Navy is gone but air show continues in Brunswick

Posted Aug. 21, 2011, at 1:39 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 22, 2011, at 12:41 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — The first air show since the closing of the Brunswick Naval Air Station has meant new challenges for civilian organizers of what is already a complicated affair: Expertise and plane-handling equipment departed with the Navy. So did hundreds of Navy sailors who ran the event.

The Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority had to round up 700 volunteers for each day of the Great State of Maine Air Show this weekend to make up for the loss of sailors. Those are true volunteers, unlike the sailors who were encouraged or required to work at the air show.

“We have to have volunteers that aren’t ‘volun-told,'” quipped Steve Levesque, executive director of the redevelopment authority, which is organizing the event.

The air show will feature the Navy Blue Angels, the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team and warbirds of yesteryear, as well as civilian stunt pilots. The civilian-run event will also feature a business aviation expo aimed at showcasing the former base, already home to several private businesses.

When the Navy was in charge, as many as 100,000 or more spectators showed up each day for the free-to-the-public air show, making Brunswick Maine’s biggest city.

Now that the Navy has gone, the redevelopment authority is making up for the loss of taxpayer dollars to underwrite the event by charging admission. For Friday, advance one-day general admission tickets cost $10 for adults, $15 at the gate. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday at $15 in advance, $20 at the gate.

Organizers need 35,000 to 40,000 spectators to break even. Overall, the budget including jet fuel, accommodations for performers and equipment rentals will reach $800,000, Levesque said.

To get ready, organizers have had to get moving.

Airplane-handling equipment is being brought in, including tow bars for military aircraft and arresting gear for the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 aircraft. A new tank farm will provide jet fuel and gasoline. A private firm will assist in providing security, and an “air boss” is being brought in to oversee the show. A few volunteers have had to receive training on how to work safely around spinning propellers and powerful jet engines.

“The hot ramp where they’d park the performing aircraft — you used to have sailors who’re experts at doing that. This time, you have to have a volunteer corps and train them,” said Rob Reider, the air show announcer.

Once home to 4,000 sailors and six patrol squadrons, Brunswick Naval Air Station was ordered closed in 2005 by a base closing commission, and the Navy lowered its flag for the final time on May 31.

But the Navy tradition carries on. This year, the visit by the Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, coincides with the 100th anniversary of Navy aviation.

Air shows have been a tradition for more than four decades in Brunswick. The first air show featuring the Blue Angels coincided with a visit to Maine by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Across North America, air shows draw 10 million to 12 million spectators each year, according to the International Council of Air Shows.

Reider said people enjoy seeing the civilian stunt pilots, but that large events like the Great State of Maine Air Show wouldn’t be the same without noisy military jets.

“People want to see and hear the military jets. They like the speed. They like the noise,” said Reider. “I think people are proud of what their tax dollars have bought and they’re proud of the men and women who their tax dollars support. It’s a matter of national pride.”

New to the first air show in Brunswick since 2008 is a business expo aimed at showcasing civilian Brunswick Executive Airport and private business opportunities at Brunswick Landing: Maine’s Center for Innovation.

Redevelopment officials already have secured commitments from aircraft manufacturer Kestrel Aviation Co., which intends to spend $100 million and employ as many as 300 people, as well as Molnlycke Health Care, Maine Tool and Machine, and information technology company Resilient Communications, among others.

Altogether, 12 businesses plan to bring up to 650 jobs, nearly making up for 700 civilian jobs that were lost when the base closed, according to the redevelopment authority.

 

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the cost of admission for adults as $10 in advance and $15 at the gate. That price is for Friday only, and admission on Saturday and Sunday is $15 in advance and $20 at the gate. Some special rates are also available.

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