In 2003, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation decided to hold an air show the following year to celebrate Jones Beach State Park’s 75th anniversary. Right around the holiday season, the office received a call about the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron, which, at first, was hesitant to join an unknown air show.
George “Chip” Gorman, the parks department’s Long Island deputy regional director, remembers inviting the airmen in February 2004 to Bethpage State Park, the site of the 2002 U.S. Open. When one pilot, an avid golf fan, walked into the clubhouse — “hallowed ground,” as he called it — he was immediately persuaded that this air show would be a success.
“If they can host the U.S. Open, they can host us,” Gorman recalled the pilot saying.
That May, the first Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach took flight, and it has since grown into one of the best-known Memorial Day weekend traditions on Long Island. It is one of the largest weekend special events in New York, and the 2016 show drew over 450,000 spectators, according to Gorman. On May 26 and 27, the air show will celebrate its 15th anniversary with the Blue Angels as its headliners.
After the first air show, Gorman said, he and AnnMarie Agostinello, the parks department’s recreation director, concluded that it would make a great annual event. “We said, ‘You know what? We can host this every year,’” Gorman said.
Every other year, the Blue Angels are the event’s showcase performers, with the Air Force’s Thunderbirds filling that role in odd-numbered years. The only time that neither squad left the tarmac was the 10th anniversary show in 2013 — the year of the federal budget sequester. With no military flight teams allowed to perform, nearly every act comprised civilian performers, including the Geico Skytypers.
This Long Island-based team of former and current professional pilots, known for typing messages out of thin air over beaches and ballparks around the nation, performs in the show every year. The group treats the Bethpage Air Show as its homecoming performance, according to Skytyper pilot Jim Record, of Garden City.
“After we perform at Jones Beach, we all just go home,” Record said. “It’s really nice. Our wives, kids, loved ones and friends who would go to the air show anyway come and see us, and it’s the only chance we get to do this all year.”
The show’s title sponsor, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, has a partnership with the state parks department. Linda Armyn, the senior vice president of corporate affairs for the credit union — which was founded in 1941, for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation employees — plans the show with Gorman and Agostinello every year starting in November. And the night before the first show of the holiday weekend, Bethpage Federal hosts a reception for the performers.
Armyn, a Merrick native, said the air show is special not only for the enormous crowds that turn out, and the credit union’s 300,000-plus members, but also for her two children. During the first few years of the event, Armyn recalled, her kids would tell their friends, “You should come to my mommy’s air show.”
“We joke around that we know summer is here when the air show comes,” she added.
Wantagh F.D. contributes to the show
Wantagh is known as “the Gateway to Jones Beach,” and its Fire Department has been the air show’s lead fire, rescue and emergency medical service agency since 2004. According to department Chief Joe Gross III, volunteers are at the beach by 7 a.m. on show days, and don’t leave until the last spectators depart nearly 12 hours later.
Department members treat the event as a family affair, Gross said. Entire families sometimes serve as volunteers for the show, with their younger children coming with them to enjoy the entertainment in the air — if, that is, those parents aren’t on call at the firehouse.
“To be able to have one of the largest air shows right in our backyard and be an all-volunteer department — it’s pretty prestigious and rewarding to do,” Gross said.