Thunderbirds give preview
of this weekend’s air show

The Thunderbirds fly over the Grand Valley Thursday afternoon in preparation for this weekends airshow.

The Thunderbirds fly over the Grand Valley Thursday afternoon in preparation for this weekends airshow.

The scream of those red, white and blue F-16 jets around the Grand Valley on Thursday wasn’t a promotion for the Grand Junction Air Show this weekend.

OK, it kind of was, but without the free air show on Thursday, Saturday’s show couldn’t go on, at least not with the level of precision that the pilots of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team demand.

The jets flying in low over the Grand Valley were learning the Grand Valley and its features, said the two soloists, Maj. Whit Collins and Maj. Alex Turner.

They studied Google Earth images of the valley to gain a sense of the land and structures that can help them orient themselves while tearing across the town and desert at 250 mph, give or take.

“We’re looking for oddly shaped buildings” and other landmarks, Collins said.  And yes, they want to have a good sense of how quickly the Bookcliffs rise up, forming the backdrop for their run to the north, shearing off as they approach the rocky cliffs.

While four of their comrades-in-cockpits fly in the tight diamond formation, Collins and Turner perform separately, then come together at high speed parallel to the runway a scant few feet off the ground.

Unseen to the audience, Turner is tracking a white line on the earth and Collins is making sure he takes a path parallel to, and well off, that white show line.

“We’re going at about a 500-mph rate of closure,” so understanding the territory is imperative, Turner said.

The smoke that follows each of the Thunderbird F-16s is made from biodegradable, paraffin-based oil injected into the jet exhaust and it helps air show audiences spot the jets as they approach the show location.

It also helps pilots spot the other jets, no small feat given their speeds and size against an open sky. “I’ll see the smoke and then the jet bursting out of it,” Turner said.

The Thunderbirds will close the air show at Grand Junction Regional Airport on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Tickets are available online at or at the Avalon Theatre ticket office.


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