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Bethpage Air Show stunts enthrall spectators

Lt. John Hiltz of the U.S. Navy Blue

Lt. John Hiltz of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels salutes to his crew, seen reflected in his goggles, as his squadron departs Republic Airport for the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach. (May 26, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Kevin P Coughlin

Gazing skyward as the blue-and-yellow Blue Angels jets roared by, Karen Wilson said it all in a single word: "Oh!"

Performing stunts that left many spectators speechless, the Navy's precision-flying team entertained a crowd estimated at 181,000 people Saturday during the annual Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach.

"They're so close," gushed Wilson, 41, of Huntington, as the F-18 Hornets zoomed overhead.

Moments later, it was her husband's turn to be amazed as two of the Blue Angels jets raced toward each other -- only to roll away at the last second.

"Oh!" yelled Dino Wilson, 48, echoing his wife's sentiment.

Kicking off beach season, the crowds, lured by sunshine and steamy temperatures in the mid-80s, attended the first half of the two-day event. The Memorial Day weekend crowd was short of the Saturday record of 207,000 set in 2007. Only 98,000 people attended last year, when the headline act, the Air Force Thunderbirds, couldn't appear.

Shielding his eyes with his hand, Lamont Evans, 37, watched the Royal Canadian Snowbird CT-114 Tutors fly by in tight formation, wingtips almost touching. "It's like 'Top Gun,' " said the Uniondale firefighter, who has attended the last five air shows. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Along the beach, packed with blankets and umbrellas, kids chased each other while parents kicked back in lawn chairs. Every few minutes, the roar of planes twisting and twirling overhead drowned out conversations.

Aaron Humphries, 13, and his 10-year-old sister Marisa, of Stamford, Conn., had different favorites. Aaron preferred the Air Force F-22 Raptor, while Marisa was partial to the Blue Angels.

Of course, the planes had one thing in common. "They're loud," they both said.

The day was exciting for the pilots, too, said the Blue Angels' commander, Capt. Greg McWherter. "What you see is the beautiful ocean and this beautiful beach, and things get all wavy with the crowd and the umbrellas," he said.

The show also drew a protest, with about 35 peace activists gathering at the entrance to the beach. Standing next to a railing decorated with pink ribbons, the demonstrators held photos of members of the U.S. military killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I want people to remember Memorial Day isn't a day to glorify war but to remember people who've lost their lives," said one of the activists, Judi Gardner, 65, of Huntington. The air show, she said, "leads young people think war is a game. It's not a game."

Jay Gottleib, 55, of Pleasantville, said "thank you" to the protesters as he walked by with his two sons. Later, he admitted to having mixed feelings. "It does glorify war," he said of the show. "But at the same time, the planes are really cool."

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