Calling it noise wouldn’t do it justice.
When the first F-16 fighter jet streaked past, people’s hands flew to their ears. Eyes widened. Mouths sagged open in involuntary O’s.
When human speech was again possible, Kyle Smith punched his fist into the air.
“Hell, yeah!” he yelled. “That’s American pride. When you hear that sound, doesn’t it make you proud to be American?”
Smith, a commercial diver from Lake Stevens, was among an estimated 100,000 people who turned out Saturday for Air Expo 2012, this weekend’s celebration of flight and American air power at McChord Field.
The show, one of the largest in the country, featured a rare display of all three big bombers in the Air Force fleet: a B-52 Stratofortress; a B-1B Lancer, which thrilled the crowd with a low flyover going .95 MACH, just short of the speed of sound; and the usually elusive B-2, the “stealth bomber,” which looks like a UFO.
In recognition of the merger of McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis into Joint Base Lewis McChord, this year’s Air Expo showcased both the Army’s elite Golden Knights parachute team and the Air Force’s elite Thunderbirds.
Saturday’s five-hour show will be repeated 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, nearly unchanged. One significant change: the B-2 will not be flying Sunday.
Saturday’s show included 20 aerial performers, six more than the last Expo, in 2010. It also included 40 displays on the ground, including the thuggish looking crowd-pleasers, the AH-64 Apache Longbow and the A-10 Thunderbolt.
People also could step up and touch – and in some cases, walk through – some historical icons, including a B-17 from World War II and a P-51 Mustang delivered to the Air Force in 1945.
For airplane nuts, this was heaven.
“ I’ve been a flying enthusiast since I was 5 years old,” said Freeman Marshall, an IT designer from Portland who was watching the fly-bys in shade cast by the starboard wing of a B1 bomber. “I still put airplane models together.”
“I’ve been to air shows all over the world, and this is a great one,” Marshall said. “I came specifically to see the bombers, but I love them all.
“This is seeing them in a tangible, real-life situation,” he said. “You’re not just seeing pictures.”
The ground show had appeal for kids, too, who got a chance to pretend to shoot M-16 rifles, play with an M249 machine gun and try on Kevlar helmets.
Clayton Smith, 8, said he used to want to be a soldier, but when he heard that they sometimes die, he changed his mind.
“I want to be a pilot because you can do tricks,” he said. “And you get to fly and you get to see the world and you get to see America.”
The convergence of some 100,000 people at McChord Field caused long backups of traffic at four JBLM gates.
Many people reported that it took them three hours to get inside the gates and parked from various parts of Tacoma and Pierce County.
After the final aerial show featuring the Thunderbirds, the jam-up exiting the parking lots was even worse. Many suffered through stop-and-go traffic for more than three hours before they even reached the base’s gates.
“It was right on the border of not being worth it,” said Matt Martinson of Edgewood, who arrived at the show at 12:45 p.m., three hours and 15 minutes after leaving home.
JBLM spokesman Joe Piek said many watching the show wanted to stay until the end, when the Thunderbirds performed.
“When they were done, everybody left,” he said. “I was in a long line myself.”
The base had four gates open for the crowd to exit, but the backups were long.
Piek reminded air show enthusiasts that there are three locations where they can catch a yellow shuttle bus to the show: Lakewood Towne Center, the 512 Park & Ride lot and the Tacoma Dome station.
The Washington State Patrol reported no collisions on freeways near the base immediately following the air show.
Piek urged patience on the part of drivers.
JBLM officials also wanted to thank their neighbors for putting up with the window-rattling noise that the show’s high-performance jets can produce during rehearsals and performances.
“We sure do appreciate everybody’s patience with the loud noise,” Piek said.
Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.