Airpower Over Hampton Roads 2006 Review
Friday 5th May - Sunday 7th May
Each year, Langley AFB, the main USAF fighter base on the US East Coast, is home to one of the major airshows in the entire USA. This event is called the Air Power over Hampton Roads, and it's always a good bet to pack some of the most impressive displays you'll see anywhere. I've seen some members on our message boards describe it as an "USAF Oceana", and I agree it has many things in common with that splendid Navy airshow. For starters, most of the interesting stuff you'll see during the weekend is home-based, since both bases are loaded with front-line fighters. In both cases, the sun will be at your back almost all day long, providing excellent photo opportunities. On-base parking is allowed on both airbases, making the trek from your car to the flightline shorter and faster. The static displays won't excite anybody. And the flying will be almost non-stop, with some unusual formations you won't see anywhere else…
travels all the way to Virginia once more to see the new F-22A Raptors shake the ground at the 2006 Air Power over Hampton Roads. All photos by the author.
For the third time in the last 18 months, I crossed an airbase in Virginia with an "X" in my map, and prepared myself for a long trip to the US. After considering attending again this year the Joint Service Open House in Andrews AFB (a 250-mile trip by car from NYC), which got the nod in May last year, I decided that was way too easy (yeah, right!), and set course to a city called Hampton, 450 miles away from the Big Apple. Hampton, if you never heard of it, is the place where one can find Langley AFB, some 40 miles from Virginia Beach and NAS Oceana. Home of the 1st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB is roughly to the USAF what NAS Oceana represents to the Navy: the main fighter base in the East Coast. It seemed logical to conclude, or so I thought, that such a place had to have a great airshow. With that in mind, I made the necessary arrangements, and boarded a commercial flight in Rio on my way to NYC, crossing my fingers my logic wasn't flawed. And (thankfully) it was not.
After spending the better part of one day (and having being subjected to torrential rain while doing so) driving the 450 miles or so, and enduring the madness that is Washington D.C's I-495 (locally known as the Beltway) during rush hour (it's just one endless traffic jam), I managed to arrive at Langley AFB during the night airshow. It was a bit frustrating to find out I had missed all the twilight displays due to the aforementioned traffic gridlock, but at least the displays in the dark had not started yet. Manfred Radius' sailplane, Bill Leff's T-6, Scott Hammack's Air Force Reserve Jet Car, and Bill Reesman's MiG-17F then illuminated the sky with their landing lights, wing-mounted pyrotechnics, and, in the case of the last two, afterburners. All were very nice, yes, but after seeing the F-14 Tomcat brighten the sky a few times at night, hardly anything will match it. My familiarity with these displays didn't help their cause either, although I must stress that the MiG is always lovely at night, especially when her afterburner is engaged.
Saturday came with the threat of more heavy rain, according to most forecasts. So it was a happy surprise to wake up and not find one cloud in the blue sky. Driving to the airbase under bright sunshine, I realized upon arrival that it appears to be much smaller than NAS Oceana. Instead of four runways, there is only one at Langley, and its west threshold is much closer to the fence, making it very easy to see the F-15s on quick reaction duty parked near it. I had no problems getting in (or out of the base, for that matter) all three days, and the on-base parking required just a short walk in order to get to the display area. Kudos to the organizers for this excellent arrangement, which created no long queues, and helped maximize everyone's enjoyment of the airshow.
Saturday's flying displays started with Bill Leff's T-6 routine, which is probably one of the best you'll see being performed by that classic WWII trainer. Chuck Lischer's SIAI Marchetti F-260C display followed, and I have to confess I didn't pay much attention to it, since it was never one of my favourites. Unfortunately, it was also the last display from Chuck I had the opportunity to see, since he died flying a BD-5 a month ago. It really struck me afterwards that we never know what might happen in the future, so we really have to thank and admire all the performers who are constantly risking their lives in order to provide us the best displays possible. Chuck was one such person, and he'll be missed.
A black L-39 flown by Art Nalls was next, and, like all other L-39 displays I've seen, the Albatros lacks enough engine power to provide any real kind of excitement. Lots of power, however, was provided by the first military display of the day, courtesy of a Canadian CF-18A Hornet. Now sporting an absolutely gorgeous tail with maple leaf markings, this Hornet from the 425th Tactical Fighter Squadron "Alouettes", flown by Capt. William "Fat Daddy" Radiff, flew what can better be described as an "average" display. It had nothing on the wonderful routines flown by Canadian pilots in the not-too-distant past. Besides the roll on takeoff and the square loop, little impressed me, although the recently included topside pass afforded an excellent photo opportunity. Not that I'm saying that it was bad, because it was not, but I was expecting more.
I confess I enjoyed more the aircraft that followed the Hornet, which is nowadays a common performer at most US east coast airshows: the B-25 Panchito. Panchito is probably one of the nicest Mitchells currently airworthy, and arguably the best flown B-25s in the airshow circuit. I never thought I'd ever managed to take a topside shot of a B-25, but the crew made it possible. Thank you Panchito pilots - you are the best!
Frank Ryder's Cyclone aerobatic monoplane and Scott Hammack's already-mentioned jet truck followed Panchito, and gave way later to John Mohr's beautiful stock PT-17 Stearman and the always impressive B-2A Spirit. I'm a big fan of John Mohr and would like to see him more at airshows. His snap roll soon after takeoff at extremely low altitude is a maneouvre I've never seen anywhere else perform, and his routine is one that makes me believe the old barnstorming days would have been really fun! Nothing could provide a bigger contrast to that Stearman than the mighty B-2 that arrived soon afterwards over Langley. Instead of some distant passes, the ‘Spirit of Washington' overflew the crowd three times, providing some of the best photo opportunities I've ever seen from this stealth bomber.
After the B-2, the home boys finally had the chance to show their hot machines, and the first two that took off are the hottest in the business today: the brand-new F-22A Raptor, which is currently being flown by the Langley-based 27th Fighter Squadron. Its 70.000lbs+ of thrust made an immediate impression, shaking the ground as they came past the crowd. The two F-15s that followed also packed a lot of power, but the Raptor is definitely the noisiest fighter I've ever seen (or heard, for that matter). They were initially scrambled to fly an exercise together, but came back later to buzz the airbase while simulating missed approaches. Besides the Navy Air Power Demo at Oceana, no other airshow can boast a display as impressive as this one. It was worth the trouble of going to Langley by itself. But there was much more, of course.
While the Raptors and the Eagles were away, Jim LeRoy's Bulldog, a heavily modified Pitts S-2S biplane, pulled a few stunts only Jim, a former Marine, is able to perform today. The Golden Knights' Fokker F-27 later took off, and the team's jumpers showcased the Golden Knights' trademark precision while landing. After those fighters landed, the airshow continued with some team performances by the Geico Skytypers' T-6s and the Red Eagle Air Sports' couple of Pitts Specials.
More noise was soon to follow, first in the shape of the Cavanaugh Air Museum's pristine F4U-5N Corsair, and later in the form of a USN VFA-106 F/A-18C Hornet from the East Coast Demo Team. Flown by Lt. Jason "Padi" Naidyhorski, it was a quite better display than the ones we're used to see from the Legacy Hornet boys, but it still can't touch the superb Super Hornet demo performed by, uh, the same squadron. These two aircraft later joined to fly a very nice Tailhook Legacy Flight, which is a great addition to any airshow. Unfortunately, that was all the USN brought to Langley this year - not one aircraft was on static display. With NAS Oceana so close, one has to wonder the reason for this lack of support, and it helps to explain why the USAF doesn't send more aircraft to Virginia Beach later in the year…
A wing walking act was also included in the schedule, and Gene Soucy happily took his partner Teresa Stokes for a ride atop the Grumman Showcat in what is arguably the best such display in the entire USA. The X-Team extravaganza was next, and here Jim LeRoy and John Mohr played the role formerly occupied by the late greats Jimmy Franklin and Booby Younkin, bringing a few tears to my eyes. Those tears were quickly wiped off my face by the takeoff of the aircraft that later performed the USAF Heritage Flight. Ed Shipley's F-86 Sabre went up first, being followed by an F-22, which attempts to cause collective deafness every time it takes off (not that we don't like that, though!). Next in the air was the A-10 flown by the East Coast Demo Team pilot, Capt. Jeff Yost, whose performance was in line with what we expect to see from a Warthog demo these days. Finally, Maj. Jason "Bondo" Costello took the East Coast Demo team's F-15C for the penultimate demo by an Eagle over its home base (the last demo was on Sunday). Next year, Langley will have only a Raptor team, and the Eagle will be only a good memory. That was definitely not the case this year, with the Eagle performing a very tight demo which seemed closer to the public than usual.
Moments after these two demos, it was time for the Heritage Flight to join formation, and those four planes performed a total of four passes, two over the public. After their break, we were treated to a few more fast passes at low altitude by all aircraft involved, the Raptor again being by far and away the most impressive of them. But that was not the end of the show. Quite the opposite, as Patty Wagstaff and her Extra 300 and Bill Reesman's MiG-17 made clear with two exciting displays. Last in the air were the Thunderbirds and their new female left wing, Capt. Nicole Malachowski, which appeared to be already in mid-season form. On Sunday, we had almost the same displays on the schedule, but the weather was horrible, forcing the Thunderbirds and almost all other acts to fly their low routines.
I haven't said anything about the static displays, but that was on purpose, because there isn't much to be said. They failed to impress me (why do airshows in Virginia never have static displays on a par with the flying, by the way?), the tarmac being dominated by a C-17, B-1, and B-52. Probably the juiciest items were a pair of German Tornado IDS(T) from GAFFTC and a Raptor with 1st FW markings. Anyway, this was an airshow I have rated highly, and I'd love to have the opportunity to attend it again in the future.