The shadow of the Air Force jet loomed by Brieahna Thomas, 8, as she lay on the tarmac, squinting into the sun.

Although the aircraft was a kite shaped to look like a plane, and although it was being maneuvered with a string by her brother, Joshua, 7, the sound effects of the military jets booming in the background made their game seem all too real.

"I love the sound of a jet," said their mother, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sherry Thomas, who watched as planes performed acrobatic maneuvers above her. "When the kids say, 'It's too loud!' I say, 'That's the sounds of freedom!' "

This was how the Thomas family and thousands of others experienced the 2008 Air Expo, commonly known as the "air show," at McGuire Air Force Base yesterday. The event, which has been held at the base just about every other year for a half-century, was part interactive, part showmanship.

Kids could peek into every nook of a World War II-era bomber and every cranny of a refueling plane that did missions over Iraq. They could scale a climbing wall set up by the Army or spin every which way in a sphere to achieve "extreme equilibrium."

They scored autographs from Air Force officers, and they watched in awe as fighter pilots waved to the crowd upon returning to earth.

The experiences wowed the numerous children in attendance, but the show was also meant to woo them.

When asked what he liked best about the air show, for example, Joshua whispered in his mother's ear: "Everything." He plans to follow in the footsteps of his father, Joey, and join the Army, but his mother is still lobbying for the Air Force.

"Right now, the military gets a lot of negative attention, and [kids] need to come out and see that the military is capable of doing good," Thomas said.

If the military looks good - and especially if it looks cool - then maybe one day that preteen at the air show will enlist.

"The Air Expo is really a chance for us to say thank you," said Col. Balan Irayyar, the commanding officer at McGuire.

He said it wasn't meant as a recruitment tool as much as a way to inspire youngsters.

"We're not interested in airmen, we're interested in creating citizens to serve their country, their town, their city," he said.

And if they learn about the Air Force in the process, even better.

" 'Do you have A.C. in those jets? How fast do you go? How do you go to the bathroom?' Those are the things interesting to the kids," said Tech. Sgt. Ernest E. Hall III, 34, who flies with the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.

The Air Force expected 300,000 people at the weekend event, but Saturday's program was canceled in the morning because of weather, so far fewer people attended.

Before the storms hit, two members of the Army's Airborne drop team were slightly injured in an exercise. They were taken to the hospital as a precaution, the Air Force said. No further information was released yesterday.

Not all of the participants in the show were doing aerial maneuvers. Bob Selden volunteered to accompany a B-17 Flying Fortress from its home in Upstate New York.

"It makes goose bumps go up and down my arm just to be here and think about being here and being a part of this," he said. "It's hard to explain."

Selden is 74, suggesting that the monsters in the sky have an effect regardless of age.

Twenty residents of the Four Seasons 55-and-over community in Mansfield Township, Burlington County, lined up 20 blue picnic chairs to watch the show.

They had eaten breakfast at a diner in the morning, and they were planning to tailgate in the parking lot (with beer, if no one noticed) before heading out to dinner together.

"They're planes. What's not to like?" said Norma Pacifico, 65.

"You can be 100 and still come down here," said her husband, Fred, 77. "I hope I'm 100 and still come here."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.