NAF El Centro Airshow Report

Saturday 14th March 2015

Signifying the start of the display season for the US Navy's Blue Angels following the successful completion of their winter training camp at the airfield, Naval Air Facility (NAF) El Centro held the 2015 edition of its annual airshow on 14th March. Throughout the year the airfield plays host to a variety of US Navy, Marine Corps, Canadian and British units who use the nearby ranges and desert for training. An airfield that attracts such a diverse variety of aircraft made for an intriguing airshow, what rare and exciting types would the organisers obtain for the show?

Taking a drive out into the desert from San Diego, Andy Evans visited the 2015 NAF El Centro airshow on behalf of UK Airshow Review over the weekend of 14 March 2015. Photography by the author.

Perhaps to its disadvantage, El Centro's airshow occupies a diary slot which is prior to many major acts commencing their season. Perhaps that disadvantage is expanded by there being no significant permanently based units to draw a static display from. The usual result is an event where a number of rarer acts appear. The build up to this years show has been somewhat haphazard with a rarely updated website - indeed, military static lists were only published less than a week before the show. When planning a trip to a U.S. airshow this can be frustrating as you need to make the decision months in advance however it has also been refreshing, harking back to old days where you never knew what was at a show until you got there.

A pleasant surprise on show day was the ability to park within the base very close to the static display. Car parking and traffic management both pre and post show was nothing short of excellent, with plenty of military and civilian police on duty to ensure all routes flowed freely. This was especially prevalent post-show at an airfield with a single entrance gate and the clever use of a crash gate at the far end of the airfield to split the traffic. Those using this route were also treated to a drive by viewing of the active ramp and aircraft that were out of view from public areas. Entry into the showground wasn't as simple however with just a few security staff undertaking some of the most thorough searches I have ever witnessed, including every pocket on jackets being manually searched. This did cause a bit of a bottleneck; nevertheless, the static line was within touching distance and the sun was shining therefore the discomfort of the bottleneck was just an inconvenience.

Perhaps surprisingly for a major U.S. military show the static display appeared to rely heavily on the warbird community to supply the majority of the aircraft present. This varied from Spitfires and a number of P-51 Mustangs (including an Allison powered Razorback) up to rarer aircraft such as TBM-3 Avengers, P-38 Lightnings, a P-39 Airacobra and perhaps the rarest of them all, the large four engined PB4Y-2 Privateer, one of three airworthy world wide. The vast majority of the military static aircraft were unsurprisingly provided by the US Navy and Marine Corps. The former supplying a SH-60S and SH-60R together with a pair of T-45C Goshawks, a T-6B Texan II and the welcome participation of a pair of F-5E Tigers. The latter provided a specially painted CH-46 Sea Knight and F/A-18A+ Hornet.

Traditionally El Centro has been poorly supported by the USAF, and this year was no different with just a single aircraft being sent to the show, at least it was an imposing one in the form of a B-52H dominating the static park. Rounding off the diverse static lineup was a rare appearance by a KLu F-16 based at Tucson International Airport together with an Army Air Corps Apache AH.1 representing the long-term British training detachment at El Centro. The only downside to the static at El Centro is that many aircraft are parked in barns meaning they are in the shade and, frustratingly, the public also place their chairs inside said barns to keep out of the sun adding clutter.

Of course, the highlight of any airshow is the flying display and with a display line where the sun is behind you all day, that can only mean good shots...or it is supposed to anyway! The layout of the showground results in around 50% of the display line being out of bounds. Of the remainder, a large tract of the crowd line is consumed by a private chalet area relegating the crowd to the furthest left third of the crowd line. Coupling this with a display line that is quite a distance from the crowd results in limited photographic opportunities for the general public with the only photographers having access to show centre being the assembled media.

As with all US airshows, the flying commenced with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner whilst parachutists arrive with the Stars and Stripes among other flags. In this instance, it was the US Air Force's Wings of Blue sky diving team who jumped from their Twin Otter support aircraft with the Stars and Stripes, PoW MIA and Navy flags. The Leapfrogs were quickly followed by the Red Stars display team in their Yaks giving a precision start to the display. Not to be outdone at a Naval airfield, later in the day saw the US Navy Leapfrogs team provide a full skydiving display, the team is especially a source of pride for Californian spectators as its members are drawn from Coronado based SEAL units. This was a special display for visiting international enthusiasts thanks to the Leapfrogs jump aircraft being the wonderful C-2A Greyhound which, at the end of the jump, performed a top side dedication pass. It isn't often you see any form of display from this venerable type.

With El Centro being so early in the season it can be forgiven for being a little light on military solo flying displays however the two that did attend are rarely seen in California. Representing the home team was the US Navy Tactical Demonstration of a F/A-18F Super Hornet. Why was this rare? The display was performed by VFA-106 from NAS Oceana who form the "East" team for the Tactical Demonstration, unusual being that the "West" team is based just a few miles down the road at NAS Lemoore. Similar to the Viper demo teams of the USAF, the display was designed to show off the agility and power of the aircraft rather than perform an aerobatic display. Nevertheless, this still involved plenty of afterburner!

The second military display was also an international participant, making a welcome return after their appearance last year were the Army Air Corps who provided the Apache Solo Display albeit devoid of the pyrotechnics that UK audiences witnessed last year. El Centro is perhaps in a unique position to provide this display due to the British deployment to the base, it was also gratifying to see that the use of the base was recognised by the Army who could be said to have provided the display as an acknowledgement of thanks.

The crowd were treated to a pair of Pitts Special displays from Bill Cornick and Spencer Suderman however these were eclipsed by the warbird displays that filled half of the flying action. Providing an extremely low demonstration of precision warbird flight was Greg Colyer in his CT-133, painted as a USAF T-33, showing why this type was so popular as a trainer with many air forces. The supposed star of the warbird segment of the display was a tail chase dogfight between the Commemorative Air Force's Zero and Hellcat complete with pyrotechnics. Whilst it was great to see such a rare warbird (the Zero) in action I couldn't help but think the signature wall of fire as the climax of this display was triggered slightly early which did lower its effect somewhat.

The undoubted king of the warbird displays was John Collver in Wardog, a SNJ-5 Texan. His display was clean and crisp keeping the aircraft on the display line for the majority of his piece, let alone bringing the aircraft extremely low in some manoeuvres. His display culminated in a race with Bill Braack in his Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car adding some smoke and flame to the display.

Of course the stars of any El Centro Airshow are the Blue Angels and it fell to them to close the show. While the aircraft, parked in front of the press at Display Centre were prepared, the US Marines KC-130 "Fat Albert" gave their signature tactical demonstration which rivals any other Hercules demonstration out there with a very low take off and khe-san landing. However Fat Albert is only the warm up act. Like something out of a movie, the theatre used for the pilots to enter their aircraft is unlike anything you see in Europe and adds to the build up for the display, everything is performed in formation and without G Suits of any kind!

Those familiar with the Blues will know for the majority of the display the team split their six Hornets into a four ship performing formation passes and a syncro pair performing more energetic manoeuvres. Perhaps it was the nerves of the season's first public show however the display wasn't as polished as I have witnessed in the past with a few passes being off line heading away from the crowd rather than down the display line. However it can't be stressed enough this was the first display of the year and nobody is perfect. After all, we haven't seen a display in the UK since 1992 and I consider myself lucky to have seen them so many times over the past few years.

NAF El Centro Airshow 2015 was an event that was almost guaranteed to be bathed in clear blue skies and due to the orientation of the airfield, some of the best lighting you will get at any airfield, it is a pity that the entire crowd line can't be exploited to make the most of this. The show itself was well organised on the ground with a wide variety of static and flying acts. I would certainly recommend the event to the UK Aviation Enthusiast traveller as part of a road trip visit to the area. Don't forget to take in the USS Midway, March AFB Museum, Palm Springs Museum, Flying Leathernecks Museum and MCAS Yuma whilst you are in the area!

NAF El Centro Airshow 2016 is scheduled for Saturday 12th March and is expected, as always, to be free.

The author would like to thank the NAF El Centro PAO Office for their assistance in obtaining access to the press bullpen for the event and for hosting UKAR for the day.