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SKY-HIGH DELIGHT

TAMPA

As four jets dived, looped and flew past each other over MacDill Air Force Base, Ron Seaman snapped photos with his phone and talked excitedly to his kids.

"Look, there they go again!" he said.

Seaman, 44, of Tampa said he has visited MacDill before in his work as a cabdriver. But this was his first time seeing the base's aircraft up close and personal — as it was for his children.

"Even while we were stuck in traffic, they were enjoying the planes," he said.

Saturday marked day one of this year's AirFest, the first since the event was canceled last year because of sequestration's automatic federal budget cuts.

The skies were blue and the crowds bustling as spectators came to see the military base rarely open to the public, learn about aircraft and, of course, watch the Thunderbirds. Attendance was expected to be around 120,000 on Saturday, said Melissa Paradise of the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

One new addition this year was the ability to pay $15 for premium seating near the runway. However, Paradise said that's done through a vendor and that the event will remain free to the public.

This year's AirFest brought a mixture of first-timers and regular visitors happy the event had returned. Some attendees traversed through grounded planes like the large C-5 and C-17. Others used the aircraft's wings as a shady spot to sit and watch the day's festivities.

Among them was Gulshan Batra, who snapped photos with his camera as his son made buzzing noises with a miniature plane. Batra, a 35-year-old Hillsborough resident, lived in India for 25 years before moving to Tampa four years ago.

"We have an air show, but it's nothing this close," he said of his home country.

Batra planned to come for the first time last year before it was canceled. However, he said he thinks it would be worth it even if MacDill did start charging visitors one day.

Margaret Madrigal, 47, came along with 22 ROTC members from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey. Having attended AirFest several times before, she was unhappy with its cancellation last year.

It was the first time at AirFest for Cathy and Bob McGue, who have had a condo in St. Petersburg since 1987. After alternating between here and Bedford, Mass., for years, they moved here permanently after retirement.

Cathy, 62, said she was also frustrated with the sequester and its hit on the military.

"The military should be the last, but of course, it wasn't," Cathy said.

When they lived in Bedford, they visited the air show at Hanscom Air Force Base. However, since that base was closer to a residential neighborhood, Cathy said "people are jammed like sardines."

Not so at MacDill, she said.

"It's spread out," she said. "This is just so spectacular."

The event continues today with gates opening at 8 a.m.

SKY-HIGH DELIGHT 03/22/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 22, 2014 10:32pm]
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