If you like powerful machines and loud noises, this is the weekend for you: Seattle’s annual Seafair festival comes to a climax with the splash of unlimited hydroplane races and the roar of jet-powered aerobatics by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels.
What’s the best way to see the show? And what’s the inside story on those non-fighting fighter jets? We’ve put together a few guidelines for geeks, plus a video tour of a F/A-18 Hornet jet hosted by Lt. Ryan Chamberlain, one of the Blue Angels’ pilots.
Where and when? The hydroplane boat competition, officially known as the Seafair Cup, takes place on Lake Washington from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The last day is the biggest day for the races, with the finals scheduled at 4:45 p.m. Sunday. The Boeing Seafair Air Show takes over the skies from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Friday, and there’ll be aerial activities from 12:25 to 4:20 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The highlights are the aerobatic demonstrations by the Blue Angels, which take place around 1:15 p.m. each day. The I-90 floating bridge will be closed from 1:15 to 2:40 p.m. Friday through Sunday, so if you need to get across the lake, go significantly earlier or later than those times to avoid the traffic jam.
By land or by sea? One way to watch the show is to buy tickets to get into Genesee Park on the Seattle lakeshore. The prices range from $10 to $35. Parking can be even pricier than the tickets, so you might want to consider riding your bike or taking Uber, a taxi or public transit. (Metro’s Route 27 comes closest, and Sound Transit is running free shuttles from the Columbia City light-rail station.) There are other viewpoints along the lakeshore, in Seattle or on Mercer Island – but be prepared to face mobs of spectators and police-enforced roadblocks. If you have a boat, it’ll cost you $450 to $700 to tie up to the Accutint Seattle Seafair Logboom.
Go high or go low? When the skies are clear, the Blue Angels zoom up to altitudes as high as 15,000 feet, tracing arcs of smoke as they rise. But when visibility is low, the pilots may stay as low as 1,000 feet for what’s called a “flat show.” The highest likelihood for a flat show comes on Sunday, when cloudy skies and rain are in the forecast. Either way, get ready to rumble. “There’s actually an extra ‘sneak pass’ that takes place,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t want to tell you about it, because it’s all about surprise. But if you come out and watch the show, I assure you that you will know when it happens.”
How old are those planes? Those Boeing-built Hornets are about 30 years old, and that means they need a lot of maintenance. “It’s something that keeps us running all the time,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Zach Goodnight, a member of the maintenance team. In June, one of the Blue Angels’ pilots was killed in a plane crash during a practice session in Tennessee. The crash is still under investigation, so the Blue Angels aren’t talking about the impact of the tragedy. But the Seafair show has been revised to make use of five jets rather than the usual six. There’s talk that the team will be switching to the more advanced F/A-18E Super Hornets next year. For what it’s worth, the Blue Angels’ planes are modified to remove the weaponry and add the smoke tanks.
How loud can it get? Studies conducted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found that hydroplane boats can get as loud as 107.8 decibels, and the noise level of a jet engine can go as high as 120 decibels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says exposure to 100 decibels of noise for more than 15 minutes can cause permanent hearing loss. The loudness of Seafair’s sounds can vary widely depending on location, but just to be safe, Swedish Medical Center recommends that you pack some earplugs.