NAS Lemoore 'Central Valley Airshow'

Saturday 21st September - Sunday 22nd September 2019

NAS Lemoore has recently borne witness to movie stars whilst being used as a filming location for the upcoming movie, Top Gun: Maverick. With the increased interest in this isolated airfield and in US Navy aviation in general that will naturally follow the release of this movie, it was only fitting that they opened their doors to the public and hosted the first Central Valley Airshow for a number of years. Blessed with blue sky and hundreds of fast jets, the stage was set for a potentially amazing airshow.

Andy Evans recently spent some time in California and provides this report on the 2019 Central Valley Airshow. Photography by the author.

It has been eight long years since Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore last opened its doors to the public to provide the residents of Central Valley a glimpse of life within this vast isolated airbase. Located south of Fresno in California, NAS Lemoore is the US Navy's West Coast 'Master Jet Base' where the bulk of its Pacific Fleet fast jet combat assets are located when not deployed. In recent years, it has also become host to some of the East Coast's fast jet units too due to its remote location allowing for more intense training without incurring noise complaints from adjacent communities. The vast dispersals of NAS Lemoore currently service no fewer than seventeen F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons, two F-35C Lightning II squadrons, and a Search and Rescue (SAR) unit using MH-60 Seahawks. In total, this single airbase is home to more combat aircraft than are on strength with the RAF; this is without counting the additional four Super Hornet squadrons based in Japan whose official home base is also NAS Lemoore.

Other than announcing that this show would be a free two-day event and that the US Navy Blue Angels would be in attendance, participant information was slow to be announced with the final full line-up only being revealed just five days before. As is common with airshows in the US, the majority of acts are often seen elsewhere, almost forming a travelling circus. This included the Texan 'War Dog' and the T-33 'Ace Maker', with another headline civilian act being Kent Pietsch with his trio of displays to entertain the crowd throughout each day in his Jelly Belly schemed Interstate Kadet. Kent's displays include a simulated drunken solo display which begins with parts (namely an entire aileron) being deliberately jettisoned from the aircraft which is then flown erratically to the astonishment of the crowd before making a safe landing. Later, Kent lands his Kadet on top of a pickup truck-mounted mini runway and then, finally, performs an entire display with his engine turned off before undertaking a precise landing - stopping his aircraft directly in front of the base commander on the taxiway.

The underlying theme of this year's flying display was the US Navy and its aviation heritage. This ranged from a formation display from the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) which included a F6F Hellcat and F8F Bearcat alongside the worlds only airworthy PBJ-1, a US Marine Corps variant of the B-25 Mitchell. Joining this formation was the P-51D 'Man O War' and a genuine A6M Zero. Entering the jet age, the US Navy provided its legacy flight which saw a pair of based F/A-18E Super Hornets performing a formation piece with the worlds only airworthy FJ-4B Fury. Close up views of these rarely seen aircraft were appreciated as they taxied back along the crowd line upon landing. Also making a welcome and rare - if short - flying appearance was the TA-4J Skyhawk operated by Pacific Aero Ventures which is immaculately painted in the scheme of Carrier Air Wing 21, which was based at NAS Lemoore from 1962 until it was disbanded in 1975.

Bringing the naval theme up to date was the home based units who performed a role-demo to show off some of their capabilities to the crowd. Elements of VFA-14 'Top Hatters' and VFA-151 'Vigilantes' with their Super Hornets undertook a number of dynamic manoeuvres, including buddy air-to-air refuelling. They were then joined by VFA-147 'Argonauts' who performed one of the first F-35C role demonstrations to be seen at a US airshow, showing off the big winged variant's unique features together with its long reheat cone for all to see. It was a pity however that upon landing the F-35C did not follow the lead of the Super Hornets by folding its wings as it passed the crowd - a photographic opportunity missed. A disappointing aspect of the naval display however was the lack of a Super Hornet solo display; this was perhaps surprising, considering that the West Coast display is provided by VFA-122 which is based at NAS Lemoore.

Compared to the L-39 displays that Europeans are used to from the Baltic Bees or the Breitling Jet Team their US compatriots, the Patriots, are simply on a different level. This civilian jet team's gloss black L-39s are flown aggressively by their predominantly ex-Blue Angel and Thunderbird pilots in an effort to wow the assembled crowd. Their display includes a number of very low and fast sections which would simply not be allowed in the UK including minimum radius turns and fast passes that are literally just a few feet from the ground. Their display warmed the crowd up nicely for the main event of the day, the Blue Angels who as always gave a precise, polished, performance albeit lacking their C-130 'Fat Albert', a situation that we hope will be shortly remedied.

There was however one surprise to come before the Blue Angels took to the sky, provided courtesy of the California Air National Guard and their 194th Fighter Squadron flying the F-15C Eagle from nearby Fresno. When the unit passed through RAF Lakenheath in November 2018, many of the assembled enthusiasts were pleased to see the unit's anniversary brightly painted special scheme among the visiting aircraft. It was an absolute treat to witness this very same machine be displayed in all its glory in the clear blue skies as part of a short but ground shaking demonstration. This was without doubt the absolute highlight of the airshow for the enthusiast.

Turning to the static display, this was comparatively sparse compared to military airshows elsewhere in the US. However, this appeared to be a trend with the other major show of the weekend, NAS Oceana, attracting a similarly sized static display. That said, the home team were present in strength with no fewer than sixteen of the based squadrons providing aircraft for squadron row including both F-35 squadrons, many sending their CAG painted example. As with most squadron rows at these events, photography is extremely difficult with the units selling their wares in front of their aircraft together with members of the public finding shade under their wings. Lemoore did however make this even more difficult by placing a large number of toilets almost in formation with squadron row on both sides; it was impossible to obtain a front quarter shot without them in the background. Four other military aircraft were present including an F-15 from the 194th FS, a US Navy MH-60, an Army UH-60 also from Fresno and a brightly coloured CAG EA-18G Growler from VAQ-135 'Black Ravens' at NAS Whidbey Island.

All in all, the 2019 Central Valley Airshow provided the building blocks for the event to expand on. The show did suffer from bad traffic problems both on entry and exit but this cannot be avoided when providing on base parking (using the VFA-122 ramp) due to the unique layout of the airfield which is miles from the nearest interstate or highway. This could however be alleviated in future should remote car parking and a substantial shuttle bus service be used, similar to the Nellis events. The layout of the show was on the whole good with excellent lighting throughout the flying display; an increase in static aircraft numbers, a slightly longer flying display and a re-jig of toilet locations would result in a standout regional event. Here's hoping we don't have to wait another eight years for the next airshow at NAS Lemoore, and that this becomes an annual or biennial fixture.