For three years, Steve Stavrakakis has flown a jet in the El Toro Air Show and enjoyed a special camaraderie with other pilots whose steel nerves and split-second timing have made the event a thrilling tradition for 47 years.
This year, however, is the final show at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which is closing in 1999.
"I hate to see it happen," Stavrakakis, 39, said, adding that the Marines are "like a family to us."
Stavrakakis, whose plane has been dubbed "The Wild Thing" because of its pearl white and metallic violet colors with yellow thunderbolts on the side, reminisced about El Toro.
"The thing I remember most about the El Toro show is the sheer size and organization. The Marines do a fantastic job," said the 12-year veteran pilot based in Modesto. "You put a lot of pressure on yourself to give 110% during the show, because if you don't you feel like you've let the Marines down."
But organizers hope to go out with a big splash, expecting 2 million spectators for the last show on April 26-27. About 1.7 million people came last year, a far cry from the 10,000 who attended the first show in 1950.
"As of right now, we don't have any new events planned for the last show, but we're trying to come up with some ideas," said Sgt. Barry Pawelek, a base spokesman.
Some familiar aircraft will be flying in the show, including the Blue Angels, the centerpiece and mainstay of the event.
The El Toro Air Expo and Trade Show, consisting of 150 aviation vendors, will be held, and there will be rides and games for kids.
On Friday, April 25, a special performance for the disabled and senior citizens will be held. The general public will be admitted for the show on April 26 and 27.
The air show, which organizers say is the largest of its kind in the United States, attracts spectators of all ages. Hundreds of aircraft, from vintage airplanes to the latest fighter jets, go through their paces for the public.
Originally called Armed Forces Day Open House, the show at first featured only military demonstrations such as simulated aircraft carrier landings.
But the event has evolved to allow civilian pilots to participate as well, and this year as many as 15 civilian performers are expected to take part in addition to the dozen military acts.
The show has won praise and respect.
"The show is the top notch and of the highest quality," said John Piggott, 54, who will be flying in his fifth El Toro show. "The people that run the base, they're first-class."
Many are sorry to see it all end.
"We'll miss it, no question," said Irvine City Manager Paul Brady.
Although this will be the last year at El Toro, the Marines hope to continue the tradition in 1998 at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.
"The chances that the Blue Angels will be at Miramar will be pretty high," said Angels spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Kim Stefansson.
Stavrakakis is upbeat about the prospective show.
"If they will have me at Miramar, I'll be there in a heartbeat."
General admission to the air show is free, but preferred seating ranges from $10 to $40 for adults and $5 to $30 for children from the ages of 3 to 11. For more information, call (714) 726-2100.