At an airshow, no one can hear you scream. Because we are all quite deaf.
Some of the vendors at Saturday’s Joint Service Open House and Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base were selling earplugs alongside their T-shirts and model airplanes. Unwisely, I didn’t take the hint.
It wasn’t so bad when, say, the helicopters went tumbling overhead doing barrel rolls and somersaults. But when the twin F-22 Raptors shrieked past, flying nose up like hot irons scooting their broad ends across the sky, not only did your eardrums howl but your bones rumbled.
Yet there were far better visceral —and even artistic — thrills to be had at the air show. After the Raptors landed, something silvery and glittering swooped into view in the clear blue sky--the B-2 Spirit. Silently, it arced and dipped like a giant $2 billion seagull. Design-wise, with its elongated hump of a cockpit rising from a flattened wedge, it looked more like the Batmobile than a traditional bomber. There is no disputing its futuristic beauty; arriving in the wake of more conventional aircraft, it was a sight for sore eyes. And sore ears. In one of the day’s many strange twists, the quiet stealth bomber came across as a gentle giant.
But I was there for the Blue Angels, the synchronized swimmers of the air. Perfection is the elusive goal of the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, and it starts with the crew members’ identical custom-fit flight suits, cheerful electric-blue numbers trimmed in gold. Apparently, these have not changed much since the Angels’ start in the 1940s. The show begins with the pilots’ mechanical shoulder-to-shoulder march toward their planes, a display of retro glamour and drill-team precision: Rockettes of the runway. The crowd is hushed just before liftoff. The four leading planes fly in a diamond formation, a mere 18 inches apart, as if they are glued together. A flock of birds looks untidy in comparison; as the planes scream near they scatter and hasten to realign.
The two solo planes approach from opposite ends of the runway, zooming towards each other, and seem barely to miss a head-on fireball. Was that me shrieking, convinced of a collision, or was it just the roar of the engines? On another pass, the jets are upside down, wheels skyward like expired bugs. The diamond quadruplets return for an elegant air ballet, a pas de quatre at breathtaking speed, tracing geometric patterns in the air in unwavering form. It was like Busby Berkeley choreography seen upside down, from below rather than above. But the effect was similar as the planes shot towards the sun in a four-sided column, then arced away in opposite directions, leaving a cascade of contrails dripping in the sky.
Suddenly, while all eyes were up, one of the solo planes zoomed by just in front of us in a sneak attack, skimming the tarmac, sucking the breath from my lungs and leaving behind the acrid smell of jet fuel.
By the end of the show, I think my body composition was about 85 percent fumes. Watching hours of aerial acrobatics in the blazing sun made me feel weak and dazzled at the same time. Bob Marley’s tender “No Woman, No Cry” played from the loudspeakers as the crowd worked its way along the tarmac to the parking lots, winding between the massive cargo planes on display, alongside choppers, vintage warbirds and other winged reminders of battles in the sky. The love song was a final incongruity, and a very sweet sound.