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Crowds flock to MacDill AirFest after 2-year hiatus

St. Petersburg Times

TAMPA – Kate and James Camp left their Brandon home at 9 a.m. Saturday to head out to the AirFest at MacDill Air Force Base.
They got there five hours later after inching along roads leading to the base. Traffic was backed up for miles on Dale Mabry Highway, MacDill Avenue, the Gandy Bridge and Leroy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
Some vehicles never made it through the base’s gates before they closed at 3 p.m. Despite the traffic snarls, the Camps exhibited no frustration as they stood on the tarmac waiting for the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s precision flying team, to take to the skies. They were just glad to be there.
“There’s a surge of patriotism nowadays,” said Kate, a former Marine. “I’m proud as heck.”
Dolores Brown, who with her husband, Gerald, was sporting the day’s most popular fashion choices – T-shirts with American flags, and red, white and blue ensembles – said she, too, was feeling patriotic.
“People are really feeling appreciative of our servicemen,” said Brown, who lives in Portsmouth, N.H., and spends her winters at MacDill’s campground.
The day began with a moment of silence for the members of the armed forces killed during the war on terrorism and those whose lives remain in danger. One of the largest bursts of applause came when a fighter jet taxied down the runway with its canopy open, the pilots waving a large American flag.
Still, not everyone saw the day as a celebration of American military might.
Donna Douglas, of Dunedin, sheepishly admitted she just likes the planes and thinks it’s a fun thing to do with the kids.
The festival, which features displays and airborne demonstrations that cover the history of military aviation, has been a popular annual tradition since 1987.
Event organizers estimate that 200,000 people flocked to the base Saturday, and even more are expected today.
The AirFest had been canceled for the past two years because of safety concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This year, security was tighter than it had been in the past. People going to the air show passed through a metal detector, guards searched backpacks and purses, and there was an increased presence of bomb-sniffing dogs, said Sgt. Chris Miller.
Once on the base, festival goers peeked into the bomb bay of a B-25 used during World War II to bomb Tokyo and cruised through the cavernous fuselage of a cargo plane large enough to transport two tanks. They shielded their eyes from the sun as they watched fighter jets speed past the crowd and shoot up into the sky, and biplanes leave spirals of smoke as they twisted through the air.
Robert Morgan, 85, an original crew member of the World War II bomber Memphis Belle, signed copies of a book he wrote about the plane, which was used to bomb Tokyo in 1942. He was at MacDill this weekend for the first time since training there more than 60 years ago.
Today’s planes, he said, are so computerized it makes flying a completely different experience than it was when he was learning to fly.
“You push buttons to fly most of them,” said Morgan, who lives in Asheville, N.C. Back in the old days, he said, “You had to fly by the seat of your pants, by feel.”
A steady stream of children climbed into a Black Hawk helicopter and took aim with its machine gun while proud parents snapped photographs.
Ten-year-old Elwin Martin of Temple Terrace noted that the helicopter looked much like one in his Grand Theft Auto video game.
“In the game it’s like this,” he said, holding his hands inches apart and then stretching his arms as wide as possible. “In real life, it’s this big.”
Ivan Feo, 52, of Safety Harbor, was waiting outside the gates of MacDill at 7 a.m., and just after 8, when the gates opened, he staked out a spot near the Blue Angels planes for friends and family who would arrive later.
He’s been attending the MacDill AirFest since 1989, he said, and was particularly excited about Saturday in light of the show’s two-year hiatus.
“I’ve been waiting for it. I called the base and asked for posters to hang them up around work so I could get people to come,” he said.
He sees the reinstitution of the AirFest as a sign that the United States has the war on terrorism under control.
“We’re standing up,” he said. “We’re not afraid.”

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