Bright yellow planes and sleek, black helicopters trekked over the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, across campus and even through Gainesville’s swamplands.
Hundreds of Gainesville residents hit the tarmac March 25, looking to celebrate UF military alumni, see planes up close and take to the skies themselves.
Gainesville Regional Airport and the University Air Center hosted their seventh annual Gator Fly-In and Armed Services Appreciation, set to honor the legacy of Col. Joe Kittinger, a UF alumnus integral to the country’s space travel.
Erin Porter, Gainesville Regional Airport’s spokesperson, said Kittinger’s love for Gainesville and closeness to the staff pushed them to preserve his memory.“We remember him so much in our hearts,” she said. “We will always dedicate this event to Joe.”
Kittinger was a U.S. Air Force veteran, prisoner of war and UF graduate whose work pioneered the way for the U.S. Gemini and Apollo space programs. After continued success in fighter aircraft, Kittinger participated in Project Manhigh and Excelsior, which looked to test if humans could survive in space.
To help test this, Kittinger skydived from 102,800 feet in the air, formerly breaking the world record for the fastest speed reached in free fall.
He also held the world’s highest skydive record for over half a century.
The event, which went from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., hosted live music, vintage vehicles and aircraft tours alongside ceremony events honoring Kittinger.
Attendees could go inside large military C-130s brought to the center and take pictures.
They could also take “swamp tours” around Gainesville in a two-seater plane or in a modern helicopter for $50. For $250 to $380, they could take longer rides in a World War II-era T-6 plane.
Daniel Lobo, a 20-year-old UF computer science junior, said he got into aviation after seeing the movie “Top Gun: Maverick.” The lines for the plane rides were too long, he said, but he was thrilled to see a variety of military aircraft.“I’m really excited,” he said. “We never see this.”
Pilots, loved ones and other military members honored the death of Kittinger through ceremonies and fundraisers.
Those close to him said, among his love for skydiving and piloting, was a passion for Florida.
Before the main event, a free pancake breakfast was held, and donations would go to Kittinger’s favorite charity, the International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame.
The Buchholz High School color guard opened a formal ceremony with the UF Gator Guard, and several speakers gave speeches both on Kittinger and military aviation experience in general.
Pilots also conducted a special flyover ceremony to commemorate him.
Beyond military recognition, many hobbyists and private pilots brought their planes for people to see.
Dana Cheffield, a Chiefland resident and aviation enthusiast, brought a 1966 gyrocopter — a machine similar to helicopters that use a propeller engine and wind for thrust — to the show. He was raised on an airport west of Gainesville, where he learned to fly planes at age 14; he said making it to the Fly-In when possible was nostalgic.
“This is mostly homecoming for me,” he said.
But the private planes weren’t just brought for show. Two contests judged the event’s planes, in which the “People’s Choice: Best Aircraft” award allowed attendees to vote for their favorite.
Harold Locay, a local Gainesville doctor and pilot of five years, brought a new 2023 Bristow two-seater plane, able to cruise at 150 miles per hour and climb 2,000 feet per minute.
Locay was confident the plane was one of the best at the show, he said.
“I think it’s the top contender,” he said.
An hour later, he was proven right: The vehicle won the event’s “People’s Choice: Best Aircraft” award.
After a day of views from thousands of feet up and live music, Gainesville residents left the city’s airport with an appreciation for a lesser known figure in the city’s history.
Contact Aidan Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.
Aidan Bush is a second-year journalism major and the city and county commission reporter for the Alligator. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Citrus County Chronicle. When not writing, he enjoys creating videos, water activities and spending time with his friends.