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Air Show thrills and chills crowd on Fort Lauderdale beach

Even without U.S. military clout, the Lauderdale Air Show attracted an estimated 475,000 person audience Saturday under sunny skies along Fort Lauderdale beach.

With necks craned and eyes, cameras and cell phones fixed to 6,000 feet over the ocean, throngs viewed daredevil loops, dives and tail spins thanks to seven civilian stunt plane teams and the Spanish Air Force’s aerobatic parachute team.

Gasps came from the audience when pilot Chuck Aaron flew a Red Bull helicopter upside down, sideways and for a few seconds at a time, with the engine seemingly cut.

The maneuver, which led to short free fall teases, put the “ill” in thrill and left hearts pounding.

“It was the weirdest thing. Helicopters are not supposed to do that,” said Bob Benzing, of Brooksville, Conn., who attended with his brother, sister and nephews.

Benzing, whose father served in WWII and whose son is now in he U.S. Navy, said his family hasn’t missed a scheduled air show in Fort Lauderdale since the shows began in 1994 as exhibitions of military strength during Fleet Week. The event, which formerly showcased air, land and sea maneuvers, last ran in original form in 2007.

The Lauderdale Air Show was revived in 2012 by Bryan Lilley who also manages air shows in Cocoa Beach and Ocean City, Md. This year, because of sequestration, the U.S. military canceled Fleet Week and participation in the air show.

“But the greatest thing, in this age of sequestration and military cuts, is that the air show is still a great reason to come to the beach. Watching jets and airplanes zooming over the ocean is like setting off fireworks on the 4th of July,” Lilley said.

Though no active duty military participated, many of the pilots are Marine, Navy and Air Force veterans.

Former Navy and airline pilot Jim Record, of Long Island, N.Y., who is now a lead stunt pilot for the Geico Skytypers, said World War II buffs appreciate the WWII SNJ-2 fleet used in dangerous, precision Geico stunts.

“We’re flying planes built from 1939-1941 that are 5,500 pounds and able to fly at 600 horsepower and we do it in perfect formation. The fact that they are 50 years old goes to the military strength of the machine,” Record said.

Breathtaking aerobatics by the Black Diamond Jet Team are courtesy of two graduates from the US Navy’s Top Gun Academy: Retired Lt. Col. Jerry “Jive” Kirby and Retired Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass. The four L-39s are flown in extreme tight formation with just 3-feet between wing spans.

For Spain’s Col. Fulgencio Saura, Air Attache to the Embassy of Spain in Washington, DC, Spain’s participation commemorates explorer Ponce DeLeon’s arrival in Florida in 1493. The performance by active duty Spanish troops is part of Florida’s year long 500th anniversary celebrations called Viva 500.

“It reminds everyone that 500 years ago the first Spanish sailors came to the United States to discover the New World. Now, the air show became the first time Spain’s Air Force parachuted to American soil,” Saura said.

Ahsa Roberts, of Pembroke Pines, who attended with her family, called the Spanish Air Force show “exciting.”

“Any time we get to see military perform like that for us it always great. Just great,” Roberts said.

The LUCAS Oil Parachute Team also brought load cheers from the audience. Other daredevil pilots include US National Aerobatic Champion Mike Wiskus, the Air Hogs Extra 300’s Jason Newburg and Doug Matthews who uses a P-51 Mustang to wow the crowd.

Though ticket prices range from $35 in the drop zone to $229 in the VIP area, free viewing is available up and down the beach. Lilly said $10 from each ticket sold go be donated to the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Sunday’s show promises a “spectacular repeat of Saturday”, Lilly said.

Anubhav Mehrota, of Miramar, who watched for the first time Saturday with husband Muskan Mehrota, called the show “amazing.”

“It’s got aerobatics, speed and the thrill of not knowing what will happen next. Add the crowd, coordinated music and all the action so close to the beach you want to be part of it,” Anubhav Mehrota said.

“You can help but feel like flying after this,” Muskan Mehrota said.