Stepping Out

Heading into summer at the Bethpage Air Show


Here we are — ready to kick back and enjoy Memorial Day weekend’s prelude to summer. Besides the observances, parades and barbecues, that yearly trek to Jones Beach to watch the action overhead during the Bethpage Air Show is a beloved tradition for so many of us.

This year’s show — on Saturday, May 25 and Sunday, May 26 — celebrates its 20th year with much fanfare.

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels, headliners at the first Bethpage Air Show back in 2004, return to helm the spectacular two-day display of flying stunts.

George Gorman, regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, enthusiastically says that “spectators are in for a real treat” this time around with 2024 being “a very special year for us.”

“Not only are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Bethpage Air Show, but we are also celebrating the 95th anniversary of Jones Beach State Park and the 100th anniversary of New York State Parks and the Long Island State Park Commission,” he notes.

The Blue Angels have strong ties to the region, flying Grumman Hellcats, built on Long Island for the team’s 1946 inaugural flight. The team then went on to fly other Grumman aircraft, including the Bearcat, Cougar and Tiger, one of which now hangs at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

The distinguished squadron — back for its 10th headlining appearance — is joined by other elite military pilots, including the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team, the U.S. Air Force’s A-10C Thunderbolt II Demo Team, and the U.S. Navy F-35C Demo Team. These expert aviators demonstrate the armed forces’ capabilities in fulfilling air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

The renowned Blue Angels Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron always delights air show visitors with unparalleled displays of flight precision, in keeping with the Navy’s time-honored tradition dating back to 1946. A total of 17 officers voluntarily serve with the Blue Angels, showcasing the precision and power of naval aviation. Each year, the team typically selects three tactical (fighter or fighter/attack) jet pilots, two support officers, and one Marine Corps C-130 pilot to relieve departing members.

As always, expert civilian performers join in the action. The popular Skytypers and their flight squadron of vintage World War II aircraft; Mike Goulian, North America’s most decorated aerobatic pilot; the Warbird Thunder team, piloted by former Skytypers members; Long Island’s aerobatic daredevil David Windmiller; the American Airpower Museum Warbirds; along with Farmingdale State College Flying Rams, flying several of their 22 college-owned aircraft, complete the performance slate.

The Skytypers, an air show favorite, combine the best of old and new. The team uses five of the remaining World War II-era NA SNJ planes left in the world, meticulously restored with the latest technology.

“These were Navy scout planes used on missions in World War II and the Korean War,” explains Larry Arken, the Skytypers’ longtime flight leader. “We’ve modernized them and give them plenty of TLC. We have to take care of our warbirds. They’ve got quite a military history; they’ve landed on aircraft carriers and as fighter trainers they trained the Greatest Generation.”

The Farmingdale-based Skytypers are, of course, a familiar sight along northeast beaches with their skytyped messages generated at an altitude of 10,000 feet with puffs of smoke in dot matrix-style letters. While those messages won’t be visible during the show this time around, the pilots are ready to entertain with their signature maneuvers.

“We’re thrilled that this is our 20th year with the show,” Arken says. “It’s so important to us as it’s our hometown show. For many of our friends, it’s the only time they get to see us (perform). We’re always excited to be here and put a smile on people’s faces. It’s great fun to fly down low and see everyone on the beach. This is a terrific event, and the pilots enjoy it as much as everyone on the ground.”

Flying at 500 feet, his team’s 18 minutes of precision skills always excite spectators. Among their favorite tricks is the “bomb burst,” in which the Arken’s planes come in at low altitude toward the spectators from five directions in a criss-cross pattern.

“It almost looks like we’re going to hit each other,” he says. “It’s a real crowd pleaser.”

His team is a close-knit group of five pilots, with decades of military and professional experience, who honor the history and heritage of their refurbished aircraft.

“I consider us caretakers of these planes that had such a historical impact during World War II, “Arken says.”Everything we do is because we want to keep them alive for the generations to see them. We love flying these planes and bringing them to this show.”

The event is one of the largest air shows in the country. More than 240,000 people attended in 2022, when the Blue Angels last performed during a stormy weekend. Last year, more than 419,000 attended.