California Capital Airshow 2006 Review
Saturday 18th March - Sunday 19th March
When I was in Los Angeles on business in March, visiting an airshow was the last thing on my mind. I'd figured that it would be far too early in the year for an airshow, even in the warm climate of California. However a quick search on the Internet showed the error of my thinking and so, determined to visit my first American Airshow, I made the long trip from LA to Mather Airport, on the outskirts of Sacramento.
reports for UK Airshow Review. All photography by the author.
During the Cold War, Mather Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Sacramento California, was a training centre for navigators, with B-52s and C-135s regularly thundering down its 11,000 ft runway. Following its closure in 1993 it was converted into a civilian airport, and on the weekend of March 18/19 2006 the US military were once again welcomed back to Mather Field as it hosted the first California Capital Airshow.
After choosing to go on Sunday I was soon confronted by my first sign of the airshow; a 3 mile tailback onto the freeway!! As the traffic was at a complete standstill, and I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't actually get onto the Airport, I abandoned the car at a handily located McDonalds and made my way on foot.
Fortunately it wasn't a problem that I didn't know where I was going as I was able to just follow the snaking queue of cars. As I trudged along the side of the road I had the constant worry that we all have when we're running late for a show and don't know the exact time that flying will start; that we're going to miss the beginning! Sure enough, at around 12.15 and still well outside the Airport, I heard the roar of a jet engine and looked up to see a brightly coloured L-39 getting into the air. It was Rich Perkins in the 'Firecat' starting the display and it served to make me redouble my efforts to get to the show.
Fortunately I reached the entry gates of the show before the next performer took to the air and, after negotiating a frankly chaotic ticket line, I was finally able to get into the show. As I made my way towards the crowdline I was acutely aware that I was missing yet another display, this time Michael Hunter's aerobatics in a Laser 230. Upon reaching the crowdline and finding it 50 feet deep in people I found myself a good position at the left end of the runway and made myself comfortable for the rest of the display.
So, it was on with the show. A U.S Army HH-60 Blackhawk in medevac configuration gave a rescue demonstration before clearing the flightline for the next aerobatic routine - Tim Decker in a Pitts S2-B. Tim is a veteran of the US airshow scene, being a former display pilot of the F-117, and he performed a high energy display showing off the aerobatic capabilities of the Pitts. We were then treated to several formation flypasts from a pair of T-34A Talons from Beale AFB that had earlier got airbourne. Once they had safely recovered it was back to the aerobatics with an SU-26. Displayed by Nikolay Timofeev, winner of numerous aerobatic awards, including 3 Gold Medals at the World Aerobatic Championships, this was a decidedly European display with Nikolay putting the Sukhoi through its paces as only the best can.
The time then came for some performers from a little closer to home, with aircraft from the US Coast Guard units at Humboldt Bay and Sacramento. In a Search and Rescue demo the C-130 and HH-65A combined to spot and then airlift to safety a 'missing sailor' before finishing with an attempt at a formation flypast; no mean feat considering the two aircraft involved! Next up was the Chuck Lischer flying an F-260 Warrior. The Warrior is a light attack aircraft and Chuck's aircraft has an interesting history having been part of an illegal arms deal and appearing at the 1981 Paris Airshow. This was an aerobatic routine very different to Nikolays' with the high energy manoeuvres replaced by a smooth, graceful and almost jet-like display, characterised with huge loops and half-cubans being completed at very low level; very different to a European display.
Next up were the warbirds - Tom Camp's FM-2 Wildcat, Tony Banta's stable of fighters: the F8F-1 Bearcat; the P-40E Wildcat and P-51D Mustang and finally Chuck Wahl's T-28 Trojan. All 5 aircraft must rank among best presented warbirds on the airshow circuit but the pick of the bunch must be the Mustang 'Kimberly Kaye' which was in a league of its own with its mirror-finish bare metal skin gleaming in the sunshine. I'd been worried that I'd find their display tame but the sequence, with its tight, high speed tail-chases, meant I didn't know where to point my lens next! It gave some great photo opportunities and was riveting but without any of the high energy manoeuvres we tend to see in Europe which ends up fraying my nerves! I for one would have no problem if UK operators were to adopt this type of display for these classic aircraft.
As the warbirds cleared into the distance the A-10 Thunderbird II of the West Coast Demo Team took to the sky. Having seen the A-10 demo at RIAT a few years ago I wasn't expecting much, but once again I was surprised by a very impressive routine that kept the aircraft in front of the crowd utilising its trademark manoeuvrability. The A-10 then combined with Rich Gibson's 'Incredible Pyro' team to provide an even more graphic demonstration of its abilities. A couple of simulated strafing runs complete with ground explosions were then followed by the famous 'wall of fire'; a 200 foot wall of explosions producing enough heat to be felt even at the back of the crowd. A great top-side photo pass from the A-10 was then followed by P-51D 'Six-Shooter' clawing its way into the sky to formate with the A-10 and form the UASF Heritage Flight. A highlight of any show, the close formation flying of two such differing aircraft brought cheers and applause from the crowd before they flew directly overhead for an opposition split.
The passion of the crowd continued for the penultimate performer; Julie Clark. A 26 year veteran of the US airshow circuit, Julie performs a highly patriotic display in her T-34 Mentor 'Free Spirit'. To the sound of 'God Bless the USA' on the PA system, and trailing red, white and blue smoke throughout the display, she performed another US-style aerobatic routine combining loops and rolls with low level recoveries whilst dodging exploding fireworks. The climax of her display is to taxi to the centre of the crowdline and while the aircraft is still moving get out of the cockpit waving the Stars & Stripes!
And so it was time for the stars of the show; the US Navy's Demonstration Team, The Blue Angels. Performing only their 2nd show of 2006, and unfortunately without the support of 'Fat Albert', the Angels gave a typically polished display. Following the over-long ground portion of the routine, the six immaculate F/A-18 Hornets finally got into the air. There followed a tightly choreographed display with the team displaying a range of manoeuvres, from the four-ship Diamond Formation, the two solo pilots and as a six-ship Delta Formation. Perhaps the most impressive part of the routine was the unscheduled aircraft swap mid-show. One of the solo aircraft landed during the display and the pilot swapped into the spare aircraft before getting airbourne and resuming the display. All the while the other aircraft continued their usual manoeuvres; we might have missed the mirror pass as a result, but it was very slickly done! I was told later that the display was a little loose as it was so early in the season, so it's looking good for Leeuwarden in June then!
With that, the show was over. A quick look around the static before leaving revealed such gems as a U-2S from Beale AFB, a NASA F-18A, EA-6B and Aggressor marked F-5 among the usual USAF stalwarts such a B-52H, C-5A, C-130, C-17, KC-135R, KC-10, F/A-18, F-16 and T-38C.
And my overall feelings on my first American Airshow? A nightmare to get in and out of the show (a crowd of 100,000 on Sunday alone taking the organizers by surprise); catering facilities severely overstretched (an hour in a queue to get food!); and a seriously patriotic commentator (you think the demo team commentators at RIAT are OTT!). And on the flip side? A very enjoyable display with unusual performers and aircraft being displayed safely and for the benefit of the crowd, some great photo opportunities, just $15 to get in and sun all day. Will I be back? Well, maybe not to the Capital Airshow, but definitely to another American Airshow… and soon!