It started off innocently enough, with a pilot flying his plane through the sky as thousands of people who had gathered below craned their necks to see the aircraft ascending thousands of feet into the air.

But then, suddenly, the plane abruptly changed directions and began barreling toward the ground, spinning in a corkscrew motion all the way. The crowd gasped, then cheered, awed by the pilot’s ability to control the aircraft with such finesse as he began his ascension once again, just five feet off the ground.

The pilot’s downward spiral was not caused by an aircraft malfunction. It was all part of the act at Columbus Municipal Airport’s third annual Aviation Day.

This year’s event featured a brand new attraction — a professional air show featuring the talents of four pilots: Michael Kennedy, Lee Leet, Michael Vaknin and Billy Werth. The four professional airmen terrified and dazzled the audience of more than 5,000 people with their flips, spins and other death-defying airborne tricks.

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“It was fabulous,” said Derek Beagle, a local Cub Scout who was working as a volunteer at Aviation Day.

Beagle, like most of Saturday’s spectators, couldn’t pull his eyes away from the skies as the four pilots spun, flipped and plummeted through the air with what looked like effortless precision. The crowds braved sweltering heat to watch the airshow, with temperatures reaching 86 degrees by 12:45 p.m. and continuing to rise throughout the day.

Despite the warm conditions, spectators stuck around to see Werth and Vaknin do acrobatic tricks in their Extra 300L and Pitts S2C aerobatic planes, ascending as high as 2,000 feet in the air, then flipping their aircraft on their sides as they made their descent, leaving trails of spiraling white smoke in their paths across the sky.

For their acts, Kennedy and Lee showed off the speed and agility of a Vultee BT-13 and Shorts MK1 Tucano, two military aircraft. Kennedy’s show on the BT-13 even showcased some of the maneuvers military pilots were taught during training for World War II more than 70 years ago.

Lisa Stargell, a Brown County resident who works at Columbus Regional Health, said she enjoyed the opportunity to see the older-model aircraft, both those in the airshow and others on display on the airport tarmac. Her father is a pilot, so she and the rest of her family, who have been coming to Aviation Day since its inception, revel in the opportunity to learn more about the history of air travel.

During the airshow, Stargell said she was a particular fan of the pilots’ barrel rolls through the air, although she conceded she would never let her dad try those tricks while she was in the cockpit passenger seat.

“I couldn’t handle that,” Stargell said.

Other activities featured at Aviation Day included an antique car show, aircraft displays and Touch-A-Truck.

Beagle and his troop of Cub Scouts, who spent their Saturday volunteering at the airport, said they planned to spend their time in the bounce houses once their volunteer shift was up.

But when it was time for the airshow to start, most other activities on the airport grounds stopped as spectators made their way to the tarmac to watch the pilots test the laws of gravity.

As the planes dove their way across the skies, Stargell said there was often a voice in the back of her mind that kept her concerned about the possibility of something going wrong.

The pilots themselves also shared that concern, with Vaknin putting his show temporarily on hold as he worked to resolve a mechanical error in his Extra 300L.

There was one major hitch in the day’s schedule, airport director Brian Payne said.

A planned wing-walking act by Tony Kazian and Dave Dacy was cancelled at the last minute because Dacy, the pilot, suddenly became ill.

Thanks to the quick-thinking of the Aviation Day committee, Payne said Kennedy and Leet were quickly subbed in for the wing-walkers in the air show line-up.

By noon, Payne said he was confident that this year’s attendance would be a record, exceeding last year’s 3,500 and the inaugural crowd of 5,000 in 2014. He previously had predicted the event could draw 10,000 people this year.

The airport was so crowded at times that some spectators were forced to park on the IUPUC campus more than a half of a mile away, which Payne said he was not expecting.

With the airport flooded with fascinated spectators unable to pull their eyes away from the sky, Payne said he is convinced that the addition of the airshow was a determining factor in the size of the crowd.

By the numbers

Aviation Day 2016

  • More than 5,000 spectators
  • Two airshows with four pilots
  • Temperatures in excess of 90 degrees
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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.