Crowd of 3,000-plus has head in the clouds during Salute! aerial concert theme at the airport

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Air Force veteran Tom Pickett talks about the history of Bakalar Air Base during the annual Salute! concert at the Columbus Municipal Airport in Columbus, Ind., Friday, May 24, 2024. Pickett was presented the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic Golden Baton Award for his dedication to music and the orchestra through the music store he owned in Columbus for more than five decades.

On a Friday night fittingly devoted to an aerial military theme at Columbus Municipal Airport, a crowd estimated at more than 3,000 people seemingly had their heads in the clouds.

And just as important, those were clouds that held back their rain for the most part on a night with temperatures comfortably in the mid-70s.

So it was at the annual free Columbus Indiana Philharmonic Salute! patriotic concert to honor veterans. The extravaganza has become a key event through the years to kick off the area’s Memorial Day weekend. That happens partly via a set of 105mm Indiana National Guard howitzers that boom during the orchestra’s presentation of “The 1812 Overture.”

The pomp and pageantry is a regular feature of the concert’s grand spectacle — one that attendee and Vietnam veteran David Yeley has come to appreciate.

“I just like the respect and appreciation that people who have served their country receive here,” Yeley said looking over the throng spread before him next to Ray Boll Boulevard. “This is a much better experience now than what we experienced at the time we first came home (in the 1970s).”

The experience that unfolded right next to the airport’s C-119 Flying Boxcar and an Air Force jet seemed to earn a sharp salute from many in attendance — people who said they liked this new concert location better than the tighter space downtown at the Bartholomew County Memorial For Veterans.

In the new space, needed because of construction at the Bartholomew County Courthouse, there was more room for attendees to spread out, more room for food trucks, and much less sound system reverberation off nearby structures. Part of that was due to a new audio system, according to Donnie Robinette, the orchestra’s executive director.

An added plus was that the airport included what seemed to be closer parking, especially important for the older segment of attendees such as veterans.

The evening’s conductor was also new. Music director Isaac Selya led the professional ensemble for the first time at the performance, decked in red shoes, white jeans and a bright blue shirt for an All-American appeal.

Adding still more to the new feel were Selya’s selections for the two opening pieces with a focus on heroism — “Legend of Zelda Suite” from the video game, among Selya’s favorite games as a youngster, and a “Lord of the Rings” medley that seemed to convey stirring battle elements with percussion and more.

“Now, for the real heroes here,” Selya said, before the ensemble launched into the songs of each military branch as veterans stood to applause.

A special honoree for the night was beloved Columbus musician and businessman Tom Pickett, who earned the Philharmonic’s Golden Baton Award for his service to the group through the years. Pickett, 93, stepped to the mic and reminisced a bit about working during his U.S. Air Force stint in the soon-to-be replaced control tower at the airport during its days as Bakalar Air Force Base.

Joyfully watching the night’s spectacle unfold from the front row were Concord, North Carolina, residents Michael and Liza Sullivan, who come here nearly every year to attend the event with family.

Michael Sullivan, a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged that the Huey helicopter that landed just before the concert caught him in a whirl of emotions on a weekend devoted to such nationwide.

“I think that one of the big reasons that we like this so much,” Liza Sullivan said, “is that people here really do remember.”