History of Military Airshows

Imagine stunt pilots and air racers whizzing through the sky at breakneck speeds for your entertainment. Throughout the 20th century, and up to the present day, aerial showmen and women entertained millions in exactly that manner. Air shows, with their extreme stunts and dazzling speed contests, became a major entertainment during the early years of flight and remain popular today. For many spectators, air exhibitions are an exhilarating form of entertainment because they straddle the line between life and death.

Historically, spectators have attended air shows for many reasons. Above all, air shows are highly entertaining. While some people enjoy watching aviators fly a variety of stunts, others have found themselves drawn to the sheer speed of aircraft. Patriotism and national pride have helped draw people to air exhibitions, as people have enjoyed cheering for their own country's pilots.

The National Air Races became extremely popular thanks to the efforts of promoter Clifford Henderson. Beginning with the 1929 show in Cleveland, Henderson staged ten solid days of entertainment ranging from daredevil stunts to high-speed races. The Air Races touted almost any aerial feat or contest a crowd could image. More than 600 aircraft were on display and at least 25 races contested. Overall, more than half a million people attended the 1929 show.

Speed was the main focus of these races. In 1930, Henderson introduced the Thompson Trophy Race, a closed-circuit free-for-all contest where competitors flew against each other around a pylon-marked course. Quickly, the Thompson became the most popular because of its sheer speed and excitement.

Significantly and not surprisingly, one of the most active promoters of modern air shows has been the military. Two of the most popular and famous military air show groups have been the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds. Both units are high-precision flight teams that perform breathtaking stunts at top speeds. Each entertains a vast number of people worldwide. The Blue Angels estimate that they perform before approximately 15 million spectators annually, while the Thunderbirds entertained more than 12 million people in 1997.