TAMPA — With his 4-year-old son Tyler on his shoulders, Ryan Wick watched the Navy’s Blue Angels aerial demonstration team scream over the MacDill Air Force Base flight line at about 400 miles an hour.
An hour or so earlier, the two struck a similar pose as an F-22 Raptor fighter jet performed maneuvers no other plane can make.
For Wick, 41, a software engineer from Apollo Beach, it was a toss-up as to which of the two was his favorite act during the Tampa Bay AirFest 2018.
"From a pure science and technology standpoint, watching how it hovers like a hovercraft and can stop midair, it is hard to beat the Raptor," said Wick. "But from a performance standpoint, what we just saw with the Blue Angels was amazing."
Wick and his son were among an estimated 90,000 who came out on an overcast day to see the Blue Angels’ six F/A-18 Hornets, the Raptor and an A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support jet from the Air Force A-10 Demonstration team.
There were also about 30 static displays, including a B-52, several helicopters and an MQ-9 Reaper drone.
It rained early and was cloudy and overcast most of the day, but the low clouds helped visibility.
Hours before their planes took off, pilots from some of the demonstration teams talked about their aircraft.
"It’s really exhilarating to fly," said Air Force Maj. Paul "Loco" Lopez, 35, who flies the F-22 Raptor.
The highly maneuverable multi-role fighter "is a force-multiplier," said Lopez, who has flown the aircraft in combat support missions in the U.S. Central Command region.
A short while later, Air Force Capt. Cody Wilton, 35, talked about the joys of flying a much older and slower jet.
"It is amazing to fly the A-10," said Wilton of the close air support fighter jet known for its stubby wings, titanium body and the 30 mm cannon in its nose. "You really feel protected in this aircraft."
Wilton, who has flown about 400 hours in combat, said the best part of his job is knowing that he has used the cannon to clear the battlefield of enemy when friendly troops are under fire.
"You can hear the urgency in their voices," he said of listening to troops under fire ask for help. "It’s a really good feeling knowing you helped troops get home safely."
For the tens of thousands flocking into MacDill, it was a time to get up close and personal with aircraft they might only see on the news or documentaries.
"This is very cool," said Nickalus Van Dyke, 14, of Wesley Chapel as he stood in front of an MQ-9 Reaper drone.
"I am very familiar with these," said his father, Greg Van Dyke, who worked with drone feeds in his roles working with the military.
Greg Van Dyke and his son Nickalus standing by the MQ-9 Reaper. Van Dyke, 56, works at the JCSE @MacDill_AFB and "is quite familiar with" the video feeds provided by the drone. "This is really cool," said Nickalus, 14, who wants to be a Navy SEAL when he grows up @TB_Times pic.twitter.com/DPolMRk4L2— Howard Altman (@haltman) May 12, 2018
Saturday’s overcast conditions didn’t deter the thousands of airplane enthusiasts who made it out to MacDill. The crowd was so large that by 1:30 p.m., the base closed its gates to the public.
"The only way to get on right now is by HART bus," Terry Montrose, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, said Saturday afternoon.
MacDill has 30,000 parking spots, Montrose said. With an estimated three people per vehicle, he said Saturday’s crowd could top out at around 90,000.
Now working for the Joint Communications Support Element at MacDill, the 56-year-old Van Dyke, who recently moved to the area, said he was happy to be able to share the experience with his son.
"I want to be a Navy SEAL," said Nickalus.
A Reaper sensor operator, who goes by the call-sign "Drago," works mostly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. But he has also been in the seat when the drone fires missiles.
"We watch bad guys do bad stuff," he said. "It’s like a being a cop on a stakeout".
Sometimes though, the missions require killing the target.
"Time slows down as the missile fires," he said.
Across the flight line, Jim Simon, 47, of Inverness, and his daughter, 11-year-old Brylee, stood in the bomb bay of a B-52 bomber.
"It’s amazing these things are still flying," said Simon, a firefighter.
The show kicked off with the U.S. Special Operations Command Para-Commandos delivering an American flag, followed by the jump team being circled by acrobatic fliers Michael Goulian and Rob Holland, who put on stunning aerobatics of their own.
They were followed by a flyby of a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling tanker, of which there are 24 at MacDill.
The overflow crowd watched in awe as Jerry "Jive" Kerby in his RV-8, Scott "Scooter" Yoak in his P-51 Mustang and Jim Tobul in his F-4U flew flips and rolls.
Before Kerby flew, Wilton, the A-10 pilot, showed the versatility of the close support aircraft beloved by troops under fire by swooping low over the airfield, simulating an attack on enemy forces.
To punctuate the maneuver, yellow flames rose up from behind the flight line, a pyrotechnic display showing the devastating effects the Warthog can have.
"That was pretty cool," said Kevin Smith, 10, of New Port Richey about the ball of yellow fire after Wilton’s pass. "I wasn’t expecting something that big."
His father, Jason Smith, 40, was less impressed.
"I really came to see the F-22s and the Blue Angels," said the elder Smith, who works for an oil company.
Not to be outdone by SOCom, the Navy Leap Frogs parachute team dropped out of the sky.
"It’s really cool," said Ava Ladner, 8, of Hudson, raising both arms in the air. "I love it. I like how they do rainbows in the sky."
Perhaps the most unusual aircraft was the jet-powered biplane flown by retired Lt. Col John Klatt.
The loud roar of the jet engine was incongruous to the site of the kind of plane that first took to the skies in the days before World War I.
Flying straight up at one point, it drifted across the sky.
"That was fun," said Tom Brophy, 81, of Tampa about the Sasquatch.
A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served aboard AC-47s, Brophy said he was "amazed at the power of that plane."
His wife, Jackie Brophy, 80, was also awed.
"Ooh, that was special," she said.
Gates open again on Sunday at 8 a.m.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman