NAS Point Mugu Air Show

Saturday 18th March - Sunday 19th March 2023

Point Mugu has a long history of hosting airshows dating back to the first event in 1960. In recent years however, shows at the Naval Air Station have been a sporadic affair, with only three air displays hosted since 2010, the last scheduled for 2020 and we all know what happened that year... The main draw this year, and for only the third time in history, was the appearance of both of the premier US military display teams.

Nick Jennings travelled to NAS Point Mugu to report on the airshow. Photography by the author.

Situated on the edge of the Point Mugu State Park, NAS Point Mugu came into existence at the start of World War II as an anti-aircraft training centre. Following the end of the war it was developed into the US Navy’s major missile development and test facility, with a large open sea test range. In 2000 the air station was merged with the installations at Port Hueneme and San Nicolas to form Naval Base Ventura County.

If you’d visited the most recent show in 2015 you’d be mistaken for thinking you’d travelled back in time, with a line-up that was incredibly similar. With the obvious major exception being the appearance of the Thunderbirds, many of the other display acts were either identical or very similar to the last show - Blue Angels - check, SoCal Commemorative Air Force - check, biplane aerobatics - check, CA ANG Hercules - check, USCG Dauphin demo - check. This isn’t a criticism, as it’s been eight years since the last show, just a little surprising!

Despite the small static park consisting of around just 30 airframes, there were some real gems on display. NAS China Lake sent a nice selection of aircraft, including the star of the static - ‘Vandy 1’ from VX-9 ‘Vampires’. This gloss black F/A-18F Super Hornet harks back to the original ‘Vandy 1’ - a gloss black Phantom from VX-4 - albeit minus the Playboy logo on the tail. Other gems from China Lake included a trio of Hornet variants from VX-31 ‘Dust Devils’ and a now rare AV-8B Harrier. The home team VX-30 ‘Bloodhounds’ had a nice black tailed P-3C Orion, along with an E-2D Hawkeye and KC-130T Hercules. The California ANG, also based at Point Mugu, had one of their Hercules on static, complete with a MAFFS (Modular Aerial FireFighting System) unit. One negative was the tape and cones, which were often right next to the aircraft, making photography difficult.

The airshow kicked off with the customary US national anthem, followed by a parachute drop by the US Navy Leap Frogs parachute team. Once the parachutists had landed a trio of MH-60 Seahawks flew in, all of which had female flight crews to celebrate 50 years of female US naval aviators. Along with the California ANG having a Hercules on static, they also had one take part in the flying programme, demonstrating the MAFFS fire fighting system which is able to dump 3,000 gallons of water/retardant in a matter of seconds and can be fitted to the aircraft in only a couple of hours, something that has been invaluable to California during the last few fire seasons.

The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) put on a great display with their aircraft representing the Battle of the Philippines in 1944-45. The display started with a few runs by the CAF’s PBJ-1 Mitchell - the only example still flying - simulating strafing attacks on enemy positions, followed by the ‘scrambling’ of a Mitsubishi Zero fighter, one of only a handful left flying. After a couple more passes a Hellcat joins the fray intercepting the Zero, followed by a trail of smoke from the A6M - battle won! There was a slight incident with the Zero on the Saturday following a comms issue, which gave the crowd an extra wheels down pass while the pilot checked the runway before an event free landing.

Vicky Benzing in her Boeing Stearman put on her usual high quality aerobatic display, as did the Red Bull team in their fully aerobatic Bo105 helicopter. The US Coast Guard gave a SAR winching demo in their MH-65 Dauphin. Sadly, John Collver could only display his T-6 Texan ‘War Dog’ on the Saturday, due to weather restrictions on the Sunday. There were a couple of unexplained absences from the flying programme - we had been due to see a demo by the MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV which didn’t materialise, with no mention from the commentator as to why, nor was there any mention of what happened to Tom Larkin’s Subsonex demo.

Of course, the stars of the show were the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds display teams, which no doubt many of the show’s record attendance on the Saturday were there to see. The Thunderbirds were up first, and as it seems is obligatory for US display teams, their routine begins with 20 minutes of pomp and ceremony before the jets even start up. Once up in the air it was a good routine with no significant lulls in the passes, certainly a different beast from the routine they can fly in the UK with all of its crowd restrictions. The sneak pass being a noticeable highlight, catching many in the crowd unawares! Sunday saw a low display due to the cloud base.

The Blue Angels slot started with a display by the ‘new’ Fat Albert - an ex RAF C-130J Hercules that was reconfigured and repainted in 2020. The Blue Angels were also in relatively new machines, having only switched to the Super Hornet in 2021. Like the Thunderbirds, they also have a significant start up time before they get in the air. Their display was well flown, although not as tight as it used to be in the legacy Hornets. Still, they probably just about shaded the best display team demo of the day. It would have been nice if we could have had a formation pass by both teams, it certainly would have created a very memorable moment for the airshow.

Sadly, the show was lacking a proper fast jet demo, the USAF Viper demo was originally pencilled in to display, but mysteriously was removed only weeks before the show. This didn’t affect the show too much with a display running time of nearly five hours, albeit two hours of this were filled by the two display teams, this is still longer than many other US shows and as it was free to enter, this is amazing value.

Speaking of entry, there have been a number of reports recently of additional entry requirements for foreign visitors to US military airshows. At Point Mugu foreign visitors were indeed escorted for additional checks after passing through security - which included fingerprints and photos being taken, along with a series of questions to answer - before being given a lanyard that had to be on display at all times - basically singling you out as a foreigner. Imagine the furore if the same happened to foreign visitors at UK airshows! It just seemed a bit excessive and detracted from an otherwise fine show.

The showground itself had a good array of food outlets and tat stalls, and some of the squadrons were selling patches near their aircraft. One of the hangars was set aside for STEM related exhibits, encouraging the next generation of scientists and engineers. Toilet facilities were also excellent, with many located around the showground. One of the negatives was traffic management, both getting in and getting out, with some unable to get into the show on the Saturday due to heavy traffic, the advice being to get there very early, ideally before the gates open. Leaving at the end of the day was reminiscent of Cosford airshows of the past, with everyone funnelling towards pinch points to get out, resulting in delays of 1-2 hours on exit. Some better management in the car parking areas would help this, like forcing people to join designated routes rather than everyone making a beeline straight to the exits.

Overall it was a good show, with some nice static aircraft and a decent flying display, however there were some areas that could do with improvement, so a solid B+.