[intro-text size=”25px”]It’s a Cleveland Labor Day tradition most of us have been doing since we were knee –high:  our parents packed up chairs and snacks, Dad grabbed the camera, Mom, the sunblock. At first we were a bit scared, but more fascinated. And once we got used to the noise, we were thrilled.[/intro-text]

The Cleveland National Air Show returns to Cleveland this weekend, featuring ground displays of a wide variety of flying machines and plenty to learn about their history, how they work and the purposes they serve.

But the real rock stars of the show are the staff – the pilots, historians and scientists, many of whom volunteer their time to working the air show circuit because they just love what they do.

Troy Booker has been a pilot of civilian and military aircraft for 21 years. He’s here in Cleveland showing off the T-6 Texan, a small, vintage, single-engine prop plane that was used for training pilots from WWII through the 1970s.

“The kids are absolutely my favourite part of doing the show,” says Booker. “When I was a kid, I went to an air show and the pilot treated me special. He put me in his airplane and talked to me about flying. That made me want to be a pilot.”

And now he is. The enthusiasm and special treatment Booker says he was given has now been transferred to the children who continuously gravitate to him – he places the smaller ones on his lap and refers to them directly as “future aviators”.

Commander Ryan Bernacchi leads the Blue Angels demonstration team; the crowd that flocks to him for autographs post-show is just as fanatical as any crowd after a rock concert. They know the individual pilots by name without having to look them up in the programme. One woman told us she has been looking forward to meet Bernacchi for a couple of years and was excited because “he’s closer to my age”.  A young fan had made an actual paper airplane coloured in crayon to match the design of the Blue Angels. Bernacchi asked his name, took a photo with him and showed him he would safely tuck the paper plane into his pocket. He told us “getting to interact with everybody, especially the kids” is his favourite part of his job.

Ryan Bernacchi is pleasant, professional and appears to genuinely enjoy interacting with fans and leading the Blue Angels squad, a job many consider to be among the best gigs in the entire military. “Great weather for the show,” one spectator remarked to him. “Yeah, beautiful,” he replies. “A little windy up there, but that makes it fun.” The rest of us can only imagine.

Aviation is more than just the military and the means you use to go on a holiday trip to Vegas. Scientists from the NASA-Glenn Research Center have been researching algae blooms on Lake Erie for years, a project that became most crucial during the Toledo water crisis in 2014 that left nearly half a million Ohioans without water and brought the government to declare a state of emergency. NASA scientist Roger Tokars is on hand at the air show with the Twin Otter aircraft used to explore the lake and explains the Airborne Hyperspectral Imaging Project that monitors the algae. The camera uses a thousand colours (as opposed to a typical camera using just the three primary colours) to determine the type and concentration of algae, similar to the way a radar displays weather intensity with different colours on your local meteorology forecast.   The images are merged to create a map that is used to determine water safety controls and prevent further crises.

The Cleveland National Air Show continues today and Monday. The gates just beyond Burke Lakefront Airport open at 9:00 a.m. to the ground displays; the air show starts not long after, ending around 4 p.m. with the Blue Angels. For more information on the less-exciting but nonetheless vital details like prices, parking, and general visitor information, visit www.clevelandairshow.com.

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