Air show's stars not in the sky

A search and rescue team at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station demonstrates its abilities to the crowd Saturday at the Thunder on the Rock air show marking the base
A search and rescue team at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station demonstrates its abilities to the crowd Saturday at the Thunder on the Rock air show marking the base's 60th anniversary.
— image credit: Christine Smith

Did the estimated 57,000 visitors at the Thunder on the Rock air show at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Saturday and Sunday cheer loud enough to bring it back next year?

Maybe, but the Navy is isn't saying.

The show, which returned to the base last weekend after a four-year hiatus, entertained and had no major mishaps. The only hitch came Sunday when the long-anticipated performance of the Air Force Thunderbirds was canceled due to fog.

Still, the air show was a "success," at least according to a representative of the naval air station's public affairs office.

"We had so much stuff to see," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joaquin Juatai. "People stayed and had a good time."

Crews for the Thunderbirds monitored conditions all day in an effort to catch a favorable time for the precision flying team to take to the skies. However, the base was socked in by fog all day Sunday. A Thunderbirds performance requires that clouds be at least 2,000 feet above ground level, Juatai said.

"At no time during the day was that minimum achieved," Juatai said.

The weather was clear and sunny all Saturday afternoon and performer after performer wowed the crowd on the show's first day.

Geoff Ball of Bainbridge Island came to the air show with his children, Sinclair, 8, and Carsen, 6. Each of the children enjoyed the aircraft displays and aerial acts.

"I liked being able to go into the airplanes," said Sinclair. "I like the big ones."

Her little brother was more impressed with the aerial stunts.

"I like watching the airplanes flying up in the sky," Carsen said.

The Ball family made it a Whidbey Island weekend, said their father, by attending Thunder on the Rock Saturday and going to the Island County Fair in Langley Sunday.

While it was foggy Sunday morning, some small planes, which require a lower ceiling, were able to fly.

Mike Wassemiller and Kim Spence of Everett eagerly awaited their turn for a ride in a vintage World War II aircraft. For $40 per person, airshow visitors could hitch a ride on Taigh Raney's Twin Beech RC-45J two-prop airplane.

"It will make it more of a memorable trip here," Wassemiller said.

Other big successes at the air show include the activities for children. The Kids' Fun Zone, set up in a nearby hangar, afforded ample opportunity for children use some of their energy.

The rock climbing walls were another popular activity for kids. Wearing harnesses, kids were hooked to a safety cable and took turns trying to get to the top of the simulated rock faces.

Behind the scenes, military and civilian personnel worked steadily to make the event safe and successful. One trio of active-duty Navy members worked to keep services running smoothly, and stood by in case of an emergency.

Part of the Emergency Operations crew, the self-identified Three Amigos -- Lt. Bert Hornyak, Chief Mike Conroy and Chief Randy Williams -- mostly acted as jacks of all trades.

"All the problems that arise, we fix 'em so the public don't see it," joked Conroy. "We've had a blast. We've done everything from fixing pumps to delivering oil."

The three worked long hours beginning on Friday, when all the planes and pilots for the acts and static displays began to arrive.

In charge of the barracks and the galley, Hornyak had his work cut out for him, finding last-minute accommodations when every available billeting room on base and motel room in town was booked.

The only reported challenge with the crowd, said Juatai, came when some visitors made a few too many trips to the beer garden. Security officers wouldn't let those individuals drive, so they had to find another way home after the show.

Although Navy officials called the air show a success, there is no guarantee it will be back next year. But it might be.

"It's a possibility," Juatai said.

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