Planes and jets return to the skies over Charlotte County

Florida International Air Show: 4 p.m. (gates), 5 p.m. (show) Friday; 9 a.m. (gates) noon (show), Saturday and Sunday; Punta Gorda Airport, 28000 Airport Road; $20 (advance), $25 (gate); family four-pack of two adult tickets and two children’s tickets available for $40 online only;


Jets and other distinctive airplanes will roar through the skies above thousands of aviation fans Friday through Sunday at the 36th Florida International Air Show.

The show has enlarged its footprint at the Punta Gorda Airport this year to allow more room and better views for spectators.

After being forced to cancel a spring show in 2015, the all-volunteer, nonprofit air show board regrouped and reconfigured the event. The goal was to keep the show affordable and transition into a more of a community event.

Added this year are a craft beer tent with12 brands of beer, food concessionaires and a fish fry cook-off featuring the popular Punta Gorda pub Celtic Ray. A 5K Fun Run early Saturday morning will take over 200 runners down the runway and through the static aircraft displays.

Working with Charlotte County commissioners and the Charlotte County Airport Authority, air show organizers enlarged the show site and addressed safety concerns. They tripled the size of the air show grounds and moved the site east, out of the way of the growing commercial airport.

“I think we’re four or five times the size of the spectator area,” said Tyler Ezzi, chairman of the air show’s board of directors.

Sponsor tents will no longer block the view of patrons seated or standing nearby. General admission spectators will have an unobstructed view and can pay for upgraded seating in tents closer to the action.

The air show planes will no longer fly over neighboring residential areas, a flight box move that positions the show to once again be eligible to draw military jet groups like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels in the future.

Moving the show from the spring cut attendance in half, but the changes made for a better experience for the 30,000 spectators who attended the first fall show last year.

“It was kind of a gamble, if they build it will they come?” Ezzi said. “They came.”

U.S. Air Force F-35A Heritage Lightning II Flight Team

The jet team based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona headlines the show on Saturday and Sunday. This marks the first year that the Lockheed Martin stealth jet has appeared on the civilian air show circuit. Previously, the public could only see the jets at military base open houses.

“We’ve seen photos of it, you can Google it and see all kinds of clip art on it,” said Dana Carr, the air show’s director of sponsorships. “This is going to be an awesome experience, something that no one has ever seen before.”

Commanded by Maj. Will Andreotta, the team features 16 F-35A aircraft. The F-35A is the Air Force’s latest generation fighter, designed to replace an aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The Lockheed Martin jet combines advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility and high-tech sensors and operational equipment, according to Air Force’s website.

U.S. Army Golden Knights

The parachute team is a longtime participant at the Punta Gorda show, delighting the crowd with precision jumps from either Fokker C-31A Troopship jump aircraft and sometimes the Viking UV-18C Twin Otter Series 400.

The 12-member teams of men and women travel around the world to perform at hundreds of air shows and other events.

The Golden Knights are one of only three Department of Defense-sanctioned aerial demonstration teams, along with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The Army team’s parachutes are gold and black, easy to spot in the sky above the airfield.

Hurricane Hunters

The largest aircraft on display is the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Hurricane Hunter, a WC-130J called a “next generation” aircraft for weather reconnaissance.

Air show patrons can board the plane and talk to crew members who flew into the eye of Hurricane Irma to measure the barometric pressure and wind speed of the storm that made landfall in the Florida Keys and near Naples in September.

The crew of Air Force reservists drop meteorological measuring equipment called dropsondes as they fly through the eye of the storms.

Carr expects the Hurricane Hunter to be a big draw at the airport, which was devastated by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

“I think with what we’ve all been through here in Florida this year with hurricanes, it’s going to be a very interesting thing for people to do,” he said. “They’ll be able to walk into the aircraft and talk to the crew.”

Don “Grumpy” Stamp’s Warbird Review

With a reconfigured layout, one runway will be dedicated to static displays of vintage aircraft, including those owned and operated by aviation enthusiasts within a 100-mile radius of the airport.

World War II and Korean War era aircraft will be on display, including two air show performers, billed as “The Class of 45.” Scott Yoak flies in a P-51 Mustang “Quicksilver” and Jim Tobul flies in a Corsair F4U “Korean War Hero.”

About 50 pilots are expected to fly their restored aircraft to the show.

“They own their plane, they built their plane. They’re proud of it,” Ezzi said. “They come out and they want to talk about it.”

Feel the burn

The air show audience will feel the heat when McCart Jet Motorsports fires up the “Homewrecker” Ford F650 Jet Truck. The 30-foot-long contraption has three GE J85 turbine engines with afterburners that can generate 18,000 pounds of thrust.

The jet truck’s wall of flame is always a jaw-dropping highlight of the annual air show when it blows by the spectators on the front row.


Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice.