Dover AFB's Open House will be held Aug. 26 and Aug .27

Of the three biggest tourist events in Kent County, only one is free -- and it’s coming soon.

The 2017 Thunder Over Dover Open House on the weekend of Aug. 26 and 27 at Dover Air Force Base is the first time the base has opened its gates to civilians since 2009.

With appearances by the Thunderbirds, parachute teams, a stealth bomber and dozens of other attractions, it promises to be memorable.

The base is projecting at least 150,000 visitors over the two-day period, said Lt. Col. Ryan Orfe, who leads the open house team. That’s more per day than Kent County’s other two big attractions, the NASCAR races and the Firefly Music Festival.

“Pretty much every organization on base is involved in the open house,” Orfe said.

Two years of planning

The colonel has been in charge of the event since December, but said planning began at least 18 months before that.

Preparation for an open house starts at the top echelons at the Pentagon, with Air Force officials reviewing show requests from different bases. If an Air Force installation or civilian event wants to include the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, as the Thunderbirds are formally known, they usually have to plan at least two years in advance, Orfe said.

This year, the Thunderbirds are scheduled to perform 38 places, including Thunder Over Dover; they have an additional 38 shows for 2018. The group is considering requests for 2019.

Prepping is a massive undertaking, Orfe said. A command pilot and former director of operations with the 3rd Airlift Squadron, he’s used to big undertakings, such as coordinating airlift missions using the unit’s C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

Only this time, instead of ferrying tons of war material, Orfe is ensuring there are enough ATMs for the crowds to use, making sure military dogs used for security are ready and there’s enough hangar space to park the Thunderbirds’ F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Those hangars can be used as crowd shelters if severe weather passes through during the show, he said.

They could be needed, given the unpredictability of Dover weather in August. Portions of the 2009 show were cancelled or delayed when rain showers drenched the base.

Orfe supervises three team leaders, or “bosses,” each with a specific area of responsibility. They in turn are in charge of a larger group that sees to the minute details.

The ground boss is responsible for arranging the necessary amenities for the crowd and participants, ranging from securing hotels, concessions, vendors and hiring enough porta-potties. The ramp boss coordinates all of the static displays, including the visiting aircraft, kiosks and information booths.

The air boss is supposed to keep everything flying, for example, by obtaining different types of fuel for various aircraft and their support vehicles.

“He even has to make sure we have at least 200 gallons of distilled water available for the Harrier,” Orfe noted. The water increases the thrust of the Harrier’s engine on takeoff by reducing the temperature of its fan blades.

Orfe’s team is working with first responders throughout Dover and Kent County to ensure safety and security. That reach includes coordinating with the Delaware State Police and having fire and emergency crews from Milford on standby, just in case.

While the Thunderbird pilots and their support crews can stay overnight on base, hundreds of other show participants will need lodging and food during their stay, he said.

“This isn’t just a base effort, it’s pretty much a state effort to make the open house happen safely, efficiently and to allow a good experience for everyone,” he said.

A fast-paced preview

In addition to the Thunderbirds, visitors at the open house will be treated to demonstrations by the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command Black Dagger parachute team, the Wings of Blue parachute team, a demonstration of the C-17’s capabilities, a British Harrier and a flyover by a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

In addition, static displays will include an F-15 Strike Eagle and the F-22 Raptor, one of the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft. Local flyers will be represented by a vintage World War II B-25 Mitchell bomber, “Panchito,” based in Georgetown, and World War I and II aircraft from the Massey Air Museum, which is just over the border in Maryland.

The Air Mobility Command Museum will be open with its display of more than 30 vintage aircraft.

Kent County residents will get an advance peek at the Thunderbirds Friday, Aug. 25. The show’s advance pilot, will arrive two days earlier than the team itself, which flies in Thursday. They’ll bed down for the night, but the skies over Dover will be their practice field Friday as they familiarize themselves with the airfield and the surrounding territory.

Each Thunderbird show lasts an hour, with six aircraft performing loops, rolls, formation flying and high-speed passes in front of the crowds.

In addition, two pilots perform maneuvers that demonstrate the combat capability of the F-16, which is considered one of the top fighter aircraft in the world.

A tip of the hat to Dover

Although thousands of people living in the Dover area pass by the base daily, only a small percentage actually have access. The open house will give them the chance to see what’s on the other side of the security fencing, Orfe said.

The show comes on the heels of the air base’s 75th anniversary and during the Dover’s 300th birthday celebrations. It gives the Air Force an opportunity to show its stuff just before its own 70th anniversary. President Harry S Truman signed the National Security Act Sept. 18, 1947, separating the service from the U.S. Army.

“We have a pretty tight relationship with the people of Dover,” Orfe said. “This will let them come onto the base and see what’s here.

“It lets us tell our story more directly and it lets us say ‘Thank you’ to the community,” he said.