Thunderbirds Wow 500,000 at O.C. Air Show


Equipped with a radio, beach chairs and a cooler full of sandwiches, sodas and cocktails, the Loyd family brought everything they could think of to help them enjoy the 43rd annual El Toro Air Show.

The one thing they couldn’t bring they found under the belly of a B-52 Stratofortress: shade.

“This is the perfect place,” said Ken Loyd, 25, of Laguna Niguel. “We’re all set for the Thunderbirds.”


But before the heralded Air Force aerobatic team zoomed over center stage, the four members of the Loyd family, among more than 500,000 spectators at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, were treated to an array of other aviation events.

The scene was much like the previous air shows with massive traffic jams, sunny weather and long lines for beer and toilets.

Missing this year were the Navy’s Blue Angels, who had flown at the event for 12 years in a row. They were kept away by a new military regulation that prohibits the same act from appearing in the same place for more than three consecutive years.

Saturday marked the debut at El Toro of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force version of the Blue Angels. Piloting F-16C Fighting Falcons, the six-jet precision team flies in tighter formation than the Blue Angels--sometimes as close as 18 inches--at speeds up to 400 m.p.h., according to an Air Force spokeswoman.

“I’m a little partial to the Blue Angels because my brother is in the Navy,” said Cindy Winther, 34, of Mission Viejo, who was chasing her 2-year-old son, Austin, from exhibit to exhibit. “But this is still great fun and the day is beautiful.”

The absence of the Blue Angels didn’t matter to little Austin.

“He is obsessed with helicopters,” his mother said as she hurried after him.

From helicopters and biplane wing walkers to free-falling parachutists and barrel-rolling jet fighters, it seemed like there was something for everyone.


Mike Roysdon, 37, of Lake Elsinore was lured to the show by his two young children and the military version of a DC-10. “I helped build these things,” said Roysdon, an aircraft welder. “It is nice to see them when they are finally done like this.”

His 13-year-old son, Michael, however, preferred the fighter planes.

“They’re neat,” he said.

Early Saturday the crowd of spectators seemed slightly larger than last year’s, said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, a Marine spokeswoman. She predicted that today’s show would attract even more people.

The events are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. and end at 4:15 p.m. Gates will open at 7 a.m. Admission and parking are free.

The impressive display of military might and aviation skill was delayed for about 30 minutes Saturday morning because of overcast skies. But once the cloud cover burned off, temperatures warmed to about 85 degrees.

Lt. Col. Ed Downum, the air show coordinator, said that because of the clouds in the morning, the show opened with a wing-walker on a low-flying biplane instead of the scheduled parachuting demonstration, which was postponed until later in the day.

But thereafter, “things went on without a hitch. It looked great,” said Downum, who is coordinating the event for the first time this year.


It took about 2,000 Marines to put on the show and provide services ranging from crowd control and parking to press shuttles.

Also new to the show this year--the 50th anniversary of the air station--was a 5,000-seat grandstand. And it is the first year the Marines have sold T-shirts and posters to raise money for a morale, welfare and recreation fund to support recreational activities on the base that are not federally funded.

Although the Thunderbirds were the show’s headline performers, spectators’ eyes turned skyward for many other aerial highlights like a 12-foot-long jet, the world’s smallest.

One particular crowd pleaser was the mock military assault, a yearly demonstration complete with jets making bomb runs and Marines rappelling out of helicopters. Many people pressed their hands over their ears against the noisy explosions that rumbled throughout the base.

While thousands marveled at the action in the blue-gray sky, others inspected several large aircraft parked on the hot Tarmac, including the enormous C-5B transport and a B-52 bomber, a mainstay of the Air Force during the Cold War.

“You just don’t know how big these things are until you see them up close,” said Rudy Dontchiff, 42, of La Puente, “and you can’t see these up close every day.”


But not everyone enjoyed the show, especially the more than 100 youngsters who sat under a red tent at the lost and found. “There’s been lots of crying,” said one volunteer at the lost and found. “Kids and parents.”

The crowd’s pleasure with the aerial spectacle was tinged with an awareness that there might not be anymore El Toro air shows if the Marine base is closed in the years ahead as proposed.

“I think it’s a mistake. We are going to lose a lot of revenue into the cities around here,” said Dan Pettinato, 25, of Irvine, who attended the show with his wife. “We have been meaning to come out here for several years and decided we had better come out this time for sure.’

Downum said the threat of closure “might have brought a few extra people out.” But he added, “I don’t think it will be the last air show. I think we are good for several more years even if they go through with it.”

Staff writer Leslie Berkman contributed to this story.