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More than 200,000 attend Sunday's Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, says state parks official

The Thunderbirds perform during the 12th annual Bethpage

The Thunderbirds perform during the 12th annual Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach in Wantagh on Saturday, May 23, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

A massive crowd -- lured by warm weather, sunny skies and a procession of daredevil pilots -- jammed Jones Beach Sunday for the Bethpage Air Show and forced the closure of nearby traffic-clogged parkways even before any aircraft took flight.

"This is one of the busiest days we've seen so far," said George Gorman Jr., deputy regional director for the state Parks Department, comparing it to years past.

The warm weather attracted an air show crowd Sundayof about 203,000, Gorman said. Attendance Saturday was 114,000, officials said.

Before noon Sunday, officials closed parts of the Meadowbrook, Wantagh and Ocean parkways near the air show after determining Jones Beach was packed to capacity.

Hours before the start of the air show, spectators were staking out prime spots at the water's edge.

"This is probably the biggest air show I've ever been to," Melville-based pilot David Windmiller said. "It's the best. It's friends and family, and this is my hometown."

Spectators looking skyward saw pilots spiraling their aircraft through the air or flying in precision formation.

The performances elicited cheers and loud applause, but were not just about the remarkable machinery.

In addition to years of training, aerobatic pilots must be physically fit enough to handle the swoops, somersaults and high speeds above the beach.

"I fly for eight weeks, three to four flights per day, seven days a week," said Windmiller, 51, an aerobatic specialist who piloted his single-engine Zivko Edge 540 Sunday.

Pilots for the Las Vegas-based U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds can reach speeds that put them at nine times the force of gravity; a tremendous pressure binding them to the seats of their F-16 Fighting Falcons.

The next moment, negative G-forces feel almost as if they could rip a pilot from the aircraft, said Tyler Ellison, 37, a Thunderbird pilot who acted as a safety observer Sunday.

"Every time we fly, it's like doing an hour of anaerobic activity," he said.

Ellison said his 200-pound body weight is the equivalent of 1,800 pounds when he's cruising at 9-Gs, or nine times the force of gravity.

Negative gravity is what they experience when a plane or jet seemingly pauses in midair, or during the dramatic turns and loops that throw the pilots' bodies against the seat belts that secure them in the cockpit.

For the audience, the result can be dazzling.

Jenna Pitta, 21 of Massapequa Park, said her favorite part of the air show is when "they stall out and spiral toward the water,' regaining control as they risk plunging into the Atlantic.

"It's exciting," she said. "It's the 'What if?' question."

Windmiller, Ellison and other pilots said the maneuvers take years of training, but are not as perilous as they look, even the close fly-bys and steep plummets that gave onlookers like Pitta a thrill Sunday.

Windmiller said his favorite maneuver is one that makes his plane tumble at different angles.

"It's something that took a long time to develop and get to perfection, and there are very few people in the world who can do consistent tumbles multiple times," he said of the maneuver. "It's one of my specialties."

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