The Fastest Show on Earth

How two Lockheed F-104 Starfighters became airshow stars.

The ultimate in point jets, the Starfighter is not for the faint of heart, be it pilot or audience. (Tim Wright)
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“It’s awesome!” says six-year-old Joshua Blackburn.

“I love it when they go straight up!” says Harold Logan.

Andy Bales chocks the airplanes as Svetkoff and Delashaw climb out. “God, I was having fun!” says Delashaw, his face gleaming with sweat. “I was so fast I was at Mach .94, right on the edge. I had to come back on the power or I would have gone supersonic. The air was so cool and dry it was unbelievable—I was hardly bleeding off speed when I went over the top at 15,000 feet and over 600 miles per hour.”

It is 2 p.m. and their day is over. Someone whips open some folding chairs. A few cold beers appear. A succession of admirers find their way to the gleaming Starfighters. Delashaw has seen grown men cry in front of the airplanes, and one fan recently e-mailed him from Japan, on his way to see them at a show in Westover, Massachusetts. General Thomas Cutler, commander of the Selfridge base, pulls up in a golf cart and bounds over to the airplanes. “Outstanding!” he says, beaming. “That’s the ultimate hot rod, isn’t it? The F-16 is clean, but these 104s are cleaner. It is so cool; it’s been the highlight of the show for me!”

And so it goes. For airshow performers, acts are 15 minutes of flying and 15 hours of socializing. The same performers see one another at every venue; at each there are parties and crowds of admirers. Late that night in the hotel bar Svetkoff and Delashaw are in the thick of it. Every room is booked with fliers and the bar is open, the beer gushing free to performers still dressed in their show flightsuits. There’s Fowler “Big Dog” Cary and his sidekick J.R., who fly a T-33, clutching cigars and sporting mouthfuls of fake crooked teeth, pitchers of beer in hand and rows of Blue Kamikaze cocktails lined up on the bar. There’s Miss Budweiser in her skin-tight black dress and high heels, keeping glasses full and egos brimming with a hug for even the sweatiest and most unsteady. There’s a fistfight between an F-16 pilot and an Army Golden Knights parachute team member over some personal slight, then more drinks for everyone. “I’m not making any money,” says Svetkoff grinning, his eyes sweeping over the late-night spectacle, “but how can you beat it? I’m in the carny!”

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