Anchorage packs JBER for a show in the sky and on the ground

Stephanie Varner held onto her stroller with one hand and used the other to photograph her husband and 2-year-old son in the interior of a giant aircraft Saturday afternoon on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during the Arctic Thunder air show and open house.

Varner wore her U.S. Air Force uniform with a medic band wrapped around her arm. For her, the two-day show is a chance to mix work and play, showing her son, Graysen, evidence of what his mother does when she goes to work.

"It gives us an opportunity to show off what we do," said her husband, David, a retired Air Force police officer. It also gives taxpayers a chance to see their military's capabilities, he said.

On Saturday, more than 100,000 people came out for JBER's biggest show, which takes place partly on the ground and partly in the air. Its purpose: to strengthen community ties to a base where public access is typically limited.

"Our mission isn't executed without community support — period," said Maj. Mike Boyer, director of Arctic Thunder.

To put on the annual show, Boyer said, he worked with about 100 volunteers, all active-duty military members, for about a year.

On Saturday, spectators watched more than a dozen acts in the sky at what looked like a military-themed state fair. People set up lawn chairs. Booths sold pizza, popcorn and french fries. More than two dozen planes and helicopters, including some from Canadian and Australian forces, sat parked outside, their doors open so people could walk in. Alaska congressman Don Young walked amid the crowd, shaking hands and posing for photographs.

"It's a great day to be out," said the candidate, running for re-election this year.

Planes and helicopters flew nearly all day. An F-22 Raptor stealth fighter roared through the air, shooting vertical and then spinning. Pop music played. Some children wore earplugs, some clapped and danced. Many tilted their heads back, eyes looking skyward.

Later, a swarm of five blue jets twirled and zipped, leaving trails of white smoke. The U.S. Navy's renowned Blue Angels team, which performs across the U.S., flew in a diamond formation and upside down. The jets, F/A-18 Hornets, can fly up to 1,400 mph, almost twice the speed of sound.

On the ground, Ruth Cresenzo took a photograph of her daughter posing between two Air Force pilots in front of an F-15E Strike Eagle, a multirole fighter that can drop bombs as well as fire missiles. Cresenzo serves in the National Guard and said she's flown in a few military planes, but none like these, pointing to the nearby C-5 Galaxy, one of the world's largest aircraft.

"It's overwhelming how big the planes are once you get up close," Cresenzo said.

John Campbell, an Air Force squadron commander, said he went to military air shows as a child in Phoenix. After seeing F-16s fly, he knew he wanted to be a pilot.

He said Arctic Thunder gives JBER a chance to reach out to youth as well as strengthen its connection with the community.

"It opens that door to the Air Force," he said.

Jim Hart, a JBER spokesperson, said putting on Arctic Thunder typically costs $1 to $1.50 for each person in attendance, but he didn't know the total spent Saturday. Aircraft on display that are based out of state are typically on their way to somewhere else, Boyer said.

Hart said the two-day open house includes a view into both the Air Force and the U.S. Army.

"You want to see the guys that you're listening to out in the firing range? They're out here for you. You want to see the planes that make noise over the city? They're out here for you," he said. "Talk to the people who fly it. Talk to the people who shoot. Come out and introduce yourself and see who's in your community."

Spectators also saw drones on Saturday. This weekend marked the first time a civilian drone has flown in military airspace and the first time a drone has flown in an air show, according to Ryan Marlow, a co-founder of Alaska Aerial Media, a nonmilitary aerial imaging company.

Federal agencies allowed the company to film a Black Hawk helicopter and a Joint Forces demonstration. A drone also delivered a key for a home giveaway. The rest of the show was off-limits, but it's still progress, Marlow said.

"It's one small step for man, one giant leap for unmanned kind," said Tyler Currier, another co-founder of Alaska Aerial Media.

Arctic Thunder will continue on Sunday. Gates open at 9 a.m., and the show runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. People can download the Arctic Thunder app to view the event schedule and get notifications about the show and traffic, Boyer said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.