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A history of air shows

Thousands of men, women and children attend one of the first open houses held at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 16, 1954. During the open house, attendees saw demonstrations from armed forces personnel such as helicopter rescue teams, and got an up-close look at modern aircraft of the time, including B-25 Mitchells, RB-54A Canberras and RF-80 Shooting Stars, all of which are no longer in service. (Photo courtesy of 20th Fighter Wing historian)

Thousands of men, women and children attend one of the first open houses held at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 16, 1954. During the open house, attendees saw demonstrations from armed forces personnel such as helicopter rescue teams, and got an up-close look at modern aircraft of the time, including B-25 Mitchells, RB-54A Canberras and RF-80 Shooting Stars, all of which are no longer in service. (Photo courtesy of 20th Fighter Wing historian)

Children scramble to get an up-close view of the cockpit of a B-25 Mitchell during the open house held on Armed Forces Day at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 15, 1954. The B-25, a twin-engine medium bomber, was famous for its use in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Japan, April 18, 1942. (Photo courtesy of 20th Fighter Wing historian)

Children scramble to get an up-close view of the cockpit of a B-25 Mitchell during the open house held on Armed Forces Day at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 15, 1954. The B-25, a twin-engine medium bomber, was famous for its use in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Japan, April 18, 1942. (Photo courtesy of 20th Fighter Wing historian)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- With the multitude of aerial acts, displays, and other exciting performances, the Shaw Air Expo and open house, "Thunder Over the Midlands" is sure to be a lasting subject of conversation.

Air shows have a long and rich history, dating back to the dawn of flight. In fact, the "Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne," or the Rheims Aviation Meeting, was held in August 1909 and is considered to be the first international aviation meeting. The week-long spectacle drew prominent aviators from all over the world to battle for prizes in challenges such as completing a course the fastest, carrying passengers, or staying airborne the longest.

Aviators competed against not only each other, but also the elements. A downpour of rain turned the ground to mud, and winds strong enough at times cause the raising of black flags, signaling that flying should cease. Regardless of the weather, each day of the event had aerial performances.

As for military air shows, after World War I, pilots found themselves with little to do. In order to keep their skills sharp and their planes in the air, any gathering within flying distance of a military airfield, whether it be a county fair or other patriotic celebration, would be treated to an aerial demonstration.

According to The Airman Handbook, "The traveling air shows, known as circuses, coincided with Victory Loan rallies and in later years provided entertainment at Armistice Day or Washington's Birthday celebrations."

Back then, even enlisted members could be pilots as demonstrated in 1923 by a daring trio of sergeants that tied their aircraft together with cords and flew in a tight 'V' formation.

Though the flying acts may have been the main draw for crowds, there was much more that went into an airshow on the ground. One example was when enlisted mechanics taught the finer points of repair on a Liberty L-12 aircraft engine.

Though air shows have grown in more than just size and number over the years, the sense of awe and wonder imparted to a crowd as planes of all shapes and sizes soar above remains constant.

In keeping with tradition, at the upcoming Shaw Air Expo visitors can look forward to not only aerial demonstrations, but also a host of static displays on the ground and opportunities to meet the pilots and other service members that make our military the dominant force it is today.

"(The air show is) showcasing not only the fancy toys, but everything we do, everything we have at our disposal to be able to protect freedom and defend our country," said Capt. Brandon Nauta, 55th Fighter Squadron flight commander. "Newspaper clippings, photos on the internet, or videos don't do it justice. When you see it live, it makes (the biggest) difference in the world."

Of course, an undertaking as big as this requires a lot of support, from not only those on base, but from the local community as well.

"I think it will be good for the community to be involved with the base in something like this," said Nauta. "We have good community involvement as it is, but I think something like an air show really highlights that relationship. There's a lot of planning that goes on, and execution, that's not just the people on base; it's not just the 20th Fighter Wing, it's not just (U.S. Army Central Command), it's the Sumter police, it's the local fire department, the city council, local radio stations, they're all involved. We're not just showcasing Shaw, we're showcasing Sumter."

The Shaw Air Expo is scheduled to be held May 21-22 at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and is free and open to the public.

For more information about the Shaw Air Expo, visit the official page at www.shaw.af.mil/airexpo