As community engagement soars, so does the annual AirFest

The sky’s the limit, this Easter weekend, across the Tampa Bay Area. It’s the top guns and right stuff, the dreams of our highest-flying armed forces: soaring, darting aircraft, dynamic daring from skydivers, aeronautical feats of wonder and precision. 

If you’ve never attended the Tampa Bay AirFest, the Bay area celebration at MacDill Airforce Base, don’t miss the chance, in 2024. This free event unfolds over Friday and Saturday, March 29 to March 30, as MacDill welcomes new acts and a new opportunity to thank Tampa Bay for its continued support. 

“The AirFest has grown every year, since its inception, and a lot of that is due to community engagement. We’re very fortunate to live in Tampa Bay. There are a lot of bases around the country where they say they support the military, but Tampa Bay really does,” says Terry Montrose, deputy chief of public affairs. “Our communities come out, in force, anytime we need something. There’s always a community member, or leader, ready to help MacDill or advocate on our behalf. And the AirFest is one way we give back.” 

The festivities kick off, early in the week, with a closed dress rehearsal. Performed in front of local special interest groups, such as Hometown Heroes, Wounded Warriors and Make a Wish Foundation, the rehearsal pays a special thank you to underserved members of the Bay area, while allowing the performers the important opportunity to test-run, on base, before the air show officially kicks off on Friday. The Friday start is a new twist on the AirFest. 

“With Sunday (the 31st) being Easter, it’s the first time for a Friday show,” Montrose says. “We expect a different clientele for Friday, a chance to connect with local businesses. So, if you’re downtown working in Tampa Bay or relaxing with school out, on Good Friday, come on over for the airshow.”

Both Friday and Saturday are free events as MacDill AFB opens its gates to the public. Fans of the AirFest have come to expect military and civilian flying excellence. This year will be no different. Headlining the aerial events will be the Air Force Thunderbirds, Para-Commandos (United States Special Operations Command’s premier aerial parachute demonstration team) and an F-18 Rhino Demo Team presentation. Welcomed, for the first time, to the AirFest, the Rhino Team flies the F/A-18F Super Hornet in an awe-inspiring demonstration of the Navy’s workhorse, carrier-based fighter. The event promises to be an impressive display of virtuoso maneuverability and agile speed.

Other anticipated demonstrations include a range of the nation’s top aerobatic civilian pilots including Michael Goulian, Melissa Dawn Burns and Rob Holland. Goulian won the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Championship at the age of 27 – one of the youngest ever – launching a 30-year career in aerobatic demonstrations. Burns placed third, overall, in the 2015 World Aerobatic Championships after 10 years of competing at the Unlimited World Level and is a part of numerous Skydiving World Records including being named the Fastest Woman in the World, in 2015. Holland, with over 20 years’ experience as an aerobatic pilot, is a 12-time, consecutive, U.S. National Aerobatic Champion with 32 medals, 14 of them gold, at the international level. 

With all this civilian and military talent ascending, and descending, over the Bay, no wonder Montrose believes “2024 will be one of the best AirFests we’ve hosted.” 

Montrose should know, having been a part of the last seven events. Another reason to mark your calendar for this year is that MacDill AFB will likely take a hiatus from the air show for a few years, as it transitions to a KC-46 air base. 

“It’s an exciting transition,” Montrose says. “It means that there’s a huge investment going into MacDill AFB. And when you have a new aircraft coming in, it also means more jobs and, therefore, more positive economic impact for the entire community.” 

It was recently announced that MacDill will be home to 24 new KC-46 tanker aircraft, the next-generation aerial refueling support for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. You can check them out yourself: the new tankers will be on display at this year’s AirFest and construction will begin on base, later this year, to expand the hangars to make room for the new aircraft as the transition begins, next year. 

Spectators can also enjoy informational displays alongside the food, drink and family fun – oh, and a special pyrotechnical demonstration that will be “heard and felt around the Bay,” promises Montrose. 

With all the 2024 AirFest has to offer, spectators are encouraged to come early as parking on base is limited. Due to the expected congestion surrounding the entrances and exits of MacDill AFB, ride-share services are not advised – usually, over 150,000 are in attendance. Bicycles are welcome but don’t forget your helmets. Pets are, unfortunately, not welcome; service animals are the only pets allowed on base. As always, the AFB is a drone-free zone.

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