MCAS Yuma Airshow 2009 Review
Saturday 14th March
With the start of the UK airshow season still some months away and the March weather showing few signs of the impending Spring, the hapless British photographer is forced to travel slightly further afield to seek out blue skies and sunshine. The South Western US is the perfect destination - with fine weather all year round and plentiful airfields, packed with interesting and unusual types, Arizona really does have it all, as far as the aviation enthusiast is concerned. The airshow season in this part of the world starts early - it has to, as the temperatures are simply too high in the Summer months to stage a large outdoor event. As it was, in early March, the temperature reached 27 C and shade was very much at a premium.
packed his sun cream and headed to MCAS Yuma, Arizona, for the annual airshow. All photos by the author.
MCAS Yuma is home to Marine Aircraft Group 13 (MAG-13), with four attack squadrons and a logistic squadron falling under its command. The main type based at Yuma is the ever popular McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, operated by VMA-211 'Wake Island Avengers'; VMA-214 'The Blacksheep'; VMA-311 'The Tomcats' and VMA-513 'The Flying Nightmares'. The Harriers are supported by Marine Air Logistics Squadron 13 (MALS-13) 'Black Widows.' Also based at Yuma, but not part of MAG-13 are VMFT-401, an adversary unit equipped with the F-5E/F, and a HQ Squadron, operating the HH-1 Iroquois and tasked with search and rescue over the Yuma ranges.
MCAS Yuma opens its doors in March and holds an airshow with this year being the 47th annual airshow held there. The show predominately involves USMC aircraft, but with the addition of types from the US Navy, USAF and US Army along with a variety of civilian owned warbirds. There was also international military participation this year, in the form of a single Luftwaffe Tornado, from German Air Force Flying Training Center, based at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.
In common with all US shows, there were no barriers around the aircraft in the static display - excellent to be able to get up close to the aircraft, but hard work for the photographer. Centrepiece of the static display was the "home team" of USMC aircraft. These ranged from a brand new KC-130J from VMGR-352 "Raiders", to a collection of helicopters, including a mighty CH-53D Sea Stallion, an AH-1 Cobra, a pair of UH-1s and a CH-46 Sea Knight. Also represented in the lineup was the very impressive MV-22 Osprey. This aircraft is now operational and has seen active service in Iraq in the last 12 months.
Marine fast jets were also well represented, with an F/A-18C from VMFA-232 at MCAS Miramar, along with AV-8Bs from VMA-214, VMA-311 and VMA-513. The remaining squadron at Yuma, VMA-211, is currently deployed to Iwakuni, Japan, as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. The main role of Marine Corps aviation is support of the US Marines on the ground and as such their aircraft were configured for close air support (CAS) with the LITENING III targeting pod. This pod is becoming virtually a permanent attachment for USMC aircraft, especially the Harriers, where the pod tends to be carried on the starboard inner pylon. In fact, VMA-513 have recently been involved in an evaluation program, to allow carriage of the pod on the centreline (in common with the RAF Harrier GR9), freeing up the wing pylon for more weapons carriage, although the aircraft on display carried the pod in the usual location.
The US Army was represented by a display from the Yuma Proving Grounds, an extensive weapons and equipment testing range to the North of the city of Yuma. They brought a pair of interesting aircraft, including a rare Cessna O-2 Skymaster, one of only two left in US military service. Along with the Skymaster, there was also a smart UH-1, painted in a desert sand colour scheme, and an extensive display of vehicles and equipment, including an SS-2 "Scud" missile and launcher! USAF participation came in the form of a KC-135 from March ARB and a pair of California ANG F-16C Fighting Falcons, carrying their unit's very smart eagle tail design.
Yuma's location close to the Mexican border means that there is a strong presence in the area from the US Customs and Border Patrol. Yuma is home to a flying unit of the US Customs and Border Protection, equipped with a variety of surveillance aircraft and helicopters, including the Bell UH-1, Eurocopter EC120 and AS350, all of which were on display at the airshow.
The remainder of the static display featured a selection of civilian owned warbirds and light aircraft, dominated by the Commemorative Air Force's B-17G Flying Fortress "Sentimental Journey". This aircraft is operated by the Arizona Wing of the CAF, based at Falcon Field, in the suburbs of Phoenix. Also of interest were a collection of former Eastern bloc aircraft, including a MiG-21, owned by the San Diego Museum of Flight and an Aero L-39, carrying a smart grey camouflage scheme, with the Arizona flag on the tip of the tail.
The flying display was in two parts, with a break for lunch in between. The display was opened by a demo team from the nearby Military Freefall School, who jumped from their C-41 (CASA 212) aircraft at an altitude of 12,500ft, a luxury rarely afforded to the RAF Falcons display team in the UK. After the team had landed, the C-41 made a very welcome flypast, with the visiting photographers keen to photograph this rare aircraft, one of only six in US military service.
Next up was Rob Harrison in his Zlin 50LX Tumbling Bear. Rob gave a very good display of aerobatics, but his display was somewhat let down by the distance of the display line from the crowd, meaning the aircraft was slightly lost. This is a perennial problem for most aerobatic displays at large airfields and slightly detracts from the obviously skilful flying on display.
The home team now made their first appearance of the day, with the departure of a pair of adversary F-5Es, from VMFAT-401. They were followed by a HH-1N 'Huey' from the Headquarters Squadron, which performed a search and rescue demo, lowering a crewman down on the winch to pick up a "casualty" from in front of the crowd, and then flying around with the casualty and crewman suspended underneath the helicopter, smiling and waving to the crowd.
More aerobatics followed from Melissa Andrzejewski in the Edge 540. Melissa is based in San Francisco, was the youngest ever member of the US Unlimited Aerobatic Team and at 24 years old, remains the youngest female pilot on the air show circuit. Melissa gave a very good display, which was let down once again by distance form the crowd.
The two F-5E Tigers which had departed earlier then returned with a bang - quite literally, as their first pass was very close to being supersonic! The F-5s were a very welcome sight, but remained high during their short slot, which consisted of only 2 passes, before the pair landed. VMFT-401 is the only adversary unit in the US Marines and acts as the 'bad guys' during the regular exercises held at Yuma.
The next demo continued the modern military theme, with a spirited display from the US Navy F/A-18C Hornet. The 'Legacy' Hornet (F/A-18C/D) is the primary attack aircraft in the US Marine Corps, and also remains a very important aircraft for the US Navy, despite being supplemented by the newer F-18E/F Super Hornet. The display aircraft was provided by VFA-125 at NAS Lemoore, which is responsible for training Navy and Marine Corps pilots onto the earlier model Hornet. The display was well flown, with a highlight being a simulated carrier landing and 'bolter' right in front of the crowd.
Something of a commotion then occurred on the crowd line, when a 'redneck', dressed in dungarees and a tatty baseball cap attempted to make off with a bright yellow Piper Cub! It soon became apparent that this man, Clem Cleaver from Alabama, was part of the show, as he took off in the Cub, and performed a bizarre sequence of truly dreadful, but extremely entertaining flying! Cleaver is the creation of long time airshow performer Greg Koontz and is best compared to Les Dawson and his legendary piano playing - to fly that badly, you have to be a REALLY good pilot! The superb display of uncoordinated turns and rapid climbs and descents culminated with Greg landing the Cub on the world's smallest runway - the back of a pickup truck! This was a superb display and a pleasant interlude before the next fast jet display. It was also genuinely funny and different and very much enjoyed by the crowd.
Next up, it was back to the military hardware, with the USMC AV-8B demo, provided by VMA-311. It has been several years since the British public have witnessed a Harrier display and I for one, had not realised how much I missed the aircraft, and its unique demo. The AV-8B demo was a welcome reminder of what should be in store for the 2009 UK airshow circuit, with the return of the 20(R) Sqn display. The aircraft which performed the display carried the code number 310 on the nose, to which had been appropriately added "From Yuma"!
The AV-8B demo included most of the Harrier's repertoire, starting with a couple of fast passes, before decelerating, and commencing the vertical segment of the demo. After a couple of pirouettes and some sideways and backwards flying, the pilot landed the aircraft vertically on the runway threshold, pointing at the crowd. Unusually, after sitting there for about a minute, the aircraft powered up again, and performed a vertical take off, certainly a rarity for a Harrier demo. After a 180 degree turn, the aircraft departed with a 'Farley Climb', which never fails to impress, before joining the circuit for a regular landing.
The Harrier demo brought the first part of the show to a close, and it was time for the lunch break. Food was in plentiful supply, especially with the attendance of the 'World's Largest Grill. Period.' from Johnsonville Brats, a semi trailer devoted entirely to the grilling of hotdogs!
The afternoon session was opened by a second jump by the Military Freefall School Parachute Demo team, again from their CASA C-41, which departed for Laguna AAF after dropping the parachutists. This demo was followed by Jon Melby in the Pitts S-1-11B, appropriately sponsored by Verve energy drink! Another good, tight aerobatic display, performed a long way from the crowd, again through no fault of the pilot. Sadly, displays by such aircraft always lack the presence to truly impress in a large venue.
The USMC provided a refuelling demo next, with a KC-130, accompanied by two VMA-513 'Flying Nightmares' Harriers, one of which was the CO's specially marked aircraft. Although the demo was performed at quite a high altitude, it was impressive to see one of the jets actually plugged in to the tanker.
After a short pause, the crowd was treated to a quite unusual spectacle - a flypast by a pair of B-1B Lancers! This had been billed in the program as a solo flypast, so the appearance of two aircraft was unexpected and most welcome. After performing the flypast, the pair split, and a single aircraft returned for two passes, one initially at low speed, then at high speed, with the wings fully swept. There really are very few more impressive aircraft than the Lancer, with its size and presence, and the appearance of these aircraft was much appreciated by the crowd.
The USAF also provided the next item in the display, the Air Force Heritage Demo. Such demos are becoming more and more common at airshows in the US, but they are still very welcome. The demo at Yuma was provided by an F-16 from Hill AFB, Utah and P-51 Wee Willy II. Incidentally, the commentator informed the crowd that the F-16 departed from Hill AFB the previous day, during a snow shower! With the mid-afternoon sun being directly overhead and the temperature touching 27 C , Utah seemed a million miles away.
The F-16 displayed first, and in fact was quite a tame display, being fairly high and distant. When joined by the P-51 though, the formation was, of course, immaculate and very impressive. The formation offered an interesting comparison between the two of the most successful aircraft of their respective generations.
Final item of the display was was the "Tora, Tora, Tora" re-enactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The demo was performed by six American trainers (AT-6s and BT-13s) modified and painted to resemble Japanese aircraft, along with liberal use of pyrotechnics and smoke. The display was good and featured plenty of bangs, but the final "Wall of Fire" was very impressive indeed. Billed as a world record attempt, the wall of fire was 10,000 ft long (most of the runway length) and provided a fitting finale to the show.
MCAS Yuma Airshow 2009 proved to be an excellent display, attracting as it did, interesting participation from all branches of the US military. The contribution from the USMC was particularly impressive, including almost all of their aircraft types in the static display, along with many unusual types in the flying demo. The participation of the adversary F-5s was particularly welcome, as was the excellent AV-8B demo. The overall atmosphere was excellent too, with the Marines providing a friendly and professional presence throughout, rather belying their fearsome reputation! For the British visitor, the show provided an excellent opportunity to see some unfamiliar aircraft, along with a little bit of Winter sunshine. This, along with plenty of other aviation attractions within an hour or two by car means this part of Arizona will always be a popular stop for the aviation enthusiast.