Sitting on the tarmac underneath the right wing of a World War II-era PBY-5 Catalina flying boat, 81-year-old Edie Brennan avoided the sweltering heat Saturday morning.
Like so many others who came out for the Memorial Day Salute to Veterans Airshow, Brennan, a Columbia resident, listened to the roar of jets and the hum of propeller planes that filled the sky.
“It’s just a pure joy to be out here,” Brennan said as hundreds of families lined up to look inside the dual-engine plane.
The air show, held at Columbia Regional Airport, drew an estimated 28,000 people Saturday, according to event organizers and the Columbia Police Department. Organizers said it is the second-largest crowd on record.
More than 50 vintage and modern military aircraft were featured at the air show, including the F-18F Super Hornet, the Chinook Helicopter and the 1945 CAF Corsair.
When the Black Daggers parachute team executed aerial stunts before landing Saturday morning, onlookers craned their necks to the sky.
“The best part so far were the parachutes,” said Boston Messbarger, a Columbia elementary school student. “And when I climbed into an airplane.”
The U.S. Army Special Operations Command Parachute Demonstration Team, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., is also scheduled to begin the Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Parade by parachuting into five intersections on Broadway.
Herb Duncan, a member of the Jayhawk Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, displayed a Fairchild PT-23, a World War II training plane that took seven years to restore. Duncan said when World War II veterans walk by to see the open cockpit two-seater they often well up with emotion.
“I get everything from tears to awe,” said Duncan, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy. “One old pilot said seeing the plane again was the fulfillment of a dream.”
Annette Saunders, spokeswoman for the air show, said the Memorial Day weekend event is heartwarming for her.
“We get to meet some of our nation’s greatest heroes — that’s an honor I won’t forget,” Saunders said. “We feel it’s important to put veterans in the spotlight to honor them. We want to say ‘thank you’ to them and to those in uniform still defending our freedoms.”
The event is the largest free, civilian-run military air show in the country, organizers said.
Beyond a dazzling aerial display of modern and classic airplanes, some families bond in ways they haven’t before, Saunders said.
“I’ve noticed fathers and grandfathers get out here and just open up about their experiences. It brings back memories. It also opens young people’s eyes to history,” she said.
One young adult who didn’t need reminding was Tom Leyden, who was promoted to the rank of Air Force captain during a mid-day ceremony. Leyden, a 1998 graduate of Rock Bridge High School and a 2002 graduate of MU, has flown 111 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan during four deployments. He said being part of the air show was an honor.
“The air show is a great way to support the troops,” said Leyden, who will be redeployed in December. “We need to remember those who have fallen this Memorial Day.”
Several protestors said that a display of military might is the wrong message to send on a day intended to memorialize fallen soldiers.
Steve Jacobs, Columbia activist and St. Francis House director, walked through the crowd holding a sign that read “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”
“I think it’s a great question to ask,” said Jacobs, a Vietnam veteran. “(Jesus) said love your enemies, not bomb your enemies. Wars are a stain on the concept of civilization, and this event promotes them.”
There were no conflicts between protestors and police Saturday, but during the 2004 event, MU adjunct professor Bill Wickersham was removed for collecting signatures to adopt a clean energy resolution in Columbia. Maureen Doyle was also removed from that event for handing out anti-war fliers.
After Wickersham and Doyle filed a lawsuit in 2005, a U.S. District judge upheld a preliminary injunction issued against Columbia and the Salute to Veterans Corporation in March. The injunction permits protesters at the air show to distribute fliers but not to collect signatures.
Mark Haim, director of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, said instead of discussing ongoing litigation, he wanted to focus on the meaning of Memorial Day.
“Unfortunately, they want to put on a glitzy display of weaponry,” Haim said. “They are honoring military machines instead of honoring the memories of those who lost their lives in war.”