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U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, perform in F/A-18 Super Hornets at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 24, 2022, during commissioning week. A Navy Blue Angels demonstration closed both days of the two-day Chippewa Valley Air Show in Eau Claire, Wis.

U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, perform in F/A-18 Super Hornets at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 24, 2022, during commissioning week. A Navy Blue Angels demonstration closed both days of the two-day Chippewa Valley Air Show in Eau Claire, Wis. (Jordyn Diomede/U.S. Navy)

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — For Kent Loney, attending the 2022 Chippewa Valley Air Show brought back memories of when his brother was a U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilot more than 50 years ago.

For Lt. Col. Kendra McIntosh, it was a chance to give her family a tour of her old workplace — the 50-ton KC-135 Stratotanker jet parked on the grounds.

For U.S. Navy veteran Gordon Dickerson, it was the continuation of a 75-year tradition of attending air shows.

For brothers Greg and Michael Manning, it was a chance to see the real thing just a few days after seeing the new movie "Top Gun: Maverick."

Whatever the reason, tens of thousands of residents from across the Midwest flocked to Chippewa Valley Regional Airport over the weekend to see stunt planes, skydivers and military jets perform in the airspace over Eau Claire's north side.

Tim Molepske, CEO of lead organizing group the Chippewa Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America, estimated the show attracted around 35,000 ticket holders to the grounds Saturday and Sunday, with Saturday's crowd being larger in part because of the warmer, dryer weather. Thousands more watched snippets for free from yards and parking lots around the city.

While spectators expressed admiration for all of the performers, the highlight for most was the awe-inspiring Blue Angels demonstration that closed both days of the two-day air show. The only disappointment was that low-lying clowds created unsafe flying conditions Sunday for the Blue Angels, forcing the team to shorten its performance to just over 30 minutes.

"You can't fight the weather," Molepske said, noting that the Blue Angels started Sunday's show early in an attempt to get some flying in before conditions worsened. "Our goal is to put on a safe experience for both fans and pilots."

As four of the six blue F/A-18 Super Hornets roared overhead in their signature diamond formation on Saturday, the craning necks, raised cellphone cameras and "wows" from the crowd spread around the tarmac suggested the team, established in 1946, didn't disappoint.

The Blue Angels performance, which included jets flying at speeds up to 700 mph, was especially touching for Loney after receiving tickets and a Blue Angels cap and sweatshirt from family friends as a Christmas gift. The present, which he acknowledged brought tears to his eyes, reminded Loney of when his brother Hal was the pilot of Blue Angels jet No. 5 in 1968.

Loney saw four Blue Angels performances and got to climb into one of their planes that year but has only seen one show since, so he was thrilled for the chance to see their precision-flying again. He called it "unbelievable" when describing how the jets sometimes fly less than 3 feet from each other.

"The pride that I have for the Blue Angels is unreal," said Loney, who traveled to the show from his home in Marshalltown, Iowa. "They're unbelievable. I can't believe anyone wouldn't be impressed."

Dickerson, who sported a blue Navy cap Saturday, served in the Navy during the Korean War. The 89-year-old Bloomington, Minn., resident has always loved seeing all of the old and new aircraft at air shows, but his favorite act is the Blue Angels.

"When I heard the Blues were going to fly, I just had to come over," Dickerson said.

Boy Scout John Woodmansee from Troop 56 in Bruce summed up his reaction to the Blue Angels in one word: "Cool!"

He was particularly impressed with the pilots' ability to fly in such tight formations, adding, "Being able to do that takes so much talent."

Greg Manning of Menomonie felt the same way about a stunt plane pilot who repeatedly spiraled straight toward the ground before pulling up just in time to avoid a crash, seemingly unfazed by the brisk wind blowing across the airport grounds.

"The adrenaline rush from that must be phenomenal," Manning said, adding that it was "pretty sweet" to follow up seeing "Top Gun: Maverick" by attending an event celebrating such incredible flying. Indeed, some current and former Blue Angels pilots have attended Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN), according to the team's website.

McIntosh, of St. Cloud, Minn., couldn't stop smiling Saturday as she talked about attending the air show with 10 family members from three states representing three generations.

"This is so much fun," said McIntosh, dressed in her military uniform.

Now a chaplain at the St. Cloud VA hospital, McIntosh previously was a navigator for the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 128th Air Refueling Wing on the giant KC-135 that was among the static displays that visitors could check out over the weekend at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport.

"Taking my family on the KC-135 was outstanding. I got to show them where I used to work," she said as two of her young nephews pretended to fly their toy Blue Angels jets moments before the real ones took to the sky. The refueling plane, sometimes called a "gas station in the sky," is 136 feet long and has a wingspan of 131 feet, which provided plenty of space for the current crew to spread out on the wings for an unobstructed view of the Blue Angels.

Staff Sgt. Robert "Bobby" Harper of West Virginia was sporting a flight suit when he relaxed with family on the grounds after completing his duties Saturday as a mechanic with the Air Force Viper demonstration team. He is in his third and final year of traveling across the country as part of the team.

"I love Wisconsin shows because everybody treats you super nice," Harper said.

But Harper grew serious when a spectator asked why the team couldn't give the crowd at least one sonic boom.

"There would be some broken windows and ears bleeding for sure. That's why we can't do it," he said, explaining the reason for rules preventing air show participants from exceeding the speed of sound.

Chippewa Valley Air Show director Tim Olson said Saturday's large turnout — organizers had to use overflow parking for only the third time in the show's history — showed that people were eager to gather for a major event again after two years of limiting activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting on the event is a massive undertaking that draws on the talents of 700 volunteers, including 400 scouts, but is worth the effort, Molepske said. The aspect that makes him most proud, he said, is that air show proceeds aid more than 60 local nonprofits as well as Camp Phillips, the popular Boy Scouts camp in Barron County.

"The air show brings in a lot of people from outside of our area," Molepske said. "It's just a great event for our community."

(c)2022 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

Visit the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.) at www.leadertelegram.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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