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Air show closes in style: officials say crowds a little smaller

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The Blue Angels fly in formation at Sunday’s Smoky Mountain Air Show.
The Blue Angels fly in formation at Sunday’s Smoky Mountain Air Show.

Thousands more
people turned out in the heat of a smothering April sun to watch
top-drawer military pilots perform aerial Etch-a-Sketch maneuvers on the
final day of Smoky Mountain Air Show at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard
Base Sunday.

But according to
visitors and local police alike, the crowds were not quite as heavy as
they were at Saturday’s show, when air show officials estimated that
somewhere around 120,000 people watched the show from either the air
base grounds, or else from vantage points along Alcoa Highway or other
neighboring roads. One local official said that more than 60,000
wristband passes had been distributed for the show by 1 p.m. Sunday.

“We didn’t have nearly the
traffic backup today that we had yesterday,” said Alcoa Police Lt. Paul
Gilbert. “Yesterday, we were backed up to the Knox County line
southbound on Alcoa Highway, and back to the Northshore exit on
Pellissippi Parkway.”

Gilbert did allow that the
traffic going back to Knoxville was “flowing quite heavy” when the air
show came to a close late Sunday afternoon.

Blount County Sheriff’s Office
spokesperson Marian O’Briant also noted that traffic seemed more
manageable at the Sunday show. “Today was much better than yesterday,
before and after the show,” she said.

“By about 6 or 6:30 p.m., most of the traffic had moved off, and our extra traffic units had been let go.”

Security problems minimal, official says

O’Briant said security problems
at the air show were minimal. “The biggest issue we had was kids getting
separated from their parents,” she said.

Air show visitors like Russell
Graves and Moltka Johnson, both of Knoxville, said they had been warned
of long lines and heavy traffic volumes from Saturday’s event.

Upon their arrival Sunday, they
were pleasantly surprised. “We got food pretty easy,” Graves said. “The
people we talked to told us the food lines, the traffic, and the
bathroom lines were a lot worse yesterday.”

Though the crowds may have been a
little smaller, the show itself was just as lively Sunday. Throughout
the day, aircraft of various ilk taxied down the main runway and took
off, by turns, giving the eager spectators the singular thrill of
watching large, low-flying planes pass directly overhead, then soar to
sky-scraping heights to perform an array of aerial stunts.

Most impressive, of course, were
the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squad, performing
throughout the weekend. Taking to the air in blue and yellow F/A-18
Hornets, the Angels performed their trademark “diamond formation”
maneuver, flying in a close four-point formation so tight the planes
seemed to be attached by invisible ties.

Then, all of a sudden, the four
planes took off on separate trajectories, performing individual arcs and
loops and curlicues, and close-pass maneuvers that seemed to defy the
laws of physics, not to mention common sense.

For many spectators, the Blue
Angels were the air show’s biggest draw. “The Blue Angels are awesome,”
said Maryville resident Bailey Fensterman, 13, attending the show with
his mother and siblings. “I love the noise they make, and how cool they
are. And I love how close they get to each other when they’re flying.”

Still others, like the
aforementioned Graves, were drawn by memories of air shows past. Graves
attended the Smoky Mountain Air Show the last time it visited Blount
County, in 2000.

“I was just a little kid, and I
thought it was awesome,” he said. “I was almost too young to remember,
but I do remember it being really fun. It doesn’t come around very
often, so I thought we should get out and see it now that it’s back
here.”

Graves said he was impressed with
the pilots’ aerial coordination, and with the varieties of planes on
display. “As a guy who likes to tinker with cars, it was really nice to
see some of the older planes in action,” he added. “Some of the older
planes have really neat aesthetics to them, and it was good to see them
up and moving.”

Johnson City resident Jason
Wiseman was another air show veteran, having witnessed an air show in
the early 1990s in the Tri-Cities. “My dad had just come back home from
Desert Storm,” Wiseman remembers. “I brought my own kids out this time
around.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “Being up close to so many different planes. It’s neat to see.”