Santa Maria Central Coast AirFest

Saturday 15th October - Sunday 16th October 2022

Whilst most eyes were on the much-hyped Aerospace Valley Airshow at Edwards AFB, a second airshow was taking place close to the Californian Coast which on paper had an equally diverse and interesting participation list. Due to the seasonal weather conditions, airshows in the hotter climates of the United States tend to cluster together into just a few short weeks which can lead to some being overshadowed. As this show proved however, the smaller shows can be just as good, if not better than, the military organised events and should not be so easily overlooked.

Eager to see as many shows as possible during his recent visit to the USA, Andy Evans attended the Sunday at the 2022 Central Coast AirFest on behalf of UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author.

What are the ingredients of the perfect airshow flying line up? Personally, it is a good mix of modern military and warbird solo displays, interspersed with a few good quality civilian acts, plus at least one good military team. Sitting here in the UK reading the participant announcements in the build up to the event, the Central Coast AirFest presented that perfect airshow cake as it were. Headlining was to be the RCAF Snowbirds together with multiple solo displays from the US Air Force and US Navy - including an extremely rare E-2D Hawkeye solo demonstration. Supporting the modern military were to be a number of warbirds, including many from Chino based Planes of Fame and popular solo displays from the likes of Eric Tucker. The stage was set for a must-see airshow for the international enthusiast.

During the build-up to the show the RCAF Snowbirds curtailed their season early and the Hawkeye display cancelled, however the remaining line-up was still attractive, including two of the main fast jet solo displays from the US military in the form of the F-35A Lightning II and F/A-18F Super Hornet, plus the final West Coast C-17A demonstration of the year combined with a whole host of rare warbirds from both the Second World War right up to the Vietnam War. That is of course not mentioning the static aspect of the show too.

Held over the weekend of 15th to 16th October, the Central Coast AirFest is hosted by Santa Maria Airport nestled in a wine producing area of California, just north of Vandenberg AFB. The venue is not without its challenges, with the Santa Maria valley being well known for regular foggy spells which did affect the Saturday show this year. The event has been organised by the Kunkle family since its inception in 2018 and following the passing of the show’s brainchild Jim Kunkle in April this year, the mantle of organiser has now passed to his son Chris. This was also the first year where the team at Santa Maria have collaborated with Planes of Fame to plan the AirFest, a partnership which is anticipated to continue into the future with the show also potentially growing to replace Planes of Fame’s own airshow usually held at Chino.

One immediate downside to this show location is that the flying is predominantly in the afternoon on a south west facing display line running parallel to the main runway, which results in the crowd looking directly at the sun as it moves progressively lower throughout the afternoon. Santa Maria airport does also benefit from a northern facing dispersal which would be the perfect location to host the show from a photographic sense, unfortunately, the northern boundary of the airfield is too built up to comply with US display box regulations to make this possible.

Considering that this a civilian event, upon arriving on the Sunday morning it was a pleasant surprise to see the sheer number of military aircraft on static display, more than are often found at US military shows themselves. With no less than five F-35s of all variants on static display, plus a pair of F-16s including the desert schemed MiG-killer from Luke AFB, there were plenty of aircraft to view close up from the USAF, Navy and Marine Corps during the morning before the flying display commenced. Oddly, out of the seven F-35s that were present that weekend including the flying pair from Hill AFB, six of these were parked on the flightline directly in front of the VIP/Premium ticket holder area. Those ticket holders would be treated to an F-35 obstructed view of the flying display all afternoon as a result. Adding to the wonderful static line-up were the warbirds of Planes of Fame, parked along the crowd line whilst they awaited their turn to take to the air.

As is tradition at a US airshow, the flying commenced with a parachutist (in this case from the Red Bull Air Force) carrying the stars and stripes whilst the national anthem was played. Planes of Fame enjoyed no less than three display slots throughout the day, flying themed tail chase and formation sequences centred around the young US Air Force, the US Navy and then finally Korean War jet fighters. The assembled fleet of rare warbirds included a pair of P-38 Lightnings, an immaculate SBD Dauntless dive bomber and their beautiful F-86F Sabre/MiG-15 pair. The presence of the pair of Lightings was only fitting to help celebrate the 100th birthday of James “Senior” Kunkle, who flew the P-38 during the Second World War. Also joining the Planes of Fame warbirds and treating the crowd to some trademark extremely low and fast passes was Jason Somes in his glorious glossy red MiG-17 complete with afterburner.

The stand out non-warbird civilian performer at the event had to be Eric Tucker with his travelling show, Tucker’s Air Patrol. Performing no-less than three times throughout the afternoon using his bright yellow J3 Cub, Eric kept the crowd captivated each time. Each display is different, from a glider display performed without his engine switched on, to traditional aerobatics involving landing on top of a van and finally his trademark comedy sequence where he pretends the aircraft has been stolen by a drunk. It’s a level of variety from one performer that we are lacking on the UK and European circuits.

Despite this plethora of warbirds being present, the stars of this year’s show were easily the US Navy and USAF solo displays, both of which made full use of the coastal air to produce some unbelievable vapour and transonic cones that are rarely seen anywhere else - cones which were emphasised even more by the back lit conditions. Not only were the crowd treated to this pair of solo displays, but both teams also took advantage of the gathered warbirds to perform their Heritage Flights (known as the Legacy Flight in the US Navy), with the Bearcat joining the Super Hornet, plus both a P-38 Lighting and P-51 Mustang joining the F-35A. The F-35 solo display in particular provided a good idea of what this much criticised aircraft is truly capable of in a dogfight. In addition, with both aircraft operating from the crowd line, visitors were treated to a great up-close interaction with both the pilots and ground crew.

All in all, the Central Coast AirFest was a superb airshow which had clearly been organised by a team with a passion for aviation. I can’t think of many other shows where the balance between warbird, civil and military displays is so harmonious. As the influence of Planes of Fame grows on this successful event, I can only hope that the show does not lose its atmosphere and that this winning formula is retained.

UK Airshow Review would like to thank Heather Kunkle and the rest of the team at the Central Coast AirFest for their assistance.