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Summer of Nostalgia: That time when all eyes were on the sky in Weymouth

All eyes look to the sky to watch an air show at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, Mass., in 1999.

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By JESSICA TRUFANT | The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. | Published: July 25, 2020

WEYMOUTH (Tribune News Service) — Marc Frattasio vividly remembers tagging along with his neighbors to an air show at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station in the summer of 1966, when he was 5 years old.

He recalls his neighbors trying to bring him into the humongous blimp hangar, a landmark at the station, to check out some displays, but he was terrified by its size and huge "orange peel" doors.

"I thought I was going to be swallowed up, and I'm disappointed I didn't take the opportunity because it was demolished shortly after," Frattasio said. "It was the largest thing I had ever seen."

For decades, hundreds of thousands of people descended on the now-closed air base in Weymouth, Rockland and Abington for weekend air shows, which featured stunt pilots, fighting jets and sometimes even the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision flying team, from around the country.

When Frattasio moved from Boston to Hanover at age 12, the air shows became a staple of his life on the South Shore, and he'd ride his bike to the base every chance he got. He credits the air shows for his decision to join the U.S. Navy out of high school.

Frattasio jokes that he didn't get to see the air shows while stationed at the base as a Navy reservist from 1991 to 1996 because he was in the planes instead.

A chorus of oohs and aahs filled the air as people looked to the sky to watch aerobats walk along plane wings, the heart-stopping maneuvers of stunt pilots, and soldiers dangling from hovering helicopters. Before performances and demonstrations began, families would line up to tour dozens of planes, helicopters and tanks, some dating back to World War II.

This was the stuff of the South Weymouth Naval Air Station's Air Expo, where, as one spectator in 1993 put it, "When the day's over, there won't be a little boy – or probably a little girl – who wouldn't want to be a jet fighter pilot.'"

The base, which is now being redeveloped into a residential-commercial community called Union Point, was decommissioned by the Navy under a series of nationwide closing of military installations in 1997. At the final air show in 1996, then Base Commanding Officer Robert Duetsch summed the sentiment at the time up as "a little nostalgia and a lot of satisfaction."

Weymouth Mayor Robert Hedlund said he, like almost anyone who grew up on the South Shore, has memories of air shows at the base, and even flying out of it two times with a friend, who was a Navy Reservist.

"It's sad because we took that place for granted," he said. "People came from all over for the shows."

The first air show at the base took place in May of 1954 as a way to mark Armed Forces Day, which is celebrated each year on the third Saturday in May. The last show at the base, held before it closed down, was June 8 and 9 of 1996. Over the years, the air shows attracted people "of great national prominence," Frattasio said, including Beverly "Bevo" Howard, an American aerobatic pilot who died 1971, while performing at an air show in Greenville, North Carolina.

Frattasio said the air shows were very popular, and traffic would back up for several miles. If people didn't arrive early, it could take an hour and a half just to get through the entrance.

"People would give up, pull over along the side of the road and have a picnic and watch the activity from there," said Frattasio, a board of directors member of the Patriot Squadron of the Association Naval Aviation, which runs the Shea Naval Aviation Museum. "If you didn't get in at the crack of dawn, it was tough. You could walk on faster than you could drive."

The air shows mostly attracted families from eastern Massachusetts looking for a fun and free thing to do on a summer weekend.

"Everybody loves airplanes," Frattasio said. "They're fast, loud and interesting looking."

The days would typically consist of ground exhibits until noon, and the flying activities would pick up in the afternoon with flight demonstrations and civilian aerobatic teams. Frattasio said the Navy Blue Angels or United States Air Force Thunderbirds would typically serve as the main attraction of the day. Several branches of the military typically had some representation at the air shows, which Frattasio called "a great recruiting opportunity."

"A lot of people would sign up. I certainly did," he said. "I joined the Navy almost exclusively due to what I saw at South Weymouth."

While the air shows in Weymouth are a thing of the past, people can still find them periodically across New England, such as at Quonset State Airport in Rhode Island.

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