By Danielle DeSimone

It’s a 110 million-dollar industry. Every year, an estimated 10-12 million people in the U.S. and Canada are in the crowds, watching in awe. No, we’re not talking about football, baseball or soccer – we’re talking about airshows.

While some of the 100 airshows across the U.S. are hosted annually by municipalities and other organizations, true aviation enthusiasts know that some of the very best airshows are put on by the military on its bases and installations. At these public displays of U.S. military aviation, civilians are invited onto bases (which are normally closed to the public) to tour airfields, see planes up-close, meet pilots and aviators and generally do a deep dive into the wonders of military aviation history and innovation.

If you have plans to attend a military airshow and want to learn more about military aviation during your visit, here are five ways to get the most out of your experience:

1. Before you Go, Brush Up on Your Airshow History

A great way to prepare to attend a military airshow is to learn about the history of airshows themselves.

The Grumman TBF Avengers fly in formation in 1942. These planes saw a great deal of action at the Battle of Midway. | Photo credit Lt. Cmdr. Horace Bristol via The U.S. National Archives

The first major airshow in the U.S. took place January 10-20, 1910, in Los Angeles, California – only seven years after the Wright brothers first took flight in North Carolina. In the early days of airshows, the events were treated as competitions between aviators from around the world, rather than just demonstrations, as they are today.

However, the nature of airshows changed after World War I. By then, planes had been used in combat and aviation was becoming a popular part of American culture (fun fact: in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt officially marked August 19 as National Aviation Day!). Pilots returning from war needed to keep their skills sharp between conflicts and the American public was eager to learn more about the new aviation industry. As such, airshows provided the perfect place to demonstrate U.S. air innovation to the general public, as well as provide military pilots with a perfect place to practice.

Following World War II, spectators had even more types of planes to watch zip through the sky, as military aviation developed significantly throughout the war. At the beginning of WWII, the U.S. military had approximately 2,500 airplanes; by the end, there were nearly 300,000.

Today, military aviation continues to evolve with the needs of the ever-changing military. To get a look at some of the recent air innovations since WWII, head to a military airshow near you!

Photo credit Sgt. Jami K Lancette

The U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team perform at an air show

2. Soak in the Live Military Air Demonstrations

The best part of attending a military airshow is undoubtedly the show itself.

The Air Force Thunderbirds perform at an airshow. | Photo credit 1st Class Alexis Wade

Military airshows dazzle crowds with live, sky-high demonstrations of planes, helicopters, parachute teams, jet engine-fueled trucks and World War II and Vietnam-era retired aircraft. These explosive and exciting demonstrations give civilians, as well as military families of service members, a glimpse into the daily work and life of aviators and pilots in the military – both today, and throughout history.

A Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet during a pyrotechnics display at an airshow

Every branch of the military is usually represented at military airshows and being a part of a “demo team” requires a great deal of dedication, practice and precision. Pilots and aviators who perform at airshows work incredibly hard to gain the skills and expertise required to be part of these elite teams. Here are just a few of the possible teams that visitors might have a chance to see:

  • Army Golden Knights, Navy Blue Angels or the Air Force Thunderbirds (the only three Department of Defense-sanctioned teams)

  • Navy Leap Frogs Parachute Demonstration Team

  • Air Force F-16 Viper Demonstration Team

  • Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet Demonstration Team

Photo credit Air Force Tech Sgt. Danny Rangel

Crowds gather around the Air Force Thunderbirds at an airshow

3. Get Up Close to Military Aviation with Static Plane Displays

The problem with learning about airplanes is that they’re usually so far away – flying miles high in the sky. Luckily, military airshows feature static displays of airplanes on the ground, so that you can get up-close-and-personal with these big, metal birds!

Affectionately called “the petting zoo” by the military aviation community, these static displays allow visitors to walk around, touch and sometimes even climb into the airplanes to get a real feel for what life is like in the cockpit.

From Boeing’s famed B-17 Flying Fortress from World War II, to the Navy’s now-retired F-14 Tomcats (feeling the “need for speed,” anyone?), to today’s giant Air Force C-17 Globemaster (one of the branch’s largest aircraft), there are a wide array of planes to explore a military airshow.

Photo credit Senior Airman Andrew Sarver

Air Force Maj. Michelle Curran gives a young airshow spectator a high five.

4. Meet the Aviators and Pilots Who Work with the Planes

Military airshows are an awesome place to meet the pilots, aviators, paratroopers and other service members involved in military aviation.

Many airshows will set up official meet-and-greets with the service members who are flying in the airshow demonstrations, meaning that you can shake hands with a Blue Angels pilot moments after watching him or her execute the famous Diamond 360 maneuver.

In addition to meeting aviators and pilots, military airshows are also a great way to meet other service members in the crowds. According to the Blue Star Families 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 82% of service members feel that the general public does not understand the sacrifices and challenges they face as part of the military.

So what better way to bridge that military-civilian divide than to go to an airshow, turn to the service member next to you and ask them what life in the military is like?

Photo credit Airman 1st Class Pedro Tenorio

World War II reenactors speak to a WWII vet at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas

5. Dive into Military Aviation and USO History with Historical Reenactments

Did you know that you can also learn about the history of the USO while at an airshow?

Several airshows feature historical reenactors that stand alongside vintage and retired aircraft on display. Many of these men and women choose to pay homage to the origins of the USO by dressing in traditional World War II clothes.

Some reenactors are particularly dedicated to educating the public about what life was like during WWII for soldiers, sailors, airmen and even USO volunteers. Other reenactment groups use their time and demonstrations to raise money for their local USO locations, which in turn support service members of today.