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Enjoy A Brief History Of The Fort Lauderdale Air Show, As The Big Headliners Get Ready To Soar Over The Beach

A spectacular air show and Fort Lauderdale have been linked since 1995, when what was first called the Shell Air and Sea Show made its dramatic debut. The show was an instant success, with huge crowds filling Fort Lauderdale beach and hundreds of boats anchored offshore. For the three days (including a practice day) the military jets were in the sky, and all heads were turned upward to catch the excitement, which seemed just above the city's tallest buildings.

This year, the show returns to Fort Lauderdale beach May 7 and 8 bigger and better than ever, and with a new title—Fort Lauderdale Air Show—that puts the city in the spotlight.

Headliners include the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds and the Breitling Jet Team, giving spectators—for the first time in 10 years—the chance to see teams from the U.S., Canada and Europe perform together. Plus, the show features a few special treats, like the U.S. Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier—an aircraft that can perform a vertical takeoff and landing. The Fort Lauderdale Air Show is one of only four shows in the nation to feature the highly sought after aircraft this year.

(The Thunderbirds are not the only precision jet team in this year's show. The Breitling Jet Team, based in France, flies the sleek Aero L-39 Albatros. It is shown practicing last month over Fort Lauderdale beach.)

The excitement surrounding this year's show is two-fold: One, it's returning from a two-year hiatus and promises to not disappoint. Two, locals remember the passion and allure from those early years.

Following the show's 1995 debut, it continued to grow and impress. Beach hotels were sold out well in advance, and at one point, McDonald's became the primary sponsor. Coming in early May, it gave Broward County an economic boost at what is normally a slow season. It also preceded the predictable summer showers. The show had a remarkable run of good weather for 12 years. The show did not stop for lack of success. The original promoter encountered legal problems unrelated to the show, and a soft economy did the rest. The show suspended in 2007 after McDonald's pulled out, but the enthusiasm for the event remained strong. In 2012 local interests, recognizing the value of the event, revived it. Leading the local support was the Motwani family, which had major real estate interests and holdings on the beach. Developer Dev Motwani teamed up with Bryan Lilley, who had run successful air shows in several markets.

(Dev Motwani and his mother, Ramola, pictured several years ago when they revived the Fort Lauderdale Air Show. The family has had extensive real estate holdings on the beach and elsewhere in South Florida.)

“We're strictly financial partners in the show,” Motwani says. “We work with the cities and other local organizations to assure the best economic impact. At the time [in 2012], we had owned the Tropic Cay since 1994, and it was the best weekend we ever had.”

Unfortunately, the good luck the original promoter enjoyed in the 1990s did not hold. Problems for several years led the Sun Sentinel to call the show “jinxed.” It did seem that way. The 2012 show was rained out the second day. The following year the Thunderbirds could not fly because political turmoil in Washington caused funding cuts across the board. The next year it was problems at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, where runway construction caused conflicts for air space. Finally, in 2015 it was canceled due to road construction that was taking place in the heart of the show's viewing area north of Sunrise Boulevard. The city was repairing the roads as a result of 2012's big hurricane, Sandy, which washed out portions of A1A.

Hopefully, the bad luck has run its course. A1A is fixed, the airport is accessible for the fast-paced jet teams and the military budget constraints are gone. Now, all we need is some fine spring weather when the Thunderbirds take to the sky.

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When: May 7-8

Where: Fort Lauderdale beach, just north of Sunrise Boulevard near Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

Tickets: Fightline Club VIP $169; Drop Zone $34/adult, $22/child (6-12); Photo Pit - $129

Schedule for Saturday and Sunday:

9 a.m.—Air Show displays open

10 a.m.—Flight Line Clubhouse opens

Noon—Air demonstrations begin

3 p.m.—U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly

Performer Party: Saturday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa. This event, which is open to public, showcases the jet demonstration teams.


The Thunderbirds began life in the early 1950s. Unlike the Navy's Blue Angels, who started in the 1940s flying the World War II Grumman Bearcat, a prop-driven plane, the Thunderbirds have always flown jets. They have a tradition of featuring the most modern combat aircraft, the first being the Korean War vintage Republic F-84 Thunderjet. It was soon replaced by the North American F-100 Super Sabre, a development of the F-86 Sabre. That plane gained fame in the Korean War by outclassing the Soviet MiG-15, which for a brief period was considered the most formidable fighter of the young jet age. An F-86 is displayed on a pylon at the U.S. 1 entrance to Fort Lauderdale's Holiday Park.

The F-100 served in Vietnam, by which time it was being superseded by the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The Phantom remained the team's mount most years until 1983 when the new General Dynamics F-16 appeared. That aircraft, with numerous improvements over the years by the company now known as Lockheed Martin, remains the Thunderbirds' performer to this day.

(The Thunderbirds perform the same precision show, down to the timing of announcers' lines, across the country. The pilots, however, enjoy performing over water. Fort Lauderdale is an ideal venue.)

For those interested in the most modern miliary aircraft, the Fort Lauderdale Air Show has a treat in store. It will be the first civilian air show in North America to feature the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Built by Lockheed Martin, the plane is an all-weather stealth fighter undergoing final development and testing by the U.S. Department of Defense. With three models, the F-35 is designed for use by the Air Force, Marine Corps and the Navy. The Marine Corps version will have short take-off and vertical-landing capability, while the Navy version is for carrier operations.

The new plane will appear with the legendary North American P-51 Mustang of World War II fame. Its designers in 1940 had the advantage of studying planes such as the British Spitfire, the German Messerschmitt 109 and the American Curtiss P-36 (later developed into the P-40), which were all designed six years before, and were already being combat tested in Europe. Featuring a revolutionary low-drag wing, the first production Mustangs in 1941 were limited by an engine that lost power at higher altitudes. Almost two years later, it became the war's outstanding prop-driven fighter when it was paired with the high-altitude British Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Although of British design, the Mustangs' engines were built in the U.S. by the Packard Motor Company. Its appearance in late 1943 as a long-range escort for bombers quickly reduced the loss rate for the big planes attacking Germany, which had become unsustainable the previous summer. It later escorted B-29s in raids on Japan. It continued in service through the Korean War and with a number of foreign air forces. It lives on today as a popular air racer.The pilot of the P-51 in this year's Air Force Heritage Flight has a pedigree to rival—even exceed—that of the famous airplane. Retired Lt. Col. Greg Anders is a third generation military academy graduate. His grandfather was a young Navy officer aboard the USS Panay, which was sunk in 1937 by Japanese planes while patrolling China's Yangtze River to protect American interests. Japan had invaded China, but the U.S. was still neutral. He won the Navy Cross and Purple Heart when he took over command from the disabled captain.

(The new F-35 Lightning II will make its civilian debut in Fort Lauderdale. It is one-size-fits-all, designed for use by the three military services.)

His father, Maj. Gen. William Anders, served with the Air Force as a pilot during the Cold War and later was part of the Apollo crew in NASA. Greg Anders was 15 years on active duty with the Air Force, and was activated in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He flew numerous combat missions in Kuwait and Iraq. With more than 4,000 flying hours, he is mission qualified and an instructor for several combat aircraft.

The Bellingham, Washington resident is senior vice president and executive director of the Air Force's Heritage Flight Museum.

(The Air Force likes to pair its most modern combat aircraft with the historic P-51 (top) of World War II fame. The pilot in the Fort Lauderdale Air Show, retired Lt. Col. Greg Anders, has a distinguished war record.)