Burning dizzying loops, barrel rolls and corkscrews into the sky, fighter jets and stunt planes outperformed each other at Saturday’s Bethpage Air Show.
Racing straight toward each other at hundreds of miles per hour, only rolling their wings at the last possible moment to glide by with the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels closed the first day of the two-day Memorial Day weekend show at Jones Beach, demonstrating the precision skills so few can achieve.
Though all military pilots learn the same maneuvers, only the Blue Angels perform them 18 inches apart.
“The flying is unbelievable. I never get tired of it,” said Robert Piccarillo, 70, of Seaford, who first saw the team when he was 7, at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field.
In places, foot traffic on the boardwalk almost came to a halt as cellphones, cameras and camcorders were raised.
Friends Michael Kessler and Michael Schuman, both of East Meadow, anticipated watching their footage later.
“We like the surprise flyovers,” said Schuman, 54. “You’re looking all over and suddenly it’s overhead.”
The show began somberly with tributes to missing performer Bill Gordon, who was killed Friday evening when his World War II-era plane crashed in the Hudson River.
His Air Power Museum teammates did not perform, though they will take to the sky for Sunday’s show. The six Geico Skytypers honored their aviation brother by flying their Navy World War II planes in a “missing man” formation.
The sun and warm temperatures brought out a full capacity crowd, estimated at 192,000.
In a first for the show, the F-35 stealth fighter jet performed. With a top speed of 1,200 miles per hour and advanced systems that organize and transmit battlefield intelligence, even displaying data on the visors of the pilots’ helmets, this is the nation’s most advanced military jet.
Flying an F-35, said Air Force Maj. Kala’e Leong, is like this: “Imagine going on a run but working on a computer while dodging traffic. You’re making many decisions at a moment’s notice. It takes full mental and physical capacity to do that.”
“I want to be in the Air Force when I grow up,” said Alexander Ziegler, 8, of Howard Beach.
Also performing were the Air Force’s Air Combat Command Viper Demonstration Team, the Army Golden Knights parachutists, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds.
Capt. Jacques Bothelin of the sole civilian jet pilot squad, the Breitling team from France, thanked Americans for his country’s freedom, noting he had flown over the cemeteries at Normandy Beach many times.
The Air Force flew its “Heritage Salute” to honor the fallen and Mary P. Gunther of West Babylon was among the spectators who cited the holiday’s significance. “It’s about freedom and independence. So many people worked hard for America to keep us free.”
The daredevils included three acrobatic pilots, David Windmiller, Matt Chapman, and Sean Tucker, who all seemed to excel at besting gravity, scaling imaginary cliffs and then racing straight back down, leveling off and then perhaps circling around again.
“Wow!” said a wide-eyed Ryan Rodriguez, 4, watching with his parents Brendan Tabaco, 28, of Farmingdale and Julianne Rodriguez, 29, of Rockland County.
Park officials expect Sunday’s show to draw another large crowd, though perhaps not besting the record for a Sunday of 271,076 set in 2006. Last year, chilly temperatures cut Saturday attendance to 121,906.