The skies over this Marine base roared Friday as an appreciative crowd of 55,000 received a special preview of the 44th annual El Toro Air Show.
The base is expecting about 700,000 people today for a spectacular display of aerobatics by the Blue Angel precision-flying team and other stunt pilots and parachutists.
“The air show is designed to promote aviation, both civil and military, and it gives a chance to those who want to learn more about it,” said Marine Capt. Margaret Kuhn.
Sunday’s air show might be the last at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which is scheduled to close by 1997.
Friday’s performance included a mock assault, in which dozens of Marines armed with M-16 rifles slid down ropes from hovering transport helicopters to attack an imaginary foe. A light armored vehicle sped across the airstrip-turned-battlefield, followed by several F/A-18 Hornet jets and a Huey assault helicopter that “fired” at the enemy.
Controlled explosions away from the airstrip and the grandstand simulated bomb blasts and gunfire.
But the crowd reacted with the most enthusiasm when, at 3 p.m., the Navy’s Blue Angels took off in front of the grandstand. The six blue-and-yellow F/A-18 Hornet jets sparkled as the crowd let out “oohs” and “ahhs” at the precision turns, geometric formations and high-speed antics.
At one point, two jets flying side by side headed straight for the grandstand. At the last second, they deftly crossed paths and veered from the spectators in a chest-thumping roar.
“I’ve come every year for the last six years,” said Frank Balough, 42, of Huntington Beach, sitting under a blue tent with friends and his 4-year-old son. “For us, it’s a big social event, and we begin talking about it in January and February.
“I like it because it lets me see just where our tax dollars are going.”
As a special promotion on Friday, air show organizers set aside 5,000 VIP seats in the front row for disabled children, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, senior citizens and law enforcement employees throughout Orange County.
“It’s so amazing what a chunk of metal can do the air,” said Victor Pineda, 15, of Newport Beach. “It’s kind of scary too, because they fly so close together.”
John Logan, 76, was amazed for different reasons. Logan, who assembled B-17s for Lockheed at its Burbank production plant in the 1940s, watched as the blur of a jet reached speeds of 400 m.p.h.
“Each year, our planes get better and better. I am so proud of our military and the Marines,” he said from a front-row seat in the VIP section. He was one of a dozen residents from the Royale Health Care Center in Santa Ana who took advantage of the military’s offer.
“I love this whole experience,” Logan said.
Friday’s clear, sunny skies provided a perfect backdrop for the aerial antics. But for those tired of looking into the sky, there were other attractions.
Within walking distance from the grandstand were a display of civilian and military aircraft, food booths, rides and music.
Kuhn said the air show is important for many reasons, among them fostering better relations with the base’s neighbors.
“The community puts up with a lot of noise from us during the year. At the air show, they can come and see what we do and why the noise is necessary.”