for an hour of practice time.

No single viewing site has been set aside to watch today's preparation runs, but the planes will travel outward from the base's footprint for miles across the North Area, allowing the pilots to get down their bearings and identify landmarks below.

Much of Aviation Avenue around the base will be closed during the afternoon practice today, and again on Friday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

One of the Thunderbirds pilots, Maj. J.R. Williams of Marfa, Texas, gave a brief description of what to expect Saturday: a show that will reach between 200 and 15,000 feet off the ground; planes hitting speeds up to 600 mph; and wing-tip formations where the jets fly a mere 18 inches apart.

"You'll definitely see us performing at our maximum level," said Williams, 31, a 10-year Air Force veteran who has flown all over the world, including over Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has had airplane aerobatics teams since at least the 1920s. The Thunderbirds team that the Air Force now features was officially formed in 1953 and has gone through an evolution of planes.

During Saturday's show, the pilots will perform some 30 maneuvers, including head-on approaches and a mix of solo runs and formation flying that take months of practice to perfect. The entire show lasts for one hour and 15 minutes.

Williams acknowledged there is an entertainment and educational element to their performances -- something he said plays well in towns hit particularly hard by overseas military deployments, including Charleston.

While the Expo's lineup includes various flight teams, including the "Tora, Tora, Tora" Pearl Harbor re-enactment, the U.S. Army Special Ops Black Daggers Jump Team, the GEICO's Skytypers and other flight displays, Williams said the $30 million F-16 remains the star.

"A lot of horsepower and a lot of power," he said, comparing it to the airborne equivalent of a road course Ferrari.

Up to 100,000 people are expected to attend the Expo.