TAMPA — Jesse Brincefield and his wife, Loren, have attended so many annual air shows at MacDill Air Force base, they've lost count.
But the Hudson couple never had an experience like the one Saturday. No traffic. Shorter lines for food and drink. Room to walk around.
"Last year, you couldn't move," said Loren. "This year, it's wide open."
MacDill spokeswoman Rebecca Heyse said attendance was down from previous years, judging from all the available parking. An estimated 60,000 came to the event Saturday, a sharp drop from last year's 150,000.
"We knew it would be a struggle because of the parking. We had about 5,000 fewer parking spaces than usual," Lt. Heyse said. "But we're very happy with the attendance."
Aside from gawking at the fighter planes that swept across the sky, AirFest vets spent much of their time gabbing about Saturday's crowd.
Bob Bieniasz, a Tampa resident, said he's never seen an AirFest crowd so small. He came with Scott Kline, a buddy from work, and they had braced for a long wait in traffic.
"The highlight so far?" said Bieniasz, 43. "The ease of getting in here."
A cool breeze was keeping the notoriously scorching AirFest temperatures in check, leaving Bieniasz and Kline to enjoy sipping their $4 Bud Lights while they watched the hardware in the air and the women on the ground. "Always a lethal combination," joked Kline, 50.
Theories abounded as to why, in such prime weather, there were fewer spectators. For some, it was the draw of this year's AirFest headliner. Usually, organizers try to book the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds, who are to the air festival circuit what the Rolling Stones and U2 are to concerts.
Because of scheduling conflicts, AirFest organizers booked the Canadian Forces 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, otherwise known as the Snowbirds. It was a choice that didn't excite air show regulars like Tyler Tanner.
"I've never heard of the Snowbirds," said Tyler, 10, of Sarasota County. "I'm pretty sure they're good, but they're not as good as the Blue Angels."
Other possible reasons for the dip in attendance: high gas prices, lack of advertising, media reports about traffic issues, and the event's date, about a month later than usual to accommodate the Canadian fliers. But the public's weariness with the Iraq war was a popular theory, as well.
"A lot of people are fed up with the war," said Jesse Brincefield, who retired from the Air Force in 1994. "But they shouldn't stay away. They should come and see the good that our military can do."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or email@example.com.