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MacDill AirFest draws 80,000 fans of flight and spectacle

TAMPA — Brad Mathias, age 8, looked up at the hulking wing of a B-52 Stratofortress, age 50.

The B-52 can hold forty-five 1,000-pound bombs. But Saturday, all it held was the Tampa boy's attention.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "Just the way it looks. And big."

Rick Mathias, Brad's dad, confessed he's a bit older than the B-52. "Not by much," he said.

Exactly how much shall remain classified.

The MacDill AirFest opened Saturday under blue skies that drew about 80,000 spectators of multiple generations — kids, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — all united by a love of flight and country.

Vietnam veteran Guy Love, 64, was looking for a Huey, the workhorse of that war. He was having trouble finding one. But a nearby B-52 prodded a memory.

As an Army infantryman, the Tarpon Springs man once bathed in a huge crater that one of the aircraft's bombs created. "It's been a long time," he said.

Then a conversation with a stranger led to a devilish bit of aircraft trivia. One man mentioned a nearby jet aircraft was built during the Eisenhower administration. Love said he saw Dwight Eisenhower when he was a boy.

Well, did he know the name of the first U.S. president with a pilot's license?

Too easy. Eisenhower.

A series of different aircraft danced in the sky much of the day. Marco Willey, 5, chased after his mother as a P-51 Mustang flew in tight formation with an F-15 fighter jet.

"Mommy, they're flying together!" the Tampa boy marveled.

Then he hit his mom, Mercy, with the standard parent-flummoxing question: "Why, mommy?"

Not far away, retired Air Force fighter pilot Ahmed Ragheb showed off his pride: a Nanchang CJ-6A, one of just 300 in the United States. The Chinese use it as a trainer.

It is a joy to fly, Ragheb said. As to where a pilot must shop to buy such a plane, Ragheb offered this clue: "I didn't get it at Walmart."

The name of the aircraft, painted next to the nose, is Miss Stress. Ragheb wanted to call the aircraft "mistress," perhaps a nod to the all-consuming passion of flight.

"But my wife vetoed that name," he said.

The AirFest appeared to go off without incident. The only smudge on a bright day came when one of the six F-16s in the Air Force performing squadron, the Thunderbirds, was forced to land during its performance because of a minor technical glitch.

The remaining five jets continued to the requisite "oohs" and "ahhs."

Out by a B-1 bomber on display, 6-year-old Jaren Smiarowski of Apollo Beach seemed a little overwhelmed.

As he waited to climb up inside the big bomber with his family, Jaren offered this thought: "I'm really afraid of big bombs."

Not a sentiment shared by Air Force Capt. Andrew Jerz, 29, a bomber weapons officer, who explained why he loves his job.

"I guess it's because I get to blow stuff up for a living."

The AirFest is scheduled to continue today with gates opening at 8 a.m.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@sptimes.com.

MacDill AirFest draws 80,000 fans of flight and spectacle 11/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 11:01pm]
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[The New York Times file photo]