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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Thousands of heads will turn skyward Wednesday well before the fireworks go off.

The Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force’s aerial demonstration team, are set to make a rare appearance in the skies of northern Italy with a brief show at the base.

“This is a great opportunity for Aviano members to celebrate American Independence Day with a little red, white and blue flying above their heads,” said Capt. Melissa Waheibi of the 31st Fighter Wing’s public affairs office.

Two female pilots are included in the crew touring the U.S. and Europe this year. Maj. Nicole Malachowski, who was selected for the team while stationed at RAF Lakenheath in 2006, is the group’s first female jet demonstration pilot. Maj. Samantha Weeks is its first female solo pilot.

Several members of the team have served stints in Europe. Maj. Rob Skelton, operations officer, was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany when he was selected for the team. Maj. Tad Clark, advance pilot and narrator, and Capt. Charles Ploetz, maintenance officer, were both at Spangdahlem Air Base when they got the call.

According to the schedule released by the group, they’ll have already performed at several European venues before visiting Aviano. Shows in Ireland, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria were set before the Aviano date. A show in France followed by a performance at RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom round out the European tour.

It’s the first time the Thunderbirds have performed in Aviano since 1996.

The show begins at noon, but those interested in seeing it — limited to military ID cardholders and their guests — need to get in the gates at least half an hour earlier. Parts of the base will be off-limits, and the roads outside and inside the base that run perpendicular to the runway will be closed to traffic during the show. Parking on base will be limited, and shuttle service will be available from Areas 1 and 2.

Personnel who work at some buildings on base will be told to vacate their workspaces during practice sessions on Monday or Tuesday.

In addition to the F-16s in the sky, those attending the show will be able to see some Air Force aircraft up close on the ground. F-15s from Lakenheath and an A-10 from Spangdahlem will be on display in addition to one of the base’s own F-16s.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe band is scheduled to perform. Concessionaires will be selling food and drinks on the south ramp, where guests have been instructed to gather.

The base will also be hosting its traditional Independence Day activities in the evening. Assorted entertainment for kids starts at 6 p.m. at Freedom Park, followed by a performance by the USAFE Band from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Fireworks are set for 10 p.m.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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