TAMPA — Dick Cutshall had flown planes since age 16. He loved everything about them, spent his life around airplanes, helicopters and pilots, in control rooms and on airstrips.
He served in the Air Force as an air traffic controller, then as a civilian operations director at Avon Park Air Force Range. Starting in 1987, he also helped launch and maintain the MacDill AirFest, one of the largest air shows in the country.
The two-day event has drawn crowds of up to 1 million as the rare entertainment spectacle that also inspires and instructs. Parents and their children come to be thrilled by fighter jets, vintage bombers and skydivers in a free and dazzling show. Not long after one AirFest concluded, Mr. Cutshall began organizing the next.
Yet the air show was just one of Mr. Cutshall's consuming jobs.
Mr. Cutshall, a driving force behind AirFest since its formation, died Christmas Day, of breast cancer. He was 62.
His daily duties included making sure the scheduled training exercises out of Avon Park over the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere could run smoothly.
"He put the right people in the right places," said Kenny Matthews, who worked alongside him as an airspace coordinator at Avon Park.
As if all of that weren't enough, Mr, Cutshall orchestrated the military flyovers over Tampa Bay Buccaneers home games, the Outback Bowl and the Gasparilla parade.
Mr. Cutshall was born in Lakehurst, N.J., but grew up mostly in Brevard County. He joined the Navy out of high school and served four years, then went through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and its ROTC program.
Along the way, he played a black-hat cowboy in a Wild West show and mastered the guitar. He married his high school girlfriend and divorced.
He entered the Air Force, where he had hoped for a shot as a pilot. A surplus of candidates and his older age worked against that goal, his family said. He was stationed in Germany, Michigan and South Carolina, working as an air traffic controller.
He left the Air Force as a captain in 1987.
His take-charge personality meshed with the civilian duties he assumed at MacDill, especially when he joined in an effort to turn a long-running but relatively small air show into something special.
Mr. Cutshall threw himself into AirFest, the new and improved show that launched in 1987.
He excelled at getting performers to buy in.
"You can always have the Air Force Thunderbirds and the (Navy) Blue Angels," said Steve Cutshall, his brother and a retired Air Force man. "But there are a lot of other groups you can go out and get, too. There's the vintage aircraft pilots, the old commemorative Air Force — they come in with their B-25s and B-17s and that kind of stuff. Dick would go out and bring these guys in."
Colleagues called him the "Air Boss."
The event has sometimes doubled as an opportunity to give a hero's welcome to returning overseas military personnel, as happened in 1991 for Persian Gulf War soldiers.
Flyovers, generally performed at high speeds and low altitude, also generate enthusiasm and pride, said Col. Don Barnes, a retired base commander at MacDill and new executive officer of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.
"It kind of instills some patriotism, and a little bit of excitement," Barnes said. "You kind of get a sense of speed and power, and some of the aircraft that the United States military has. It gives respect to the great men and women of the armed forces that are supporting and defending our country."
Mr. Cutshall kicked back with his band, High Flight, which performed at the MacDill officers' club and other venues. Several years ago, he remarried Carol, his first wife, after both of them had been widowed.
"We never lost our friendship, ever," said Carol Cutshall.
Steve Cutshall said his family does not know the cause of his brother's cancer, which surfaced around 1998. Mr. Cutshall lived cancer-free for several years, but the cancer returned.
Family, friends and co-workers stood in silence at his burial Thursday as a bugler played taps.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.