The first Blue Angels' air show at the local Navy base since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the theme of this year's show was "Defenders of Freedom."
Many of those who gazed skyward to watch the Angels perform their precision aerobatics said the fact they are able to attend such an air show and watch the Blue Angels gives them a sense of pride.
"It makes me feel proud to be an American," said Steve Calkins of Coachella, who served in the Marine Corps from 1976-78. He brought his wife, Laurie, and 1-year-old daughter, Chloe, to the show.
For Calkins, attending the air show is a tradition he is starting with his family, but he is continuing a tradition that started when he was 6 years old and his parents would take him to see such air shows.
Calkins was far from alone in speaking of the pride he felt Saturday.
Saturday's crowd was filled with retired military personnel, many of whom are snowbirds and travel to the Valley from far-off areas.
Many wore caps with the names of Navy ships on which they served or the branch of the military in which they served.
All who were interviewed said they look forward to the air show because it gives them a feeling of pride in their country and in their own military service.
Merle Young, who resides in Mountain Home, Idaho with his wife, Joyce, served in the Air Force for 20 years.
"I enjoy coming out here to watch the air show," said Young, who added he loved his 20 years of military service.
Throughout Saturday's air show, spectators had a chance to enjoy the aerobatics of stunt pilots who showed off precision flying skills, one after the other.
Planes would perform high-speed loops, then race toward the ground only to swoop up at the last minute.
Each move brought stunned reactions from the crowd, as told through the collective "ahhs" and "oohs."
In one of the most dramatic moments, an F/A-18 Hornet and World War II era P-38 Lightning flew over the military base simulating bombing runs.
As each flew by, explosives were detonated as if they had dropped bombs. Explosions and fire balls followed each run. The heat of the explosives could be felt by those standing closest to the action.
Then it was time for the Blue Angels to fly.
Crowds stood up and parents held their children over their heads as the pilots made their way to their blue and gold Hornets. A hush fell over the crowd as the engines roared to life.
As the Angels took flight, four in diamond formation, with two others — the chase pilots — off on their own, people remained on their feet.
For nearly an hour, the Angels showed just what the Hornet is capable of and what they as pilots can do.
Flying with wings just inches from each others' cockpits the four Angels in diamond formation performed precise loops and turns, never breaking formation.
The two chase pilots flew at each other, turning just in time to miss collisions — all to please the crowd and educate the public about the military and its effort to protect the country.
As the Angels performed their last maneuver, in which all six jets soared over the Navy base, cheers sounded throughout NAF El Centro.
James Compton of Marine Corp Air Station Miramar, who stood by his F/A-18D fighter talking to spectators, summed up the effect of air shows such as the one at the local base.
He said when he was young his parents would take him to air shows.
"I dreamed of becoming a pilot and now I am one," he said, adding now he can talk to young people about what they need to do to become pilots.
In that way youths who attend the air show will be inspired to pursue their dreams, he said
>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.