BUNKER HILL – Grissom Air Force Reserve Commander Col. Larry Shaw wore an all-yellow jump suit as he sat in a mesh chair flying 12,500 above the base.

The frigid, nearly freezing air swirled through the two open doors at the rear of the plane. But despite the cold and the altitude, Shaw seemed calm and collected. Which was a major feat, considering he was preparing to throw himself out of the doors and parachute for the first time in his life.

And his calm came from the fact that he was with arguably the best parachuting team in the world: the U.S Army Golden Knights.

“I said I would never do this,” Shaw said. “I fly a perfectly good airplane. I don’t understand why I’d want to jump out of one. But I’m jumping with the Golden Knights, the best team in the world. There’s only a small percentage of Americans who have flown with them, and I get to jump with them. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Below, over 40,000 people packed the tarmac at the base to watch Shaw jump, and at the same time, kick off the Grissom Air & Space Expo.

And at around 11:30 a.m., strapped to one of members of the parachuting team, Shaw walked to the edge of the airplane door, looked down, and jumped.

After about 60 seconds of free falling, the chute blasted open and Shaw glided down over the Air Force Reserve base, landing safely on the tarmac below.

“Well, I guess I can check that stupid box off my bucket list,” he said with a grin as he drove a golf cart back through the crowd. “It was incredible.”

So went the first act of the first day of the weekend flying extravaganza at the base that marks the first air show there in 16 years.

For five hours the sky above the base was filled with nearly nonstop performances ranging from small, World War II era planes to some of the most advanced military aircraft currently in existence.

Doug Hays, 434th Air Refueling Wing public affairs operations chief who helped organize the event, said the goal was to bring as many different kind of airplanes as possible to keep the crowds interested and entertained throughout the day.

“I wanted peoples’ necks to be sore from looking up,” he said. “Not from getting a sunburn, but from looking up.”

And that’s exactly what the massive crowd spent the day doing as act after act displayed a new, heart-pounding aviation technique.

There was wing-walker Ashley Shelton, who stood on top a small plane from 1943 with her feet strapped to the wing as the pilot, her husband Greg, twisted and turned, sometimes putting her upside down above the audience. Shelton stood with her hands on her hips, seemingly oblivious to the hurricane-wind speeds she was flying through.

Before that, the thumping pulse of Vietnam-era Huey helicopters filled the skies as they glided over the base.

But the act which stole the show was the performance put on by Maj. Garret Schmitz. Sitting inside the cockpit of an F-16 Viper, the Air Force pilot exploded past the crowd flying nearly 700-mph.The deafening, bone-rattling sound following the supersonic fighter jet seemed to tear open the sky.

After landing and walking to the tent where his team was stationed, Schmitz was bombarded by fans who wanted an autograph and picture with the all-star pilot.

“I think this is what is feels like to be a professional athlete stepping out on to the court,” he said. “I imagine this is what it feels like when a pitcher is walking out to the mound.”

Schmitz said he’s been flying the Viper in overseas combat missions for years, but he just became the commander of the demonstration team a little over three months ago. Since then, he’s performed in around 10 air shows across the country.

And the feeling of being a celebrity is still pretty new, Schmitz said.

“Everyone is watching,” he said. “But you just get in your zone and stay focused. You put on the horse blinders so you can pull off a great performance.”

Schmitz said it was an air show that inspired him to become and Air Force pilot when he was a kid growing up in Price, Utah. He distinctly remembers watching a pilot fly straight up into the sky, twirling the whole way, and then free fall down towards the ground.

That’s one of the stunts Schmitz pulled off on Saturday inside his Viper.

“Every time I do that maneuver, I think maybe there’s a kid in the audience who will be inspired to follow his dream like I was as a kid,” he said.

But the most anticipated act of the show came at the end, when the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds put on a 45-minute aerial symphony.

As the six F-16 Fighting Falcons prepared for take off, the PA system cut to the commander.

“Thunderbirds, let’s run em up!” he chanted.

And with that, the supersonic jets shattered the sound barrier as the pilots pulled off stunning formations over the base, sometimes flying upside down or in a perfect diamond shape.

Robert Hilligoss, a 91-year-old World War II veteran from Kokomo, watched the whole scene in awe just feet away from the performance area of the base.

He said his favorite plane was the F-16 Viper, but what really drew him into the show was the F-51 Mustang – a plane he remembers from his time serving in the Army Air Corps while stationed in Italy.

“It’s fantastic. I remember these planes,” Hilligoss said. “It brings back memories that I wouldn’t remember otherwise. It’s really exciting, and it’s nice young people can see this. It’s a wonderful thing.”

The air show marked the culmination of 18 months of planning from staff at Grissom Air Reserve Base, who spent countless hours nailing down acts, setting up driving routes and preparing for the massive crowds the base hasn’t seen since the last air show there in 2003.

The tone for the day was set early on when Ralph Royce, an air-show veteran who was contracted to run the event, held a safety briefing with the pilots and crews before the demonstrations kicked off.

“Do not let complacency bite you in the butt,” he told crowd packed inside a meeting room near the base’s runway. “Treat every flight like it’s the first practice flight. There’s no pressure this weekend but to be safe.”

Royce ended the briefing with a joke – and a warning.

“That crowd doesn’t know what you’re doing, and they don’t care,” he said. “Thank you for coming, and don’t do nothing dumb.”

Nothing dumb was ever done. The air show ended at around 4:30 p.m. without a hitch. And that was due to impeccable planning and the hordes of law enforcement officers, first responders and other volunteers who spent the day seeing to every detail, said public affairs officer Hays.

“It says Grissom Air and Space Expo, but it’s really a community event,” he said. “You can tell all the work paid off. I saw so many smiles today.”

And in the end, everyone who attended the show got a little taste of what Grissom Air Reserve Base is all about, said Col. Shaw.

“This is a great recruiting effort, and it’s a great way for people to remember that Grissom is still open and we’re still completing our mission here,” he said.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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