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Ventura County

For Daring Pilots, Sky's the Limit

Aviation: Jaw-dropping aerobatic displays thrill thousands at the Point Mugu Air Show.

April 20, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The annual Point Mugu Air show opened with a roar Friday with more than 4,000 people turning out to witness displays of aerobatics so startling that many gasped and shut their eyes.

Supersonic jets blasted just 200 feet overhead while acrobatic biplanes twirled like ballerinas in the blue skies.

People jumped, ears were plugged and some said their bones actually rattled.

The star attractions were the Thunderbirds, the famed Air Force flying team outfitted in red, white and blue F-16 fighter jets. But there were also flights of F-14, F-15 and F-18 fighter-bombers. The supersecret, radar-eluding Stealth fighter also made an appearance, zipping overhead with its distinct black wedge shape framed against the sky.

Elsewhere, aircraft were parked and opened for the public to explore. People meandered around the cargo bay of a C-130 transport plane. Others examined vintage aircraft and peered into the windows of an aging Soviet MiG fighter.

Security was tighter this year because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Military personnel searched bags at the entrance and forbade the use of coolers inside the air show.

The Afghan war apparently boosted public interest in military hardware, according to some who manned booths around the tarmac.

"We are getting a lot more questions than last year about what we do," said Lt. Chan Barry, a naval flight officer who was standing beside an E2C Hawkeye aircraft, which directs planes to their targets and also picks up enemy radio traffic. "Everyone is asking if I was in Afghanistan. More people are saying they appreciate what we do."

At a booth with inert mortar rounds, missiles and land mines, the Soviet-made RPG or rocket-propelled grenade-launcher was the clear favorite. The weapon, a favorite among guerrilla armies worldwide, was widely seen toted by Afghan militiamen on news broadcasts at the height of the war.

"People are very interested in ordnance this year," said Lt. Eric Bray, who runs the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit at Point Mugu. "They all want to see the RPG. They know it because they see it on TV and in the movies."

As the crowd awaited the Thunderbirds, there were wild aerobatic fliers such as John Nash and Sean Tucker in his red high-performance biplane.

Tucker had the crowd on its feet and gasping as he seemed to push his small plane to the limit. He flew straight up, then dove straight for the runway before pulling up at the last second. At one point Tucker flew upside-down just 20 feet above the runway at speeds of 230 mph.

For his part, Nash would fly his plane in ever-tightening corkscrew patterns and then let the plane drop nearly back to earth before pulling up.

About 3:30 p.m. the Thunderbird pilots started their engines and took the aircraft to the edge of the runway. With martial music blaring from speakers, they sped down the runway and banked sharply just after taking off.

The ground shook as they screamed past, sometimes flying just 18 inches apart at supersonic speed.

Four of the planes formed a diamond formation and another sped through the center. Two planes zoomed toward each other at 1,200 mph, turning at seemingly the last second to avoid collision. Planes flew 200 feet above the runway before shooting three miles straight up into the blue.

Cameras inside the cockpits showed the pilot as he maneuvered, broadcasting the image up on a giant screen on the side of the runway.

The demonstration continued for about 45 minutes, making up for last year when fog grounded the Thunderbirds and disappointed the hundreds of people who came to see them.

Not this time.

"I think it's just fantastic," said Beckie Fender, 48, of Newbury Park. "It awakens all of your senses. Your whole body tingles when they go by."

Children who were part of the Make a Wish Foundation got ringside seats after being invited by the Thunderbird team.

"I loved all the planes doing tricks," said 7-year-old Hailey Johnson of Ventura, who is battling cancer. "I especially liked the two that flew off on their own."

Dani Anderson, 15, who has muscular dystrophy, watched in awe as four jets stacked like a sandwich blew past.

"It's amazing how they can get in so close to each other," the Camarillo girl said.

When the show was over, the planes landed and the six pilots climbed out. They were greeted by raucous applause.

"With everything that happened in September you watch this with a sense of pride," said Alesha Silva, 28, of Goleta. "You really appreciate what they do."

The show, which includes free admission and parking, continues today and Sunday, with gates opening at 8 a.m.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

List of Events at Air Show

Today and Sunday

* 8 a.m.: Gates open

* 8 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.: Radio-controlled airplane demonstration

* 10 a.m.: Welcoming ceremonies; national anthem by Kathy Kramer; invocation; commemorative Air Force Missing Man

* 10:10 a.m.: AT-6 Warbird fly-by

* 10:15 a.m.: Paraglider performance by Dan Buchanan

* 10:30 a.m.: Edge 540 performance by John Nash

* 10:45 a.m.: California Air National Guard pallet drop

* 11 a.m.: AT-6 "Wardog" performance by John Collver

* 11:20 a.m.: E-2C Hawkeye performance

* 11:30 a.m.: Lunch break

* Noon: Pitts S2-S performance by Bill Cornick

* 12:15 p.m.: Naval Weapons Test Squadron Point Mugu/China Lake, NF-14, QF-4, and FA-18

Today and Sunday

* 8 a.m.: Gates open

* 8 a.m. to 9:45 a.m.: Radio-controlled airplane demonstration

* 10 a.m.: Welcoming ceremonies; national anthem by Kathy Kramer; invocation; commemorative Air Force Missing Man

* 10:10 a.m.: AT-6 Warbird fly-by

* 10:15 a.m.: Paraglider performance by Dan Buchanan

* 10:30 a.m.: Edge 540 performance by John Nash

* 10:45 a.m.: California Air National Guard pallet drop

* 11 a.m.: AT-6 "Wardog" performance by John Collver

* 11:20 a.m.: E-2C Hawkeye performance

* 11:30 a.m.: Lunch break

* Noon: Pitts S2-S performance by Bill Cornick

* 12:15 p.m.: Naval Weapons Test Squadron Point Mugu/China Lake, NF-14, QF-4, and FA-18

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