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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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A day at AirFest: Planes and smiles

Mariah Ebert sits on her father's shoulders, watches two planes dance in the sky, and offers insight seemingly well beyond her eight years.

“I have nothing to say,” Ebert declares after watching pilots Rob Holland and Mike Goulian zip, zoom and crisscross in the sky above MacDill Air Force Base. “I am so blown away.”

But for Ebert, a third-grader at South Oak Elementary School in Largo, her early exclamation is a bit premature. This is just the opening act for AirFest 2014.

There will be another 14 performances to go before the grand finale — the Air Force Thunderbirds,

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Shortly before sunrise, and before the gates open up for the public, Rex and Melissa Pemberton talk about the importance of marital cooperation when one spouse is falling through the air at 120 mph while wearing a wing-suit as the other spouse follows in one of the world's most souped-up aerobatic planes with three clawed propellers spinning fiercely.

“There is a golden rule,” jokes Rex Pemberton, the youngest Australian ever to climb Mt. Everest. “Don't upset your wife the morning of a show.”

The couple, who met in Australia, have been married for five years. Each world-class, world-touring performers in their own right, they say they started the act so that they could travel together.

“Switzerland would be nice,” says Rex Pemberton when asked about a place he'd like to go for the first time.

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Army Maj. William Heine stands by the HH-60L Black Hawk helicopter he flew in Afghanistan, one of about 20 static displays at AirFest.

Known as “dustoff” for the medical evacuation missions it flies, the Black Hawk, emblazoned with a red cross, is part of a unit based at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

Between November 2011 and October 2012, Fox Company of the 5-159th Aviation Regiment, flew about 1,000 Medevac rescue missions, says Heine.

“We were a 24-hour medical service,” he says. “We dealt with everything from IEDs to small arms fire to other injuries. We rescued our troops as well as enemy troops.”

Some members of Fox Company might be headed back downrange, says Heine, a reminder that the nation's longest war isn't over.

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A short while after Panchito, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, does a re-enactment of the April 18, 1942, raid on Tokyo, a man who was on that mission talks about what it was like.

With 16 Mitchells loaded on its deck, the aircraft carrier Hornet steamed two days out of Alameda before the men knew where they were going.

Then a message came over the loudspeaker.

“This force is bound for Tokyo,” says Cole, now 98, sitting in the traveling trailer of the Disabled American Veterans, a veteran service organization that is sponsoring Panchito's flights to spread the word about veterans in need.

It was early in the war, things weren't going too well and after some adulation, silence set in after they realized the danger of the mission ahead.

The original plan was to get within 500 miles of Japan, but the Hornet was discovered by a Japanese boat. Army Air Forces Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle opted to take off from the Hornet — the first time bombers ever flew off a carrier — at about 750 miles away, says Cole.

Doolittle's plane was the first off the deck, with 2nd Lt. Cole sitting beside him as co-pilot. They were carrying four 500-pound incendiary bombs.

“On the flight to Japan, the weather was spitting rain, but visibility was good,” says Cole. “

Shortly after noon, they dropped their bombs, rattling the Japanese capital.

“We didn't stick around to see what happened,” he says.

The original plan was to land the planes at Chinese airfields. But because they had to fly extra miles, the planes ran out of gas.

“We saw the low fuel light come on,” says Cole. “We were at 9,000 feet. Lt. Col. Doolittle ordered us to bail. It was dark and rainy. We jumped out.”

Doolittle, he says, was the last man out of the plane. They landed behind Japanese lines, but he, Doolittle and the other three crewmen were rescued by nationalist Chinese forces. Not all the crews were as fortunate. Of eight men captured, the Japanese executed three.

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At about 3 p.m., Mariah Ebert is back on her father's shoulders, the hot sun radiating off the flight line.

“It's been a long day,” says Dan Ebert with a weary smile.

Soon the sky is filled with six distinctive red and white F-16s, looping in unison, screaming by solo, and in pairs, one time traveling together with one jet flying upside down just feet above the other.

“This is awesome,” says Mariah Ebert. “When I get to school, I am going to tell everyone you have to go the next time they have this.”

AirFest continues Sunday, with the MacDill Air Force Base gates opening at 8 a.m.

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