NAS Oceana Air Show 2006 Review
Friday 8th September - Sunday 10th September
Not since Concorde has the retirement of an aircraft type resulted in so much interest, and the US Navy's decision to decommission the last of its F-14 Tomcats later this year meant that the NAS Oceana Airshow, held across the 8th-10th September, 2006, was the last chance enthusiasts from all over the world would have to see this thoroughbred in the air.
In order to cover every detail of such a remarkable and historic event,headed to the home of the US Navy's last pure fighter, where he enjoyed a fantastic airshow and had a great time watching the Tomcat being displayed to the general public for the very last time. Photography by the author and .
Door-to-door it was a 22hr journey from London to Virginia, and after having negotiated the perils of the intensely zealous US immigration officials, the fact that Americans don't like cars with manual gearboxes or food with less fat than Michelle McManus's fridge, it's fair to say that I wanted NAS Oceana 2006 to deliver the goods. Namely, I wanted Tomcats. This wasn't a last-minute decision to jump on a plane but it wasn't far off. Six weeks previously, I'd been watching my Top Gun DVD and thought it was high time I saw an F-14 or two in the flesh. After all, with the type's retirement on October 4, it really was, to quote Elvis "now or never".
The show took place across three days, Friday to Sunday. Friday was a non-public rehearsal and show for invited media and VIPs, although the enthusiasts without media accreditation could and did use a spot across Oceana Blvd. to enjoy the show from a different and sometimes more interesting perspective. It was later followed by the spectacle of an evening airshow, for which the local populace were allowed in. One or two hearts sank when Friday morning came, and press accreditation was collected beneath grey, sullen skies. Surely the weather gods wouldn't spoil our fun?
Under a canopy of whitish-grey mush the Friday rehearsal took place. It provided our first glimpse of 'live' Tomcats during the weekend, and we weren't disappointed. Four of the VF-31 Tomcatters' beasts took their place in the practice for the Fleet Fly-by and subsequent Air Power Demonstration. While not being good for photographs, the rehearsal at least prepared us for potential photo opportunities across the show weekend.
The weather cleared sufficiently by early afternoon to allow some good pictures of Dale "Snort" Snodgrass flying an F-86F Sabre in tight formation with Maj. Jason "Bondo" Costello, the F-15C's 2005/2006 East Coast Demo Team's pilot. Dale Snodgrass, if you've never heard anything about him, is quite a legend in the Tomcat community, being simply the highest time F-14 pilot with over 4800 hours in the Cat, and, more importantly to naval aviators, 1200-plus arrested landings. Although he has been retired for quite some time now, he hasn't lost any of his flying abilities, as his trademark insanely low passes will let you quickly know. Those passes, by the way, are great for photography, but not-so-great if you're of a nervous disposition…
Another first for me, besides watching the Tomcats for the first time in the air, was seeing the legendary Blue Angels - they rounded off the day's rehearsal with a stunning display. I've always been a staunch backer of the Red Arrows' claims to be the best display team in the world, but having seen the Blues flying their Hornets in the way they do, I've certainly had to reassess that ranking. 2006 is a landmark year for the team, marking 60 years of existence, being first established with F6F Hellcats at NAS Jacksonville back in 1946. Under the able leadership of Cdr. Stephen Foley since November 2004, the Blue Angels, besides their usual and always impressive ultra-tight diamond formations, incorporated into their routine this year some maneouvres not seen lately, or not seen together in the same display in the last few years. The four- and six-ship breaks and crosses at show center were particularly nice and provided a superb photo opportunity when the number 2 Hornet had to break over the public.
Friday evening's show was the perfect time to photograph the static display, since the low sun in the horizon provided some nice yellowish colours which made the static displays even prettier, and the crowds weren't so huge, so there were few people blocking our attempts of a clean shot (a huge problem in the US, where most aircraft are not surrounded by barriers). It was small by European show standards, but pretty much every item was a gem. There were, among others, an 89th FTS T-37B, two T-38s (a USAF 7th CTS black-painted T-38A and a white USNTPS T-38C), an TH-6B (also from the US Naval Test Pilots' School), an F/A-18E from VFA-137 "Kestrels", an F/A-18C from VFA-87 "Golden Warriors" (which will go to VFC-12, while VFA-87 will receive the lower-time F/A-18A+ from that squadron), an E-2C from VAW-125 "Tigertails", an C-2A from VRC-40 "Rawhides", a P-3C from VP-30 "Pro's Nest", a C-9B from VR-56, two Arkansas ANG F-16Cs from the 184th FS, an F-16B and an F-15E from the 40th FLTS, an KC-135R from the 22nd ARW, and an F-117A from the 9th FS, not to mention an F-22A Raptor from the 1st FW (which, on the Saturday received the unwelcome attention of three anti-war protestors, who climbed on its wing, despite this being only one aircraft that actually had a rope around!).
There were a few key Navy absences, like the S-3B Viking, EA-6B Prowler, and T-45A Goshawk, and it was a shame that the static VF-32 "Swordsmen" Tomcat was a clearly decommissioned example, with blacked-out canopy and minus its engines. Cdr. Rich "Corky" Erie and his airshow staff deserve nothing but praise for the sensational job they do organizing and running what is one of the top three airshows in the world, but they didn't get much help from the squadron commanders at Oceana in that department. Since airshows are commonly said to be the best opportunity the Navy has to show the public the crucial and demanding job they perform, why not have a larger and more varied presence (like the Marines do at Miramar) in the static displays in order to allow the public to see that?
I'd never seen an evening airshow. Off the top of my head, only the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden do anything similar (and much more sedately) on 'our' side of the pond. Many of the show acts do a routine tailored for night-flying, including Canadian Ken Fowler in his homebuilt Harmon Rocket II, disabled hang-glider supremo Dan Buchanan and Bill Leff's highly-modified T-6 Texan (Harvard), which he raced against what was for many of the children at the show the 'star' item - Kent Shockley's Shockwave Jet Truck. Essentially, this is a Peterbilt truck with three J-85-GE-4 afterburning jet engines culled from a T-2 Buckeye nailed to the back, which allow it to reach speeds of over 350mph. As well as fast food and guns, the Americans love anything that makes smoke, noise and fire. The Jet Truck does all three.
The highlight of the evening show for me was seeing the Blue Angels support aircraft, C-130T Hercules "Fat Albert", perform a rocket-assisted take-off. With the sky now nearly completely dark, it was quite a sight to see the large transport aircraft suddenly propelled into the air on a cushion of fire!
Saturday's public displays started with aerobatics from the famous Patty Wagstaff in her Extra 300 and from Allen H. Smith, III in his Aero L-39C. The military displays started with the E-2C+ Hawkeye Demo that really marked the start of the show. Just like in 2005, it was performed by VAW-120 "Greyhawks", the sole E-2C Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). The display was flown using an E-2C+, a Hawkeye 2000 with the eight-bladed NP-2000 propeller, by Lt. Karl "Francis" Horner (pilot), Lt. Dave "Poop" Killian (co-pilot) and Lt. Jeff "Sunshine" Holser on Saturday, while on Sunday the narrator the day before, Lt. Tom "Boomhower" Woodside, flew the display with the aforementioned two pilots while Lt. Holser performed the commentary duties. If you have never had the chance to see a Hawkeye display, you will be impressed, since this is a very polished display, flown with lots of energy and some seriously tight turns. It allows one to have a good idea about the Hawkeye's capabilities, including its short field performance. But the following act was what most everybody wanted to see.
The Fleet Flyby and the Navy Air Power Demonstration are probably the highlight of the airshow. This year, the crowds were treated to the spectacle of watching 13 aircraft takeoff in quick succession: two VFA-34 "Blue Blasters" and two VFA-87 "Golden Warriors" F/A-18C Hornets, four VFA-11 "Red Rippers" and one VFA-106 "Gladiators" F/A-18F Super Hornets, and four VF-31's "Tomcatters" F-14D Tomcats, the "last `Cats standing". After a short while, they flew once by the crowd in a tight and remarkably beautiful 12-ship formation, soon followed by VFA-106's F/A-18F's fast pass and the always impressive wall of fire. It was a magnificent sight. Sadly it will be remembered as the last one of its kind ever, since no F-14 will ever again take part in it.
Those 12 aircraft then bared their teeth with the Air Power Demonstration, a wonderful airfield attack set piece, complete with convincing pyrotechnics and lots of vapour forming on the aircraft due to the huge amount of moisture in the coastal air (although not as much as we had in 2005, and definitely not close to the ridiculous amount witnessed in 2004). Seeing the four VF-31 Tomcats come screaming in, dropping their 'ordnance' and pulling hard out of the combat zone is something that will live with me for a long, long time. It was a shame that the Tomcats didn't give us a little more, in terms of one or two passes down the crowdline before landing, but just to see them made the trip worthwhile.
To see the world's only civilian airworthy F-104 Starfighter take to the air was another huge bonus. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida with the Starfighters display team, the former Royal Canadian and Royal Norwegian Air Force blue-and-white painted two-seat CF-104D "Zipper", flown by Rick "Comrade" Svetkoff, gave a wonderful and graceful display. It was only due to be at the show as a static display item, but thankfully someone, somewhere made the decision to put the Starfighter in the flying programme. Like so many of the displays at Oceana, thought was clearly given to displaying the aircraft to its best advantage for the many photographers in the crowd. We were treated to several excellent topside passes, something many British display pilots could learn an awful lot from (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, I'm talking to you!). Seeing such an advanced and complex aircraft in the air is a testament to the superb work the whole Starfighters team performs each day. Plans are afoot for a four-ship F-104 team in the near future!
Current fast jets displayed during the weekend included the USAF F-15C, the USN F/A-18C Hornet, and USN F/A-18F Super Hornet. The Eagle demo was excellent, performing an almost identical routine to the one which earned such high praise at RIAT this year. This is, according to the USAF, the F-15C East Coast Demo Team's final year, With the F-22 Raptor demo scheduled to come on-line to replace it.
However, the two Hornet routines rather paled in comparison to the Swiss Air Force's Capt. Peter Reiner's superb RIAT Legacy Hornet performance and Boeing's Ricardo Traven's brutally stunning Super Hornet displays at Fairford and Farnborough.
Taking a leaf from the Air Force's book, the Navy's Tailhook Legacy Flight, composed of an F/A-18C Hornet (flown by VFA-106's Lt. Mark "Pack" Sand), a Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, and an Douglas AD Skyraider. It's always impressive to see this "then and now" formations - and the Navy thankfully don't insist on sticking that sickly song on the public address system while they're displaying!
The USAF supported the show with demos from its two publicly-acknowledged Stealth aircraft. An F-117A Nighthawk from the 9th FS gave an impressive display, featuring at least one semi-topside pass, complete with vapour forming on the wings - something unlikely to be seen outside of the States. And, on Sunday, an B-2A Spirit from the 509th BW managed two passes, though both were high and fairly distant.
The only overseas involvement came from the British Army's Red Devils parachute team, who jumped along with the US Army Special Command Black Daggers, with the jumps followed by the traditional singing of the national anthem. To the non-Americans in the crowd the intense patriotism and out-and-out jingoism might rather stick in the craw, but this is clearly a nation proud of itself and its military, and coming on the weekend of the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, you can't really blame them for their defiant displays of nationalism.
Of lesser interest to the foreign enthusiast, especially those who mainly follow military aviation, were the several civilian items in the flying displays. As well as those already mentioned, they included the SNJ-equipped Geico Skytypers team (which are always a popular display, especially due to their computer-programmed messages they are able to write in the sky), and Greg Shelton's Super Stearman (flown firstly on his own, and later in the day with wing walker Ashley Battles). The flawless Blue Angels finished the flying on both show days, though by that time the sun had swung around far enough to make photography quite challenging, particularly when aircraft were coming from left to right in front of the public...
And so went my first taste of NAS Oceana. A superb trip, with the Tomcats living up to my every expectation. The American hosts were polite and friendly (no barging in front of people at the crowdline; someone always willing to keep your space should you need to dash off for a bite or a drink, or the result of the former!), and the show overall was excellent. Would I go again? Probably not now that the Tomcats have gone, as the rest of the US Navy inventory doesn't hold the same lure, but if you like US Navy aircraft (especially Hornets now) and want a good, relaxed airshow with some outstanding photographic opportunities, then Iwe heartily recommend you attending NAS Oceana 2007. You won't regret it!