Westmoreland County Air Show soaring back to previous form
The crowd waves as one of the pilots of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels taxis for takeoff Sunday at the Westmoreland County Air Show at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe.
Visitors to the air show were able to tour the inside of the C-130 "City of Pittsburgh" of the 911th Air Wing
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The four blue and gold planes, locked in a diamond formation, thundered down the runway toward June Kennedy, then screamed overhead and out of sight at hundreds of miles an hour. Ms. Kennedy winced and grinned at the same time, watching as the Blue Angels' dark bodies pulled straight up and arched high against gray clouds.
"It's so awesome," said Ms. Kennedy, 60, of Washington, Pa. "It gives me chills up and down my body."
Ms. Kennedy was among an estimated 100,000 fans who craned their necks to peer into the sky over the Westmoreland County Air Show on Sunday, with similar crowds on Saturday. Cars lined up on Route 30 for more than a mile, then streamed through the gates of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe for much of each day. Organizers estimate another 100,000 people a day watched the air show from nearby parking lots, front yards and surrounding hills.
At the airport, fans lugged in their coolers and captain's chairs, pushed sleeping babies in strollers and pulled fussy toddlers in wagons, to line the airport's runways in every direction. They assembled in tight rows in chairs and on blankets, with some finding shade under the massive wings of the C-130 Hercules visiting from the 911th Airlift Wing in Moon.
Fans said they loved the variety of the Westmoreland air show, which featured displays by B-25 bombers, aerobatic planes, the "Smoke 'n Thunder" Air Force Reserve Jet Car, the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachutists and the headline act of six U.S. Navy Blue Angels -- four members of the team are from Western Pennsylvania -- flying F/A-18 Hornets with tactical precision at about half their top speed of 1,200 miles per hour, or twice the speed of sound. And they welcomed the return of the show and the Angels -- their first appearance in Westmoreland County since 1998 -- after a long hiatus by the air show.
"We came here every year single year when I was a kid, until they stopped having them," said Ed Watkins, a 29-year-old mechanic from Greensburg who was attending the air show with his girlfriend and their 9-month-old daughter.
The nine members of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which hosted the first air show in 1974, built it into one of the biggest and most popular displays in the state, with famous acts such as the Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds making frequent appearances. After the 2001 show, however, organizers had grown overwhelmed and exhausted by the massive undertaking of hosting the show, and they needed a break, authority chairman Donald Rossi said.
After a 10-year rest, they were ready to begin again last year. And this year, by signing the Blue Angels, the show has begun to regain its premier position among both the pilots and their fans, Mr. Rossi said.
"Our name was passed around in the circuit so much that we became king of the air shows," Mr. Rossi said of the show's heyday. "It was wonderful to resurrect that reputation."
By bringing so many fans to the airport, Mr. Rossi and the other authority board members also hope their familiarity will make people more likely to take flights to Florida aboard Spirit Airlines, which began offering daily nonstop flights there in February 2011 and now flies large Airbus jets to Orlando and Myrtle Beach seven days a week and Ft. Lauderdale five days a week.
"Once you do something like this, people want to keep coming back," Mr. Rossi said.
The show, which costs about $175,000 to produce despite contributions from numerous sponsors and supply donations from vendors, mostly breaks even with a few thousand dollars left over to benefit The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, he said. Volunteer fire departments from the greater Latrobe area, whose members help park the many thousands of cars that arrive, share proceeds from the $2 parking fees.
On Sunday, most fans couldn't say whether their visit to the air show would make them more frequent fliers themselves. They were too busy covering their ears when the chest-rumbling roar of AT-6 Texans drowned out all conversation, or gawking as the Blue Angels zoomed towards each other from opposite directions, then wove around each other and streaked into the distance.
Among them, Crissy Schultz of Bridgeville held her 21/2-year-old daughter, Ella, on her hip and gazed longingly at the Blue Angels' formation of Hornets, wing-tips seeming nearly to touch, blazing a smoky trail straight into the sun. She began flying with her father, a pilot, when she was 2 years old, she said.
"I wish I could be up there with them," she said.
First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 am