U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform at Luke Days in 2016.

Fighter jets screaming through the air, tours of historic aircraft and parachute teams descending from the sky are some of the activities planned for Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, at Luke Air Force Base’s Luke Days.

Organizers wanted to give the public a “more robust and dynamic experience” this year. Therefore, they invited the U.S. Navy Blue Angels aerial demonstration team to headline for the first time since 1992.

“The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial team had a change in command after their schedule was published. Luke Days was the first show of their 2018 season,” said Kiley Dougherty, 56th Fighter Wing, chief of media operations. “But the Thunderbirds canceled because they were not going to have enough practice in with the new team changes. Once we were informed of the cancellation, we asked the U.S. Navy Blue Angels if they had an opening in their schedule and they did.”  

The Blue Angels

The Blue Angels team will perform for nearly 30 minutes each day with in-flight acrobatics reaching speeds up to 700 miles per hour and flying as close together as 18 inches. The Blue Angels are the nation’s oldest flight team (since 1946) and is considered one of the world’s greatest aerobatic demonstration teams.

Lt. Dave Steppe, events coordinator with the Blue Angels, said the team is “excited” and really looking forward to performing at Luke AFB.  The Blue Angels understand Luke AFB is “Air Force country” and the Thunderbirds usually are the ones to perform at the show, he said, but with the scheduling conflict, they’re “happy they can be there and grateful for the opportunity to perform.”

“The area is a first time for many on the team,” Steppe said. “There will be a lot of opportunity while were there. We want to soak up the city and the base as much as we can. We’ve heard the fans at Luke AFB are pretty great, so we get to see the best of the best as far as the crowds go.”

While in town, the team will also visit schools and hospitals in the area. They’ll also meet with the crowd at the end of the performance each day.

There will be some differences in the Blue Angel demonstration compared to past Thunderbird shows. For one, the Angels fly the F-18 hornet, compared to the Thunderbirds F-16s. Some of the patterning and formations are also different. “It’s where our teamwork really comes into play. We try to reach perfection every day. We’ll be doing a lot of rolls and high-G delta formations,” said Steppe. “We also fly a little bit faster and a little bit lower.”

Steppe, who has been part of the Blue Angels team for the past two years, said it’s a “humbling opportunity” to be on the team. He describes his position like “Goose” from Top Gun and that it’s really a team effort. While there are usually only six demonstration pilots, more than 130 people make up the extended team including Navy officers and enlisted personnel. The normal rotation is every two or three years for the Blue Angel team and you don’t know what position you are going to get, you’re just applying for the team. It’s not about skill as everyone has already proved themselves flying the aircraft.

The Blue Angels will perform 32 shows in 2018 and are on the road for about 330 days each year. The team has spent the past two months in El Centro, California, practicing for their 2018 season, which runs from March through November. The Luke AFB show is their “first true roadshow.”

“It’s amazing,” Steppe said. “The Navy allows us to see the world, the Blue Angels allow us to see the country.”

Parachute teams and aircraft tours

Also performing at Luke Days will be the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Wings of Blue parachute team. Members of the hand-selected demonstration team represent one of the premier parachuting teams in the country. Each of the team’s performances is tailored to the venue and performers often wear smoke grenades so the crowd can see them better. Planes from the WWII, Korea and Vietnam eras will also fly along with F-35As. More than 17 performers are scheduled throughout the event.

Visitors can view and tour historic aircraft, including the F-35 Lightning II and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The CAF Red Tail Squadron’s P-51C Mustang, an authentic and fully restored operational fighter from the World War II era, will also be on display.

“This event allows us the opportunity to open the base to the public and showcase our mission of building the future of airpower,” said Dougherty.  “The upcoming air show marks Luke’s 77th year of operation since its founding in 1941.”

Activities for kids

Additionally, Kadima.Ventures will bring its STEAM City initiative for kids. Due to its successful first iteration at Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale in January, the science, technology, engineering, arts and math initiative will continue from March 17 through March 18.

Hands-on activities, immersive learning opportunities and experiments will be available for guests, making light of the possibilities of STEAM. Microsoft, the Arizona Challenger Space Center and plenty of other companies, schools and educational programs will also participate to showcase products and services. To get involved and display your own program or project, contact steam@kadima.foundation.

Luke Days is free and open to the public. Luke Days’ attendance in 2016 topped 425,000 and is expected to be similar this year. VIP tickets, including VIP parking, are available for purchase.