JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST â" Blue skies and balmy temperatures drew thousands to an open house and air show here where the Air Force Thunderbirds precision flying team performed Saturday for the first time in four years.
The newest members of the joint base team, Marine Air Group 49, impressed the crowd with their mock portrayal of an aerial assault.
âThe first thing youâll see is a simulated helicopter refueling,â said Marine Capt. David Werve, mission commander for the first-ever MAG 49 performance.
An F/A-18 fighter and AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships made passes over the air field, as Air Force technicians on the ground set off pyrotechnics to simulate strafing and bomb impacts. A trio of C-46 Sea Knight twin rotor helicopters descended and Marines in combat gear dashed out to take positions on the field.
As the demonstration concluded, the Marines came off the field, some pausing to high-five children lining the front row. At another Sea Knight parked on static display, a line of visitors formed to walk through the aircraft.
âPeople love these because they can come in and sit in the same seats as Marines and SEALs,â said Lt. Col. Jack Merkel, who flies CH-46s based in Norfolk, Va.
Base officials estimated the crowd at 120,000.
Itâs the first air show here since the military completed its interservice merge of what had been three bases, and marks the 95th year since the Army first established a permanent presence in the Pine Barrens.
âWe havenât had an air show at McGuire since 2008, with the uptempo of the surgeâ bringing more forces to Afghanistan, said Gen. Ray Jones, commander of the Air Force Air Mobility Command that operates a fleet of transports and tankers from the base.
Weather favored the performers Saturday, after a spate of gusty wind during preview performances for military personnel and families Friday.
The show continues today.
âItâs a perfect day. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves,â said Kristin Sundberg of Farmingdale, after she and sons Erik, 13, and Axel, 4, emerged from the Sea Knight.
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The Marine air group here is one more outcome from a series of post-Cold War base closings and realignments that at first were a grave threat to the New Jersey bases. But local supporters convinced base closing commissions to instead keep the bases, and finally in 2005 designate the first joint base where military branches would work together and save on administrative and overhead costs.
The 2005 consolidation brought in the Marines, who completed the move last year with a new hangar and building complex on the west side of the field.
The air group flies updated versions of venerable helicopter designs that are instantly recognizable to any Vietnam veteran: the UH-1 Iroquois or âHuey,â the AH-1 Cobra gunship, CH-53 Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, the CH-46 Sea Knight troop carrier.
âA lot of the aircraft in our inventory were built in the 1960s,â Merkel said of the Sea Knight fleet, a design from 1959.
But apart from the exterior air frame, the helicopters are totally updated with new engines and transmissions, rotors and electronics, he said.
âA lot of people think itâs the Chinook (a heavy-lift, twin-rotor helicopter used by the Army) but itâs smaller. We fulfill the medium lift role,â Merkel explained. That includes mounting raids, flying SEAL teams in for missions, and resupplying Marines in forward positions,â he said.