ATLANTIC CITY — “You’re in Atlantic City, and you need to have fun while you’re here,” Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joe Kelly told a ballroom full of pilots Tuesday night. “When you come to Atlantic City, you get to enjoy real first-class accommodations.”
The ballroom on the top floor of Bally’s Atlantic City was filled with nearly 300 people — a mix of Atlantic City Airshow organizers, pilots, local officials, executives and community leaders — all enjoying big band music, drinks and dinner.
The room was decorated with red, white and blue tablecloths, centerpieces and drapes. Lining the walls were cutouts of planes — even one referencing the 1986 aviation movie “Top Gun.”
More than 80 demo pilots will dart across the city in today’s airshow. Nights out — such as the one at Bally’s — are just part of the all-star treatment airshow performers receive when they come to Atlantic City. Mixed into a schedule of practices and appearances are upscale cocktail parties and complimentary dinners.
The pilots, performers and their crews also get to stay at one of the resort’s casinos — a far cry from their accommodations for some of the more rural airshows. This year, they’re all based at Harrah’s Resort, where a sign welcoming airshow performers is set up in front of hotel check-in.
There’s no shortage of men — and some women — dressed in flight suits walking around the casino, stirring curiosity and whispers from visitors who say they were unaware an airshow was in town.
Steve Kapur, a pilot for the Geico Skytypers, said his team travels to a variety of venues for the 12 to 14 airshows they perform in each year. In some cases, the performers stay at the basic quarters on military bases, which are sometimes “fine” and other times “not so wonderful,” he said.
“Half of the fun with a place like this is just seeing the sparkle of it all,” said Kapur, who lives in Sparta, Sussex County. “It’s a treat to be able to come to Atlantic City with these kinds of accommodations.”
Organizers have touted the airshow’s rapidly rising profile and attributed it primarily to the fact that the show is one of few that occur midweek. Since its rebirth eight years ago, the show always has retained a jet team such as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds — a relatively unusual feat for a new show, airshow enthusiasts say.
The lineup for Thunder Over the Boardwalk is more densely packed than the schedule at some of the more rural airshows, and it generally carries more military performances, said Kapur, adding that many of the performers know each other because they travel to the same venues throughout the year.
But Kapur said he believes some of the Atlantic City Airshow’s success in retaining a packed lineup is also tied to the fact that the city has a lot to offer.
“With the popularity of this venue, there’s certainly no problem getting performers here,” he said.
The pilots and performers say they enjoy all types of airshows from the rural to the more elaborate, but there’s no doubt that performing in Atlantic City comes with its perks. For some, such as U.S. Army Sgt. Rachel Medley, a member of the Golden Knights parachute team, this week marked their first time at the resort.
“We love backwoods airshows where we’ve got a crowd of maybe 10,000. That gives us time to get back to our roots,” Medley, a native of Eureka, Calif., said earlier this week during her first walk on the city’s beach to check out the landing zone for her team. “But it’s also really cool to come out to a big city and have huge crowds cheering for you and fun things to do.”
All of those “fun things” Atlantic City has to offer — from gambling to high-end restaurants — are certainly talked about among the performers and their teams, who will joke about making sure they’re pulled away from the bars and blackjack tables to be in bed at a reasonable hour before the show that’s expected to draw as many as 750,000 people today.
This year’s headline act, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, is based at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, so gambling and ritzy hotels are things the team has seen before, said U.S. Air Force Capt. Nicolas Holmes, the team’s slot pilot.
Holmes, a Denver native, said he was much more excited to take a walk along the Atlantic City Boardwalk. He got his first look at the Boardwalk during Monday’s flyover, although the glimpse was fleeting as the Thunderbirds travel at speeds of 500 to 700 mph.
“Every place we go is unique, but it’s extremely cool to be here,” Holmes said. “Coming to Atlantic City is really unlike anywhere else.”
The Atlantic City Airshow is unique in that it’s one of the few that does not take place at an airport or another land-based venue. About 70 percent of the pilots take off from Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township. The other 30 percent come from sites including Dover Air Force Base, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the Millville Airport. But with a show that takes place over the beach, that also means that the crowds do not have the opportunity to visit with the pilots and view the aircraft up close. Other shows usually allow spectators to tour some of the aircraft.
“It’s different because, with this show, we don’t have the chance to meet the crowds, and that’s something we enjoy,” Kapur said. “That’s really the only thing missing here.”
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