MCAS Miramar Air Show

Friday 27th September - Sunday 29th September 2019

Complementing the sheer size of this airbase, the annual MCAS Miramar Air Show has developed a reputation for being one of the largest, if not the largest, military airshows in the United States that over its three days attracts some unusual visitors both in the air and on the ground. The 2019 airshow did not disappoint in this regard with a large number of military and warbird aircraft on static display including the mighty B-29 "Doc" making its event debut. The same held true for the flying display with the announcement that the Royal Air Force Red Arrows would be visiting the event as one of the final stops on their tour of North America. Combine these stars with some rarely seen civilian demonstrations plus staple Miramar favourites from the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) demonstration and the US Navy Blue Angels set up what appeared to be classic show. At least, that was the plan.

Andy Evans travelled out to San Diego back in September for his third visit to this airshow to report for UK Airshow Review.

Worldwide there are few airfields that have achieved legendary status in popular culture through their links with historical events, scientific breakthroughs or their appearance in film and television. Located just north of San Diego, MCAS (formerly NAS) Miramar is one such airfield thanks to its starring role in Top Gun. The current MCAS Miramar is one of the largest air bases operated by the US Marine Corps. It was created following the closure of MCAS El Toro and MCAS Tustin in 1999, to form the 3rd Marine Air Wing (3rd MAW) at the base. The 3rd MAW currently boasts a total of 26 manned flight squadrons split between MCAS Miramar and the nearby MCAS Camp Pendleton where the Wing's UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper units are based. With such a large number of squadrons operating from the airfield it is unsurprising that the dispersals play host to a myriad of types including the CH-53E Super Stallion, MV-22B Osprey, F/A18A++/C/C+/D Hornet and KC-130J Hercules, a list that is soon to be also joined by the F-35B/C Lightning II with the first F-35Cs arriving in 2020.

The US Marine Corps have a moniker which outside the US has rarely been heard. They are affectionately known as America's "911 Force", reflecting that the Marines are often the branch of the military sent in first to quickly restore order, take control or provide aid anywhere in the world on behalf of the United States using their unique capabilities - often through the use of the MAGTF. The primary role of the Miramar Air Show is to engage with the local San Diego residents to showcase what the base (and the wider Marines) does whilst also providing a vital recruitment tool for all military branches which it achieves through the use of an annual theme. This year, the base chose as its main theme honouring those in the San Diego community that protect the civilian population - the men and women of the emergency services. The local 911 Force.

It can be argued that many airshows may advertise a theme but few rarely do it justice. Miramar is one of those few. Large areas of the showground were occupied by displays from both local and federal law enforcement or rescue services - many of which had sent their heavily tasked air assets to appear on static. Other services had brought along displays to show off what they do to the general public so that they may better understand their roles in the community. This theme was not limited to the showground either, with both the San Diego Police and Fire Departments taking part in the opening ceremony on the Saturday and Sunday whilst the After Shock Jet Truck - the world’s fastest fire engine - roared up and down the runway at periods during the day. It was befitting the scale of the theme that, perhaps, a highlight of the day was left to Cal Fire who provided the aerial demonstration element of the flying display. Utilising the beastly S-64 Skycrane and the ubiquitous UH-1, Cal Fire provided an aerial firefighting display depositing their full water tank loads on the airfield in front of the crowd. Cal Fires aerial firefighting fleet are usually in heavy demand fighting bush fires throughout the State and the public rarely get a safe view of the operations so close up which made this display all the more welcome.

As can be expected, the static display at Miramar is large and diverse with some rare warbirds and modern military aircraft on display including aircraft representing the majority of the 26 units (and more) within the 3rd MAW. This year the static had an international twist with not only the support RAF A400M Atlas for the Red Arrows on display but also a Puma HC.2 which formed part of a deployment at NAF El Centro just to the east of San Diego. The static display however did have some noticeable gaps on the tarmac - mainly due to expected US Air Force and US Navy assets not appearing, most notably the lack of the expected B-52H and F-15E. Disappointingly, an expected highlight of the static display was a rare line-up of all three F-35 variants together within a typically secure area as the centrepiece of the showground. Unfortunately the US Navy F-35C did not arrive leaving just the USMC F-35B and the Luke AFB based USAF F-35A to occupy the space as a pair. It was frustrating to realise though that the USAF had actually sent a pair of F-35A to the show but the second aircraft wasn’t utilised to fill the gap, instead being parked out of view for the duration of the show. Similarly whilst the presence of B-29 "Doc" at the airfield was welcome, due to how its operators wanted to display their exhibition alongside the aircraft the priceless aircraft was lost behind clutter and its presence would have been better as part of the flying display.

Perhaps the most interesting static participant for the British visitor was Chipmunk WP833 owned by Richard Wilsher. Together with fellow Chipmunk WP962 which now resides in the RAF Museum at Hendon, this pair of "Chippies" made history in 1997 when they undertook Exercise Northern Venture. Over a period of 64 days, the pair flew 16,000 miles as they circumnavigated the Northern Hemisphere to prove beyond doubt that a viable route could be established via Russia for light aircraft being ferried between Europe to America. Prior to departing RAF Cranwell on this monumental journey, WP833 was lined up with the then-based Red Arrows for a short photoshoot. Twenty two years later the Chipmunk was reunited with the Red Arrows in America - the very destination of the original exercise.

Turning to the flying display, the published marketing information in the run up to the show advertised that Miramar would play host to the USMC F-35B solo display which was in its first full season, however, this was removed from the line-up shortly before the event. Indeed, the lack of USMC solo displays was surprising with just the MV-22B Osprey solo display being used to begin the show each day. Despite Yuma being a short flight away in addition to a Cherry Point unit being deployed to El Centro, there were also no Harriers to be found on the airfield either flying or on static - a potential first in recent years for the airshow. Prior to the main military section of the flying display, a number of Californian airshow regular acts warmed up the crowd including "War Dog", an AT-6 Texan which wore the markings of its time with the Marines at MCAS El Toro. Making one of its final appearances at any airshow was the unique Oracle Challenger III flown by Sean D. Tucker. This powerful biplane took to the sky at numerous points throughout the show to wow the crowd including escorting the parachutists with the flag during the opening ceremony. The Challenger III is retiring at the end of this year’s season and will go on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 2021.

The warbird history of the area was well represented by the Planes of Fame Museum at Chino who provided a number of types for a tail chase sequence including the F4U Corsair, P-51D Mustang, TBM-3 Avenger plus a number of examples of old trainers including the T-34 Mentor and T-28 Fennec. Whilst the spectacle of so many warbirds together may never get old it has to be said that this display was far from dynamic, consisting of level passes at different distances from the crowd. Making a welcome appearance following their July 2019 visit to the UK was the USAF Viper West demo team who tore up the sky each day with their unique brand of speed and power which, as the only fast jet solo display at the entire airshow added an air of excitement to proceedings as part of the build up to the main event of the day. Upon completing its display, the F-16 was joined in the air by Planes of Fame F-86F "Jolly Roger" to complete the warbird line up and to perform a typically respectful USAF Heritage Flight to honour those who have served before.

Of course, there is only one real display that people attend Miramar to witness - the MAGTF demonstration. Whilst not on the same scale of a decade ago, the MAGTF demo is designed to dynamically highlight the tactics and equipment used by the US Marine Corps during a combat assault on a hostile airfield or base. Essentially the MAGTF demo involves fast jet assets undertaking simulated precision and close air support strikes on targets whilst the rotary wing assets deliver firstly recon troops to the airfield who are then reinforced by further troops and ground based armour. The demo then ends with a wall of fire as all the assets parade for the crowd. Thanks to the relatively low cloud levels experienced over the weekend, it was only possible for Miramar to present the full demonstration on the Sunday which utilised all the types that are operated by the 3rd MAW. Never-the-less this was certainly an awe inspiring recruitment tool for the USMC regardless of the weather and it would be good to see other branches of the military following suit and bringing back their own role demos - especially the RAF.

The end of the flying display was dedicated to the Red Arrows and the Blue Angels who displayed in turn. It was clear that the assembled US crowd had never seen anything like the Reds before and their contrasting display style compared to the Blues very quickly won over the hearts of the San Diego community who adored the use of multi-coloured smoke and the dynamic/fast paced action. The display was unusual by Red Arrows standards, though, due to the team displaying as an 8-ship for the weekend as a result of Red 8 having to return to the UK for the birth of their child. If anything, the professionalism shown during the uneven formations painted the Royal Air Force in a very positive light and highlighted just how highly trained our pilots are. The camaraderie and friendly rivalry that we often see between the Reds and the Thunderbirds when they visit the UK also existed with the Blue Angels too, in particular much was made of the lack of equipment Red 10 uses to commentate on the show compared to the Blues who, in contrast to the Reds' hand-held radio and microphone, use an entire trolley operated by a full support team. As always, the show was ended by the Blue Angels who gave a masterclass display proving just why they are the best display team in North America.

MCAS Miramar Air Show still remains one of the best military airshows in the United States, and whilst it is smaller than the comparable UK and European Airshows it must be stressed that Miramar is free entry, something that would be impossible to pull off here and for which the organisers should be commended. Miramar 2020 is scheduled for the 25th to 27th September 2020 and so far the USN Blue Angels, USAF F-35A Demo Team, USMC F-35B Solo, and MAGTF Demo have been announced for the event.

The author would like to thank Captain Gregory and his team for their hospitality during the event.