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Saturday was a big day for 4-year-old Ryan McCulloch of Roseville, and he knew it. He stood next to his father on the Mather Air Force Base tarmac, his eyes fixed, his hands tentatively gripping the barrier that kept him from getting closer to the object of his adoration: a 500 horsepower, hydraulically powered, 62,000-pound, fire-breathing robot dinosaur.
Ryan and his father, Marshall McCulloch, were two of an estimated 100,000 people to visit the California Capital Airshow this Patriot Day weekend, an annual two-day event that nearly doubled in size since last year. With more than 250 performers, 138 aircraft in the air and on the ground for close examination, and dozens of booths to visit, there was a lot for aviation fans to see and do.
Several days before the event, Marshall showed his son an Internet video of Robosaurus breathing fire and eating cars.
“He hasn’t stopped talking about it since I showed him that video,” Marshall said. “He never wakes up early. This morning, he was up at 6 a.m.”
Ryan didn’t speak — perhaps he couldn’t just then. He continued to stare, his face full of awe, at the 40-foot-tall dormant metal dinosaur.
The dinosaur isn’t remote-controlled. To pilot Robosaurus, a person must enter a cockpit located inside the head. Once inside, the pilot places his arms inside controllers that control the robot’s arms much like the “mechs” found in science fiction. If the pilot moves his arms, the robot copies the movement. At the tip of each of the pilot’s fingers is a two-way switch used to control other functions of the robot, including Robosaur’s hands and mouth, which have a combined crushing power of 68,000 pounds. It can also shoot fire from two hot-air balloon burners located near the robot’s mouth. It’s basically a giant toy.
Pilot of the beast Mark Hays said Robosaurus “gives the gift of imagination” by bringing to life something that most people can only dream of.
“That’s one of the great things about Robo,” he said. “It brings out the kid in all of us.”
At first look, the airshow appears to be little more than a spectacle, but to the pilots at the event, it’s an opportunity to impart something sacred. It’s a way for members of the military to meet with the public and give something to the community. The weekend’s events represent billions of dollars of research and development, though California Capital Airshow itself is non-profit and the cost to enter is comparable to a night at the movies. One of the less obvious premises to the event’s existence is one of culture and passion: to pass the torch to the next generation.
Airshows are indispensable because they inspire young people to join the field of aviation, said Dean Hudson, pilot of one of the aircraft on display, the KC-10A Extender, a tanker and cargo aircraft used to refuel other aircraft on-the-fly.
“When I was a kid and I dreamed of being a pilot, I went to airshows,” Hudson said.
Hudson always liked playing with model airplanes and things like that, he said. But it wasn’t until about seventh or eighth grade when he saw his friend’s pilot father donning full pilot gear that he was really taken away with the idea of becoming a pilot himself. That’s why the face-to-face interaction that happens at airshows is so important, he said. It puts a human face on the industry.
Highlights of the weekend included aerial performances from an F-22 Raptor, an out-of-production fifth-generation fighter jet considered by some to be the Michael Jordan of fighting machines for its speed, agility, stealth and unmatched fighting capabilities.
Also making a flight appearance was a U-2, a reconnaissance aircraft with a 103-foot wingspan originally spurred into development by the Cold War.
Event organizer Michael McCabe said performances like these made the airshow better than the Discovery Channel. McCabe was one of the people originally responsible for bringing airshows to Sacramento, several years ago.
“It requires so much support and it’s so complex—it’s not usually at airshows,” he said of the U-2. “The pilot inside is wearing a space suit.”
As the ominous-looking black craft quietly soared overhead, McCabe explained that it’s kept at the Beale Air Force Base in Marysville and they decided to bring it out for this show.
“It’s all about them showing their support and their thanks to the Sacramento community,” he said.
Aviation fans who were old enough to remember World War II were in for a special treat as four of the remaining seven operable P-38 Lightning aircraft were at the show.
When World War II veteran Robert Putnam, 90, saw a P-38 sail by the crowd, his eyes lit up.
“I saw a plane like that in a dogfight over North Africa,” he said, nearly laughing.
At 19, Putnam was called to active duty after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the 34th infantry division of the Army and saw action in the European Theatre as his division pushed North through Italy. After returning home safe, Putnam spent 35 years working for the Air Force as a jet mechanic including nine and a half years at McClellan Air Force Base, doing engine overhauls and engine testing on jets like the F-105, F-106, F-86 and the F-111.
Around 3 p.m. on Saturday, it began to get really hot on the airfield. The black, cracked tarmac bathed every observer staring up at the planes in waves of radiating heat. Many gathered beneath the shade of giant wings of aircraft parked near the flight line. Wing-shaped arrangements of people could be seen scattered about the field.
Putnam, for his age, seemed unperturbed by the heat and in apparent good health, quickly getting to his feet, removing his hat and placing his hand over his heart as brass horns began to play as part of a ceremony.
Putnam said he enjoyed the show and thought it was amazing. As he watched, he shared anecdotes from his youth, fighting from the ages of 19 to 25 in Europe: tales of violence and loss, nearly losing his own life to aircraft not unlike the seemingly innocent planes looping through the air, amusing the crowd at that very moment.
“But you’ve just got to laugh at stuff like that,” Putnam said. “It’s the only way to get through it.”
Photos by MaverickPhotography.us and SacMav.com