In a daring display of aerial acrobatics, Sgt. Timothy O'Neil jumped from a plane and drifted to the ground with an American flag rippling in the wind behind him.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" swelled and the crowd at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Open House and Air Show stood spellbound as O'Neil, a 26-year-old member of the U.S. Army Golden Knight precision parachute team, hit the ground on the anthem's last note.
"It's an incredible feeling," O'Neil, of Wilmore, Ky., said after his landing. "After the jump you're hit by a wall of wind, and the first thing you see is a plane flying away."
O'Neil's patriotic leap was the introductory stunt in an afternoon of aerial derring-do in the first air show in four years at the base, where Air Force, Army, and Navy installations were combined in 2009. The free open house, nine months in the making, was the military's way of thanking the community for its support, said Lt. Col. Rich Ficken, executive director of the air show.
The event showcased the feats of aerial teams including Marine Air-Ground Task Force, GEICO Skytypers, and Air Force Thunderbirds. About 300,000 people are expected to attend the event before it concludes Sunday.
At 8 a.m., families began walking onto an expansive concrete field that offered a buffet of 80 planes, from a World War I SPAD 7 fighter to the cutting-edge Marine FA-18 Hornet. In the air, pilots maneuvered, soared, and spun their crafts alone and in tandem. Engines roared on fly-bys, prompting kids and their parents to stuff their fingers in their ears.
"That was totally wicked," said Collin Phelps, 8, after a particularly deft — and loud — display. Collin attended the show with his four cousins, two grandparents, and aunt. The family traveled from Virginia to Burlington County to celebrate Mother's Day with family member Kim Wright, who works on the base. Wright's husband, Christopher, is serving in Afghanistan.
On the field, Jim Dimiceli, 40, of Galloway, N.J., gazed at a World War II fighter decorated with what appeared to be shark's teeth.
"I've been coming here since I was 5 years old," said Dimiceli, a funeral director. The first time was in 1974 with his father, who wanted to be a Navy pilot but had been sidelined by diabetes. So instead, father and son built model airplanes and attended air shows, traveling to Virginia, Texas, and Florida.
"It just makes me happy," said Dimiceli. "The most exciting thing is watching my kids' faces."
He is handing down his enthusi asm for aviation. He attended the joint-base show with his five children, ages 9 months to 20 years. Daughter Samantha, 15, attended her first such event when she was a month old.
The Dimicelis were among thousands who navigated the field in the unseasonably warm weather. Families sought shade wherever they could find it, setting up beach chairs under airplane wings and alongside lost-and-found signs.
Jared Calhoun, 14, and Ryan Simms, 13, both of Jackson, N.J., stepped into the cockpit of a CH46 Sea Knight to see how the real thing compared with the video-game planes they fly when playing Call of Duty.
"It's really cool," Ryan said of the display of buttons, levers, dials, screens, and wires.
Near the airfield, Carlos Contreras, of Linden, N.J., sat with his father, Hector, and eight members of their family.
The father and son have been going to air shows for years. Carlos Contreras served in the Air Force at the joint base and Hector Contreras, 77, flew B-26 aircraft in his native Colombia.
The Contrerases watched as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force reenacted bombing raids with simulated explosions.
At the end of the afternoon, the Air Force Thunderbirds took the field in dramatic fashion and the crowd scurried toward the front barrier and prepared to point cameras into the sky.
To rousing theme music, the pilots boarded their planes in synchronized moves and took off. The craft disappeared for a moment, heightening the suspense, then roared back into sight — four planes in a V formation, flanked by two more.