Nellis AFB 'Aviation Nation' Air Show Report

Saturday 13th November - Sunday 14th November 2010

Held at one of the biggest and busiest air bases in the United States, 'Aviation Nation' at Nellis AFB is also one of the largest airshows on the American airshow calendar. Almost 365 days a year there are bombing, dogfighting and team exercises taking place in the massive range just to the north of the base and every November comes the annual airshow. This year's show was a first for me and I really didn't know what to expect, besides the fact the 2010 show was to be smaller then previous years. Every air force in the world is having budget issues and the USAF is no exception, but even so, with the awesome F-22 Raptor and the classic F-4 Phantom on the provisional list, this was one not to be missed.

First time visitor Rod McDonough shares with UKAR the experience of a trip to Nevada. All photography by the author.

Arriving with my wife on the Friday before the show, we opted to pass up on going to Nellis on the Saturday and instead do the touristy thing, taking in the Hoover Dam and the famous Las Vegas strip. Arriving bright and early at 0830 the following morning, we had to clear security. This took no longer than 15 minutes and the guards on duty were in good spirits; my trusty Sigma 50-500mm lens was subjected to a thorough inspection, which I was jokingly assured was just to make certain it wasn't a cunning disguise to smuggle "beer" into the showground! From here we boarded onto the shuttle bus that ferries the crowds from the car parks to showground itself and by 0900 we were on site.

First impressions upon leaving the bus were ones of awe - Nellis is hallowed turf for any enthusiast, and even at this hour the temperature was up to 21 degrees. We soaked up the atmosphere as we navigated the mile-long static park that featured everything you'd expect to see at a show of this nature. Highlights included the Nellis based Aggressor F-15s and F-16s, painted in colourful camouflage schemes, and a real rarity at the show was one of NASA's F-18 Hornets, standing alone at the eastern end of the line.

Unfortunately the static displays at Nellis were tricky to photograph as, like many other US airshows, there are no ropes or barriers keeping the crowds away from the majority of the aircraft, with heavies like the RC-135 Cobra Ball and E-6 Mercury joining the F-22 Raptor amongst the few exceptions.

Having completed the static, we turned our attention towards the flying display and finding a suitable location from which to enjoy the afternoon's entertainment. The active flightline was a little too far away to be of any great use, with the pair of F-4 Phantoms well out of reach, so we kept looking for somewhere suitable, not really knowing where best to be. We ended up in a fairly quiet spot that appeared to have everything we needed; it was a pickup point for the bus back to the car park with catering and toilet facilities very close-by. Best of all, we were adjacent to the main taxiway to the runway, so we had a good view and photo opportunities of the display participants recovering.

With the national anthem and associated flag waving - courtesy of some parachutists trailing the Stars and Stripes - opening the show, the flying proper began with short demos by a restored T-33, and then T-6s and T-34s. The family entertainment followed next, as Ed Hamill's "Dream Machine" provided aerobatics and the jet powered truck entered into a drag race with an aircraft. Understandable inclusions to the display to make it an entertaining and engaging day out, but not really my cup of tea. That said, Ed's aerobatics were truly astounding.

Further into the flying display 16 RV aircraft took off for a mass formation. This was a slow point, even for a lot of the children in the crowd near me; the first pass was neat to see, but the next ten minutes of repeated passes started to drag. Things became really drawn out with overhead breaks and missed approaches for a further ten minutes, particularly when we all knew what was to follow...

From our spot, we couldn't see the aircraft lining up at the far end, but the sound was unmistakable as the Phantom spooled up to get airborne for a CSAR demo. With a crescendo of noise, the classic shape emerged very low over the horizon tucking the gear up, before banking sharply in front of us for a wonderful topside view. A Cessna Birddog and UH-1 Huey joined the F-4 for the demonstration, although my attention was focused solely on the jet fighter for the duration. In stark contrast to the preceding act, this 10 minute slot absolutely flew by and felt way, way too short and sadly, upon landing, the aircraft didn't taxi past us, instead taking another route back to the ramp.

The sunlight moves in favour of the crowd as the day wears on at Nellis, and just as the light started to come good the flying display was really getting into its stride. The 'Wings of Blue' Paratrooper display was followed up by the last public F-18C demo of the year, which included the US Navy Legacy flight in formation with a vintage Bearcat. The warbird theme continued with P-51, P-40 and F-86 displays.

The Phantom returned to take centre stage for a solo display that was typically full of speed, noise and of course, smoke! It was a routine that left a lasting impression on me, and I'm sure many others in the crowd too. Upon completion the pilot went off to join the F-86 and P-51 in the hold, clearing the way for Major Dave 'Zeke' Skalicky to fly his last performance in the awesome F-22 Raptor. As usual, he didn't disappoint and it was interesting to keep one eye on the reactions from the crowd around me too, with some stunned expressions amongst many more exclamations that I really can't repeat here! The F-22 really is an astonishing bit of kit and the display has everything, with the possible exception on this day of some vapour, but there's not much chance of that in the middle of the desert!

Concluding his slot with a knife edge pass, 'Zeke' went off to meet up with the other participants that would make up the Air Combat Command 'Heritage Flight'; a four-ship consisting of P-51D Mustang, F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom and of course the F-22 Raptor. In total they flew three formation passes for the audience, the last of which was a formation break. Each then made a run and break to land, and fortunately this time, the F-4 did taxi back in right past us. As a bonus, so too did the F-86 and F-22! Our gamble on where to watch from had paid off nicely and being able to get so close to the jets is something I'll not forget in a hurry.

Winding down the flying display were a selection of resident aircraft. First up were a handful of types from the based weapons schools, with an A-10 and F-16 joining a pair of Aggressor F-15s for some formation flypasts. A very welcome addition to the day, and something I hope to see more of at future Nellis shows.

The honour of closing the show fell to the Nellis-based USAF Thunderbirds. The show was actually running 30 minutes ahead of schedule at this point, so I was hoping to be back at the hotel earlier than expected. I hadn't taken the ground show into account! Almost a full hour later, they were ready to fly and we heard the famous words "Thunderbirds run them up!". It's a complaint about the Thunderbirds that is often aired, but the ground show really does take up too much time, particularly with such a big crowdline and nothing else flying to entertain those not near enough to see the pre-flight routine. Regardless, once they were up in the air, they were as polished as ever, flying a sharp routine against the crisp blue skies that not only drew the Aviation Nation airshow to a close, but also their own 2010 display season.

We'll definitely be returning in 2011 for more of the same.