BRUNSWICK, Maine — The skies above Cook’s Corner in Brunswick were cut to ribbons Saturday as a flock of stunt pilots dazzled thousands of attendees at the Great State of Maine Air Show and Business Aviation Expo.
Organizers of the event, which took off this year for the first time since the Navy left Brunswick Naval Air Station as the result of a Pentagon decision to decommission the airfield, were making the most of the show, which was cut short when Sunday’s schedule was canceled due to the effects of Tropical Storm Irene.
Steve Levesque, director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the group that is working on transitioning the former Navy base to civilian use, said the air show had to survive for several reasons.
The former Brunswick Naval Air Station, now named the Brunswick Executive Airport, has been the site of air shows for decades and Levesque said continuing that tradition now that the base is in civilian hands is in response to strong community support for the event and a desire among many to perpetuate Brunswick’s military heritage. Maine has one of the highest per-capita percentages of retired military personnel in the country, said Levesque.
Though gate tallies won’t be available for a few days, Levesque said several thousand people had shown up Friday night and Saturday despite the fact that for the first time in years there was a fee for admittance — $20 at the gate on Saturday plus $5 for parking. Levesque said that money pays for the performers, their fuel and a range of other expenses.
Despite a cut-short show and a crowd that was clearly smaller than it has been in past years when as many as 200,000 people came to the base throughout the two-day event, Levesque said he wasn’t worried about the financial health of the show. That’s because his organization purchased insurance against the possibility that funds would fall short.
Despite the obstacles, Levesque said he was pleased with the turnout.
“There are a lot of people here,” he said.
Joe Miller of Woolwich, who spent 40 years as a Navy medic, said he has attended dozens of air shows over the years but that Saturday’s was his first in Brunswick. He said Brunswick has always been known throughout the armed services as a premier destination for an air show.
“This is one of the classics,” he said. “Naval Air Station Brunswick still has one of the best air shows anywhere. You know that because the Blue Angels are here.”
The Blue Angels, a team of top Navy aviators who thunder over air shows all over the world, fly F/A-18 Hornets in daring formations and stunts carried out in some cases at near the speed of sound. Though they were the show’s marquee performers, the crowds were appreciative of the others.
For 10-year-old Jackson Harbaugh of Portland, one of the greatest spectacles was seated in a folding metal chair: NASA astronaut Mike Foreman. Foreman, whose aviation career began in 1981 with an assignment to Patrol Squadron 23 at Brunswick Naval Air Station, has logged more than 600 hours in outer space in two missions.
So what’s it like to meet a space man?
“It’s pretty cool,” said Harbaugh, clutching a signed photo of Foreman. “No, it’s awesome.”
But not everyone was dazzled by the antics in the airspace. A group of about 35 protesters at the front gates were clearly not impressed, citing complaints ranging from the environmental impact of gas-guzzling aircraft to the show’s core objective as a military recruitment tool.
“This represents a lot of ruthless wars that have been carried out on the part of the United States,” said Joe Ciarrocca, who lives just a few hundred yards from the former Navy base in Brunswick. “It’s not only an intrusion; it’s an insult.”
Bruce Gagnon of Bath, a well-known activist in the area, said he’s confident his actions are having an influence.
“There are a whole lot of people in the Brunswick area who are concerned about what’s going on here, but they don’t say anything,” said Gagnon. “We’re here to support them and to support each other.”
Gagnon said the protesters were planning a meeting to discuss ways to encourage the U.S. government to devote more of its military budget to domestic causes.
Lisa Savage of Solon, founder of a peace and environmental activist group called Code Pink Maine, said the expletives and insults being shouted at her by air show attendees where merely proof that she is being heard.
“I feel like I’ve gotten their attention, and that’s good,” she said.
Little of that sentiment existed inside the air show, though.
“Freedom is not free,” an announcer blared through a public-address system. “Today let’s salute those who help to preserve it.”
With that, the roar from the crowd on the ground almost overcame the drone from above.