Duluth air show draws fans and foesby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Tens of thousands of spectators are expected to be in Duluth this weekend to keep their eyes on the skies. A weekend air show could draw more visitors than well established events like Grandma's Marathon. The air show is also drawing protests from some people who say the show overly glorifies war.
Duluth, Minn. — John Klatt's been practicing all week, over a rural piece of Wisconsin, near Superior.
Several times a day his red, white, and blue two-seater aerobatic plane can be spotted, looping and diving overhead. Often an Air National Guard recruit is strapped into the other seat.
In his off hours, Klatt flies F-16s with the Air Guard out of Duluth. He's served two combat tours in Iraq, and the Air Guard sponsors his act. Klatt said, nationwide, millions of people attend air shows.
"They're really great American pastimes, you know, the history of barnstorming and the intrigue of flight," Klatt said. "And then you mix that with a jet team like the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds and some of the best civilian air show performers."
The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels are the headline act this weekend. There's an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt, often known as a "Warthog," and some mock combat with an historic P-38 Lightning. There are also plenty of civilian airplane performances.
But, there's little doubt the biggest attraction is military. Air shows are a prime recruiting tool for the armed forces. The Navy has been working Duluth all week with recruiters and the Navy Band. The Army is bringing a popular but controversial virtual combat display.
And that's just a bit much for Michelle Naar-Obed, a prominent and passionate Duluth peace activist.
She's particularly unhappy with the Army's combat simulator, the Virtual Army Experience. Participants can gun down virtual terrorists. Naar-Obed has been to Iraq five times to work with war victims, and she's trying to get sponsors to tone down the air show's military theme.
"Because the air show has been militarized and used as a recruiting tool from the beginning," Naar-Obed explains, "more and more high-tech militarized planes and technology begin to come into what was once being called a celebration of aviation."
Naar-Obed said people should question how pervasive militarism is in American society.
"It's part of our schools," said Naar-Obed. "It's part of our education. It's part of our leisure. It's television. It just seems to be everywhere. We became a military industrial society a long time ago. And when you become that it becomes your identity. And so, many us are questioning, 'is that how we want to be known in the world, as a militaristic society?'"
Dave Boe helps organize and promote the air show, and he said the attraction has little to do with warfare.
"They're airplanes," Boe said. "They zoom. They make loud noises. I personally feel that if you were to take these F-18s; these F-16s; took off the military appearances of them, and just had them as planes, they would still bring people."
Many of the displays will be decidedly unmilitary. Boe's fond of the exhibit from NASA. The space agency is bringing things like astronaut suits and moon rocks. And Boe said some of top pilots are civilians.
"There's something about a small plane piloted by one person that does something that makes people say 'how in the heck is that thing still in the air?'" Boe said.
Michelle Naar-Obed and a handful of peace activists are already planning their protest outside the gates. And that's OK with Air Guard pilot John Klatt.
"You know, we live in America, and the freedom of speech is what somebody in uniform goes out and fights for," Klatt said.
Protesters should get plenty of attention. Organizers are expecting anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people through the gates.
- Morning Edition, 07/18/2008, 6:50 a.m.