MCAS Miramar Airshow Report

Friday 1st October - Sunday 3rd October 2010

Winner of the International Council of Air Shows, Dick Schram Memorial Community Relations Award in 2007, 1996 and 1993; this annual event held at MCAS Miramar near San Diego has a formidable reputation to uphold. This year's show was no exception, celebrating the 65th anniversary of the US Marine Corps invasion of Iwo Jima and the coining of the USMC phrase: A Tradition of Uncommon Valour. Culminating in the Marine Air-Ground Tactical Force (MAGTF) demonstration and Saturday evening twilight airshow, a wonderful selection of ground and air performances including the Blue Angels and the Snowbirds, Miramar once again pulled out all the stops.

Andrew Evans reports for UK Airshow Review. Photos by the author and John Featherstone.

With its close ties to San Diego, the annual MCAS Miramar airshow has since the turn of the century taken pride of place as the final event of the San Diego fleet week. This week long celebration of the US Coastguard, US Navy and the US Marine Corps can trace its origins back to 1986 and is currently the largest military tribute of its kind in the United States of America. San Diego has a special relationship with US naval aviation, with the base on North Island being the site of the first US Navy flight in 1911 and also where the free-fall parachuting technique was developed. With the celebration of 100 years of Naval aviation in San Diego fast approaching, it is fitting that the final event of the 99th year celebrations recognises the efforts of the US Marine Corps who have fought in the air in every major US conflict since they began flying in 1912. The 2010 airshow took place over a three-day period which included the world famous twilight air display on the Saturday evening.

MCAS Miramar, famous for the 1980's movie 'Top Gun' passed from the US Navy to the US Marine Corps in 1997 and is now the home of the 3rd Marine Air Wing (3rdMAW) which forms the air combat element of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). The 3rdMAW is equipped with a wide variety of air platforms, ranging from the top of the range MV-22A Osprey to the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight and F/A-18A Hornet. The base has proved popular with the US Marine Corps for training due to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the naval bases at San Diego plus the massive training ranges in near-by Nevada and Arizona. In addition to the active squadrons, the airfield plays host to the Flying Leathernecks Museum. The museum celebrates the aviation history of the Marine Corps with a small exhibition and an excellent static display of historic USMC aircraft that are laid out in a way which is perfect for photography.

As with most major shows around the globe, the event would not be complete without a central theme. This year's theme was the celebration of the 65th anniversary of the invasion and battle of Iwo Jima which, was spearheaded by the US Marine Corps. This represented one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and left a major legacy in modern memory. The photo of five USMC soldiers placing the US flag on top of the island has become synonymous with the war in the Pacific and has inspired an entire nation for 65 years helping them honour and remember the fallen.

With this is in mind, the vast majority of the static display at Miramar 2010 was supplied by the Marine Corps, with at least one example of each type operated by the service on display. This included a single example of the brand new AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom, in addition the public had a rare opportunity to look around the unique MV-22A Osprey. The US Navy also supplied a large static contingent including aggressor F-16's from the Fighter Weapons School 'Top Gun' now based at NAS Fallon and a number of specially painted 'CAG' birds from other Naval Air Stations. The USAF also got in on the act with some of their larger assets in the shape of a C-17A Globemaster III and C-5A Galaxy. Not to be outdone at such a large airshow, a pair of surprise international participants stirred quite a bit of attention from the local aviation enthusiasts. This was a pair of Typhoons from 17(R)Sqn at RAF Coningsby who had deployed to NAS China Lake a few days before for an extended deployment. The pilots of which also let it known at the show that a Squadron from RAF Coningsby will be deploying to Nellis AFB in early 2011 to participate in a Red Flag exercise, a first for the Typhoon.

The flying display at Miramar cannot be compared with that of a European airshow. Where a European airshow has a number of acts that quickly follow on from each other, Miramar consists of a smaller selection of extended displays which then flow into set piece or formation demonstrations; all designed to captivate the crowd's attention. The flying display is combined with crowd front ground displays, both from the performing display teams and the extremely powerful 'Shockwave', a jet powered truck owned and operated by Kent Shockley.

With the main theme centred on a key World War II event, it was only right that the USAF and US Navy heritage/legacy flights were on strength to provide their tribute. The US Navy provided their legacy flight which, consisted of the Super Hornet demo team with an F/A-18F in formation with a F4U Corsair. In addition, the USAF took advantage of both the F-22A Raptor demo team and the F-16 Viper West team taking part in the show to fly a three-ship heritage flight with a P-51D Mustang. With the inclusion of some superb formation dedication passes, the heritage formations provide one of the main highlights at Miramar 2010 both for the spectator and the photographer.

The individual fast jet demo teams all performed their superb and extremely energetic displays to the awe of the crowd with an added twist, being driven down the crowd line in a Ford Mustang for the crowd to applaud after their display. This gave a personal dimension to the display that is something that European shows sometimes lack. Rather than hiding them away in a 'meet the pilots' tent, the entire crowd get to 'meet the pilot'! There were of course, a number of civil displays that took part in the display including a sail plane (glider) demonstration and the Red Bull Helo, this is modified Bo-105 that performs stunts that the Blue Eagles claim that the Lynx can only do which, added a refreshing change to a jet dominated display.

Of course, the highlights of Miramar 2010 are the twilight show and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) air power demonstration. The latter forms the highlight of the daylight displays on each of the three days. Unfortunately in 2010, low cloud and mist during the first half of the Friday airshow resulted in the MAGTF demo being cancelled however, the weather was much kinder on the Saturday allowing for the full demonstration to be witnessed. The MAGTF demo runs through a recon assault by a Marine Corps strike force from the initial aerial reconnaissance through to the aerial insertion of troops/armour ending in their extraction under close air support.

Similar to the RNAS Yeovilton air power demonstration but on a much grander scale, the MAGTF demo involves multiple fast jet aircraft and at least one of each type operated by the Marine Corps. In 2010, this included the MV-22A Osprey which demonstrated its unique abilities to deposit troops extremely quickly. With numerous pyrotechnic effects, F/A-18's and AV-8B's made multiple attack passes as troops backed up by Abrams tanks secured the target. The MAGTF demo provided the assembled crowd with an accurate and exciting depiction of how the USMC goes about their business.

No airshow though would be the same without a display team or two! Miramar was no exception, with the presence of the US Navy's Blue Angels who closed the day show every day. Not only is their display one of the best in the world, one that makes everybody stop to watch; the display took place in the best light of the day allowing for some superb photographic opportunities. At Miramar the display included their transport, a C-130 known as Fat Albert which provided its own display whilst the rest of the team performed their ground demonstration. Unfortunately however, the display did not include a JATO take off as the supply of rocket bottles has become just too expensive. The Blue Angels however, were not alone. The Royal Canadian Air Force made its presence known at Miramar with the participation of the Snowbirds demonstration team. It was a refreshing change to see a team that has not been seen in Europe before; their combination of formation passes and opposing displays is very reminiscent of the Thunderbirds with perhaps a little Red Arrows thrown into the mix!

Miramar always has something different to offer in the shape of its twilight air display which starts as the sun sets and ends in a wall of fire which lights the airfield in an eerie glow! Kicking off with a superb display from a USMC AV-8B+ Harrier looking golden in the light and quickly moving to the Shockwave jet truck, lighting up the Blue Angels' aircraft with a golden cloud of smoke. The display then moved to microlight and warbird trainer displays which were visible in the dark thanks to the inspired use of pyrotechnics as part of the display. These displays took place to moving background music and interview snippets from a child writing letters to her father, deployed fighting overseas. These weren't the only displays that wowed the crowd, the presence of the fire breathing 'robosaurus' gave an exciting family atmosphere to the event which had children gasping and laughing as he proceeded to eat the station commanders wife's 'car' and then to chase the show commentators around the airfield! The size of the penultimate fireworks display was large enough to have cost tens of thousands of Dollars and left even the seasoned air enthusiast in awe.

Miramar provided the people of San Diego and other visitors with a show spectacle that rivals the Royal International Air Tattoo, all for free; something that the UK MoD could learn a lot from. As a family show or just as an enjoyable airshow, Miramar is definitely one of the best airshows in the world. However, enthusiasts that are thinking of visiting the show purely for photography need to be aware that the sun is in front of you for the majority of the day which makes getting "that shot" extremely challenging. That said, sitting back and enjoying the action is just as satisfying!

The airshow at Miramar in 2011 promises to be extra special with the celebration of 100 years of naval aviation as the main theme, any UK enthusiast thinking of going would be in an ideal situation with other major naval themed airshows occurring the weekend before and after this event. The MCAS Miramar airshow 2011 will take place from Friday 30th September to Sunday 2nd October 2011.