Keep your eyes on the sky this coming weekend: Joint Base Lewis-McChord is hosting what could become its biggest-ever free air show.
Crowds could top 350,000 over two days with the Nevada-based Thunderbirds – the Air Force’s premier stunt team – making their first appearance at the base south of Tacoma since 2008.
“I’m betting on 200,000 (visitors) a day,” said Lt. Col. Pete Field, the show’s deputy director, setting a high bar for the 2012 Lewis-McChord Air Expo.
He’s optimistic about turnout because the show’s organizers brought together more acts with bigger names than they drew at the last show two years ago. And that expo attracted some 250,000 people when the less-known, civilian-owned Patriots Jets aerobatic team headlined the event’s 16 acts.
This time, Lewis-McChord has 20 performers with three headliners: the Thunderbirds, the Patriots Jets and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute jump team.
The Thunderbirds in 2008 led a lineup that drew 375,000 people to the biennial spectacle. Their reappearance this weekend is one of the main reasons organizers anticipate bigger crowds this year.
“It’s entertaining, but the whole idea is to say thank you to the American public,” said Lt. Col. Ira Cline, the air show’s director.
Cline and other organizers are urging people to come early and catch all the acts. The expo starts at 11 a.m., with gates opening at 8 a.m. both days. It ends at 4 p.m., with gates closing at 5 p.m.
Arriving later in the afternoon could make for longer lines getting on the base. Visitors can take short cuts by riding free shuttles from six parking lots in Tacoma, Lakewood and Puyallup.
Other important details:
• Everyone older than 16 will need identification to get on the base.
• Don’t bring pets, cans, bottles, backpacks, large lawn chairs or weapons (even if you have a concealed-weapons permit).
• No people convicted of felonies or with warrants are allowed inside.
• Ear plugs are recommended. Madigan Army Medical Center will hand them out at Hangar 3, but visitors are encouraged to bring their own because of limited supply.
Aside from the headliners, other military hardware over the South Sound on Saturday and Sunday will include the B2 stealth bomber, a B-52 heavy bomber and the C-17 Globemaster IIIs that comprise the working fleet at McChord Air Field.
This year’s show also is different in that it’s the first at McChord Air Field since McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis became fully integrated in the fall of 2010.
As a result, visitors will see more displays featuring Army aviation assets and ground vehicles. Twelve helicopters will be on display, including ones from the elite 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Stryker vehicles, the eight-wheeled infantry carriers used by some 12,000 Lewis-McChord soldiers, also will be on the grounds.
Five of McChord’s C-17s will be on display, with one set up by the 446th Reserve Airlift wing to resemble the setup used by the medical evacuation teams they deploy to Afghanistan to care for wounded service members.
The main acts will start arriving Thursday. Commuters on Friday afternoon might notice a full run-through of the performance as the pilots practice their routines around McChord.
2012 Lewis-McChord Air Expo
Where: McChord Field
When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Flying demonstrations: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. both days.
Cost: Free and open to public. People can buy premier seating for $15 or access to a “Flightline Club” for $75.
Main Gate access: Exit 125 to McChord Field off Interstate 5.
Barnes Gate access: From Pacific Avenue South, turn west onto Military Road and follow it until you reach the Barnes Gate.
Free parking: Directions will be given upon arrival at a gate.
Free bus service: Free yellow buses will take visitors from six off-base parking lots, and they will get priority access through the base’s gates. The buses will run roughly every 30 minutes, starting at 9 a.m. The last bus leaving the expo will leave at 5 p.m.
The parking lots are at:
• Cheney Stadium, 2502 S. Tyler St., Tacoma.
• Lakewood Sounder Station, 47th Avenue Southwest and Pacific Highway South, Lakewood.
• Lakewood Towne Center (behind Target), 5618 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. S.W.
• Pierce Transit SR 512 Park and Ride, 10617 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma.
• Pierce Transit Tacoma Dome Station, 610 Puyallup Ave. E. Tacoma,
• South Hill Sound Transit Park and Ride, 3102 Ninth St. S.W., Puyallup.
On-base shuttles: Free shuttles will be available for people with Defense Department civilian or military IDs. They leave from the former Madigan Army Medical Center parking lot at the intersection of East Lincoln Avenue and Coolidge Avenue, and from Carter Lake and Heartwood elementary schools.
Air Expo information: 253-982-EXPO.