TAMPA — By the time six F/A-18s ripped over the horizon at up to 400 mph, Dick Hoernel was already on his feet.
"Whaaaahhhh!" Hoernel growled beneath his khaki hat, sunglasses and white beard, head craned upward along with thousands of others, including his 12-year-old grandson nearby.
If there were ever a day to fall in love with flight, sunny, breezy Saturday was it. MacDill Air Force Base opened its gates to thousands in the first day of its annual two-day open house, Airfest 2010, under almost cloudless skies.
Visitors from around the bay and beyond waited sometimes more than an hour to pass through security. But once inside the gates, they enjoyed the skillful aerobatics, like those of Herb Baker's T-28 Trojan Ditto and John Black's aerobatic Super Decathlon before lining up in sunburned awe for the Navy's biggest crowd-pleaser, the Blue Angels.
"They're always amazing," said Hoernel, who came from Wisconsin to see his family.
Between the American flags, funnel cakes and soaring, roaring flying machines, it was hard not to experience an inkling of the romance that has surrounded winged flight for more than a century.
Paul Zbornak, 62, held his videocamera steady on one aircraft after another. Though the New Bedford, Mass., snowbird and Air Force veteran comes every year, he got a little choked up when asked which of the planes is his favorite.
He pointed to two F-15s parked on the tarmac, like the ones he worked on when he was in the service.
"When I see a pelican fly, it resembles the F-15 to me," he said. "Just a beautiful sight."
If the passion was alive, recruiters from all military branches were making the most of it, with booths, displays and simulated combat opportunities scattered throughout hangars and walkways.
Laid off from his computer-related job in February, Allen Castro Diaz, 36, of St. Petersburg said he recently decided to enlist in the Air Force. He walked through the displays with his wife and 11-year-old namesake.
"I want to be in the military — an officer," Allen Jr. said.
Though this Airfest weekend coincides with the seventh anniversary of the United States' entry into the war in Iraq, show announcers made little mention of it, focusing instead on precision, skill and discipline.
Members of the Special Operations Command parachute team were greeted as heroes as they touched down before the crowd, their black parachutes collapsing around them.
Marissa Milam, 10, of Clearwater marveled at the parachutes. And as an F-15E rocketed across the sky, she put her hands over her ears before looking at her mother with an exclamation: "Awesome!"
"I love the sound of it," Marissa said. "It makes my heart race. It's so big and amazing."