EL TORO — Each year, the tightly guarded El Toro Marine Corps Air Station throws open its gates to hundreds of thousands of civilian aviation buffs who come to sit in the sun and stare skyward at screeching fighter jets and small stunt planes performing dangerous, exotic loops.
Wing walkers will amble high above the crowds. An AV-8 Harrier plane will hover above the runway. A team of fliers will execute aerobatics high over the base. And topping off each show, Blue Angels will zip through the air, barely missing each other as they perform precision formations.
The El Toro Air Show this Saturday and Sunday is the largest of its kind in the United States. Referred to as the Paris Air Show of the West by some and a "military Disneyland" by others, the show will feature the B-1 bomber, Patriot missiles, the latest supersonic military jets and the most advanced Marine Corps and Army helicopters.
But it almost did not happen. The air show was called off in January because of the Gulf War, then hurriedly reinstated when the cease-fire was announced in late February. And despite the fits and starts, it is expected to draw the biggest crowd in its 41-year history.
"The country is in an upswing in patriotism," said special projects officer Lt. Col. Barbara Ellen Hamann. "People are enjoying the fact that the war is over and the troops are coming home."
People who have never been to an air show before will be able "to see firsthand the military equipment and the planes they had watched on the television during the Persian Gulf War," she added.
Much of the planning for this year's show has been done by reserve Marine officers because the regular organizers were in the Middle East.
More than 52,000 men and women from Orange County and nearby Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County served in the Persian Gulf campaign. About 8,000 of them were from the air stations at El Toro and Tustin. Although they played a major role in the intense bombing of Iraq and occupied Kuwait and later in the 100-hour ground war, not one Marine from El Toro or Tustin was killed. Seven infantry Marines from Camp Pendleton died in combat or related accidents between the start of the war in January and the Feb. 28 cease-fire.
Planes from the El Toro and Tustin-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing under the command of Maj. Gen. Royal N. Moore Jr. dropped some of the first bombs on enemy targets in predawn attacks Jan. 17, and helicopters from the wing were first into Kuwait when the ground war began Feb. 24.
Most of the Marine aviators are home, but some infantrymen from Pendleton are still in Saudi Arabia.
Last year, the air show drew 810,000 people over two days, but this year, coming on the heels of the Persian Gulf victory, military officials anticipate more.
"We are hoping more than a million people will come out and help us celebrate," said Maj. John Hill, who heads the air show. "While they are here, they can give our victorious warriors a great big welcome home."
As in the past, the main attraction on Saturday and Sunday will be the "Navy/Marine Corps flight demonstration team," better known as the Blue Angels. The six blue-and-yellow F/A-18 Hornets will dazzle the crowds with their precision maneuvers in delta formations and the four-plane diamond formations. Since 1946, 230 million have seen the team perform, and this year alone it will appear 68 times at 39 locations across the country, El Toro's show being the largest.
Another favorite is the AV-8 Harrier, a plane that proved itself in the Persian Gulf as both a bomber and a support aircraft that shielded advancing troops from attack. The aircraft has the unique capability of taking off and landing vertically.
Also appearing will be the Holiday Inn Aerobatic Team performing aerial maneuvers; Patty Wagstaff in her "Super Bandit," doing world class aerobatics; Jim Franklin executing unique stunts in his 1940 Waco biplane, joined by his daredevil wing walkers; and John Collver and his "Warbird" demonstrating World War II maneuvers high above the El Toro airfield.
In addition, many aircraft will be on display, ranging from the large B-52 bomber to the small, deadly Cobra gunship helicopter that gained considerable attention for its feats in the Gulf War. The famed Patriot missile may be there, as will be aircraft, tanks, jeeps and hand-held rocket launchers. Filling out the grounds of the air show will be concession stands serving hamburgers, hot dogs, soda and beer, as well as hawkers selling Desert Storm memorabilia, T-shirts, hats and patches.
But while they are festive in nature, air shows are filled with tension because of the danger involved in many of the performances. Pilots, crew members, sky divers and spectators have been killed in flaming crashes before hundreds of thousands of onlookers.