In the late 1960s, the world famous US Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team chose NAF El Centro to be their winter training facility to kick off their airshow season. With the long stretches of desert and consistently great weather locations, it was a perfect location for the Blues to practice their shows. With only a mere 36 inches apart at times when flying in formation, having a location with great weather, limited distractions, and open stretches of desert is the ideal setting for their 10 week long practice. The new Blue Angel pilots learn and train with the second year veteran pilots of the team to form that close bond and trust that's required for a Blue Angel performance. This training has become a big event for many aviation spotters and photographers that flock out to the end of the famed runway 30 to be mere feet underneath the Blue Angels as they perform their incredible demonstration. During the course of winter training, the USN Blue Angels will have made over 120 practice demos that are required before the first airshow of the season for the team, which is held at NAF El Centro in the second week of March each year. Following the first airshow, the team's home base returns to NAS Pensacola, Florida on the opposite side of the United States.
Once again for the 2012 NAF El Centro Airshow, the USN Blue Angels were the star attraction at the airshow drawing fans from all over to come and see the perfectly polished blue and gold F/A-18 Hornets that make up the Blue Angels. Along with the Blue Angels, a variety of Navy, Marine, Warbirds, and civilian aerobatic aircraft took part in this year's airshow. I'd go as far as to say that this show was for Hornet lovers, as there were more F/A-18C Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and EA-18G Growlers than any other aircraft displayed at the base. There were a few surprises, but otherwise this show was mostly for the US Navy and US Marines. Noticeably absent was the US Air Force, which only sent out one aircraft, but more on that in a bit. The airshow this year was not quite as large as previous airshows in a number of ways but considering the state of the nation's economy, cutbacks in the US Military, and the rising fuel costs it's really no wonder and the best show possible was still put on. The one thing that was in favor of the airshow: the weather. With clear skies other than a light haze and a cool breeze most of the day, it wasn't unbearably hot like some other airshows. Even with the less aircraft this year, the air was a great success and full of lots of things to see and do.
Static Aircraft – The Navy and Marines really shined at this year's airshow with their display aircraft that came out to the base. From a colorful CAG (Carrier Air Group) Hornet to Marine helicopters there was quite an assortment of aircraft. While the focus was on these modern military marvels, the historic aspect was represented through several Warbirds which unfortunately did not fly during the show. The Air Force was very absent from their usual long list of aircraft they send out to airshows, most likely due to the massive cuts lately in budget that also caused the disbanding of most of the demonstration teams that the Air Force has. But they still sent out an impressive Boeing B-52H Stratofortress from the 340th Weapons Squadron (USAF Weapons School) stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base and a General Atomics MQ-1B Predator which was boxed up and brought out to the airshow. Several law enforcement groups sent out various types of helicopters and squad cars, and the Border Patrol brought out their latest Eurocopter. Which only one civilian Warbird flew, there were a few on static display including a North American P-51D Mustang "Man O' War", North American T-28C Trojan "Check Mate", and a Supermarine Spitfire FR Mk XIV. The Commemorative Air Force sent out their Douglas C-53D Skytrooper and a North American SNJ-5 Texan. A Beechcraft C-45 Expeditor and T-34B Mentor rounded up the rest of the Warbirds on display. A small Fieseler Fi 156 Storch replica was also on display near the Army museum's display. Finally, a Grumman HU-16B Albatross that is now used for broadband testing found it's way to the event.
The US Marines brought out two big favorites throughout the day, a Bell MV-22B Osprey from VMM-151 'Greyhawks' and a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion from HMH-465 'Warhorses' both out of MCAS Miramar also in Southern California. Finally the Marines brought out a Bell AH-1W Super Cobra from HMLA-469 'Vengeance' based at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. Last but not least, the heavy presence was of course from the US Navy bringing a huge amount of aircraft (which some may have already been there training at NAF El Centro, so it's tough to tell on some if they were there just for the airshow). HS-10 'Warhawks' from Naval Air Station North Island brought out a beautiful red tailed Sikorsky SH-60F Seahawk, training squadron VT-22 'Golden Eagles' brought out their also colorfully painted McDonnell Douglas T-45T Goshawk, a Beech T-34C Mentor used by trainers to score F/A-18 bombing practice out at the ranges was also on display, and Training Air Wing 2 brought out their CONA (Centennial of Naval Aviation) retro painted T-45C Goshawk painted up as a 1939 WASP aircraft scheme. An Ex-Air Force Northrop F-5E Tiger II painted in Navy Aggressor markings from VFC-13 'Saints' and Lockheed S-3A Viking from VX-30 'Bloodhounds' rounded out the rare Naval aircraft.
Finally, we have the various types of Hornet and Super Hornets this year at NAF El Centro. Of course, the USN Blue Angels fly very old McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornets (but are slowly replacing them with F/A-18C Hornets) and the Rhino Demo team from VFA-122 'Flying Eagles' brought out two Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornets for the demonstration. One of my personal favorites was a F/A-18C Hornet with very unique and colorful CAG colors from VFA-94 'Might Shrikes' with red and black paint (and really neat hidden red flame designs under the horizontal stabilizers). Two electronic warfare converted Boeing EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-129 'Vikings' were on display, which has been somewhat of a rarity in recent west coast airshows. Finally, a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet two-seater also from VFA-122 'Flying Eagles' (VFA-122 is often practicing out at NAF El Centro ranges) was also on display. You could say it was a Hornet convention this airshow season, something I didn't mind in the least!
Airshow – Gates opened at 8am, and by at least 7am there were cars waiting to get into the gates. When I arrived at 7:30am, the line of cars was about 25-30, mostly die hard aviation fans and photographers like myself. As with every year, the cars were pulled off to the side of Bennett Road, which leads into the base. After waiting around for just over 30 minutes, the cars started to move and soon we were inside the base. I do have to hand it to NAF El Centro for their excellent parking and street directions; it's one of the best I've seen at airshows. Granted, they don't get the millions of people that MCAS Miramar (for example) would, but it's one of the easiest airshows/bases to enter, get to the parking area, and park. Every year it's the same parking lot, so returning guests will find it very easy to find the parking lot located in a large dirt field just outside the airshow entrance. It took less than 10 minutes to get into the base, park, and walk up to the airshow entrance where security was doing their normal checks. After passing the check point and entering the airshow area, it was straight to media check in and get my spot for the show. My plan was to quickly get the media badge, head out to the media pit and grab my spot (saving it with a chair), and then head over to shoot the static aircraft hopefully before the majority of the crowd arrived. Unfortunately, that didn't happen as planned.
There are always hiccups at airshows, especially on the first day. With an event this large and complex, it's hard to make sure every little detail is in its place before the hoards of people begin to show up. For the media that was arriving right at gate opening, we found ourselves being shuffled around from location to location as the media staff tried to figure out where we were to check in, and where the check in list was. Most of us were pretty patient, as having media is a privilege and courtesy of the Navy base and not an entitlement. Unfortunately, by the time we were checked in and shuttled over to the media pit, we'd already lost a good hour of time since gates opened; meaning most of the static shots would be filled with people. Kris, our liaison for the media, did his best to rectify the media situation and finally getting it all in order. The media pit was off to the far right of the airshow crowd line just beyond the VIP and chalet tents in a dirt area with small canopy overhang. First reaction might be disappointment at the set up, but upon looking up at show center most of that was erased when you see the tails of six beautiful blue and gold jets just feet away from you. After grabbing a spot in this media area, it was time to make my way out to the static aircraft, which was unfortunately now pretty packed with people.
Systematically making my way through the statics trying to get what shots I could waiting patiently for those little millisecond moments of emptiness around aircraft to snap shots, I realized that with the amount of statics that there were and the rapidly approaching start of the airshow, I would have to miss some of the flying in order to get these aircraft. My priority photography wise for this airshow was coverage of the military with civilian performers a second on the list, so I knew they'd unfortunately be hot or miss until I finished shooting statics. As I moved from aircraft to aircraft getting what I could, I noticed something I wasn't prepared for: Darth Vader walking around. The local Southern California 501st Legion was invited out to the airshow once again, and came in force with Stormtroopers, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and other assorted characters. They were all roaming around the various aircraft, and were a HUGE hit with the crowd generating sometimes longer lines for photos than the airplanes! As one of the main photographers for the 501st for the past 10 years, I knew that they'd be there at the airshow but it still surprised me as I'm just not used to seeing them at airshows! This was the second year the 501st attended the airshow, though last year I had to skip the NAF El Centro Airshow since I was onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier for the Tiger Cruise. Continuing down the lines of static aircraft, my time was running out before show start, and I was further (but happily) delayed further when I got a special call.
To those who read the NAF El Centro Photocall article, you may recall reading about how I was rather bummed about missing the opportunity to get a photo and touch a USN Blue Angel aircraft. Well, the article made some rounds at NAF El Centro, and made its way to Eric, the NAF El Centro Airshow Air Boss. He contacted me soon after asking if I was headed out to the Airshow and saying that we should try and arrange for a Blue Angel meeting to happen. Naturally, I was excited, but as with everything that happens at airshows I know people can get busy and forget or logistics come into play and it doesn't work out. Fortunately, at this airshow people were on top of their game and an opportunity came up. I got a call from a fellow photographer who was working with the Air Boss saying that if I could make my way to the announcer's platform I'd be able to get my wish and have a moment with the jets! Naturally, I stopped shooting statics and booked it over to the announcement platform, which was a good 5 minute walk across the airshow. Meeting up with Eric briefly, he said for about 5 minutes I could to head out to the Blues (that were parked on the taxiway) and be able to get that photo. I was beyond excited as myself and the fellow photographer (who tagged along to get the photo of me) walked past the crowd lines and onto the taxiway towards the Blues. As we approached them, I could hardly believe I was this close, and soon I was standing right besides the nose of Blue Angel #1. I got my photo with the Blue Angel, and was able to finally touch one after all these years. Check another big thing off my aviation bucket list, and a HUGE thank you to the Air Boss Eric for making it happen!
Those 5 minutes came and went quick, and we headed back to the VIP tent area in what seemed more like 5 seconds I had spent with the Angels. After some thank yous, I headed back to the airshow area to finish shooting statics. While shooting the rest of the aircraft, I missed photographing most of the day's aerobatic flying, which consisted of a US Navy Leap Frogs opening jump with national anthem, Torrey Ward flying his Glasair III, Bill Cornick in his Pitts S2-C, the pretty cool Pyro Jet Semi which I saw from a distance, Spencer Suderman in his Pitts S2-B Meteor, and finally a really nicely polished RV-8 by Rifle Airshows. As the Metal Mulisha motorcycle stunt show was taking place near the statics, I finally finished shooting and decided it was good time to get some food before the start of the F/A-18 Super Hornet demo. There were quite a few choices for food, but naturally I ended up with the usual very tasty grilled cheeseburger which cost $5. After scarfing it down, it was time to get ready for the first military act of the day, minus the C-2A Greyhound that took the US Navy Leap Frogs up for their earlier parachute run.
The F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstration with the VFA-122 aircraft was as always a very awesome show to watch. The power and maneuverability of the Super Hornet is pretty incredible to watch. Even with the dry and hot weather, the Super Hornet managed to pull some flight vapor with the high G-force maneuvers. Photos wise, the Super Hornet was a bit far out, as were many of the aerobatic flights. Even with a 400mm lens it was a bit difficult to get aircraft full frame in the viewfinder from the media pit. Thankfully, the dedication pass of the Super Hornet was enough to fill the frame with the light hitting it perfectly. That's one of the best things about NAF El Centro for photographers, the sun stays behind you just about all day, so all your shots are perfectly lit, especially come Blue Angel time. Following the Super Hornet demo and recovery of the demonstration Super Hornet, another F/A-18E Super Hornet took to the skies along with a World War 2 era Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat Warbird from the Commemorative Air Force for the special Legacy Flight. Both aircraft formed up very tightly (a rather rarity for the legacy flights) and made several passes in formation before landing. Following that was a search and rescue demonstration by the Naval Air Station Fallon SAR 'Longhorns' in a Sikorsky SH-60F Oceanhawk. The demonstration included one of the most rock steady hovers of a helicopter I've ever seen as two rescue personnel rappelled by rope and wrench down from the chopper to a spot marked by a smoke grenade. The chopper then circled around and recovered the two personnel via wrench concluding the demo.
Following the SAR demo it was time for another jump, and the full demonstration, of the US Navy Leap Frog parachute team out of the C-2A Greyhound. Navy personnel from all sorts of different Naval professions from seals to divers make up this team of parajumpers. With their modified parachutes, they perform several aerobatic tricks in the sky before making a perfect landing at a precise location near the crowds. After the last jumper had landed and the C-2A came in for landing, I got a call to head over to the USAF B-52 as the Star Wars characters were going to do something special. Walking out to the taxiway, I watched as in the distance personnel hooked up a tow to the SH-60F Oceanhawk that had just performed the Search and Rescue demo, and were bringing it from the hot ramp over to the static display area… with the Star Wars characters walking in front providing escort. Snapping some shots of them as they got close with no crowds, I followed them to the parking spot for the SH-60 and we shot some group photos of the characters with the chopper and the SAR crew. The nearby HS-10 'Warhawks' SH-60F Seakhawk came over and asked us to do a group photo with their crew and SH-60, so we made our way over there, with a large gathering crowd following. During this time Bill Cornick and Spencer Suderman went back up in their aircraft and had an aerobatic through the sky. Following that, the the Pyro Semi came out again for a demonstration and after a false start at first raced Spencer Suderman. Sadly, the Pyro Semi lost to the Spencer. With that, it was about time for the USN Blue Angels, and the long walk back to the media area to prep for their takeoff as Tim Weber went up in his GEICO Extra 300S.
Normally, the Blue Angels start their show with a special demo by their US Marine support aircraft that travels with them to airshow carrying their support crew, maintenance team, extra gear, and replacement parts. This support aircraft is a specially painted Lockheed C-130 Hercules affectionately known as 'Fat Albert' (nicknamed 'Bert'). Unfortunately, Fat Albert is down being worked on for overhauls and other various well needed checks, so in times like this the Marines will call on a chosen C-130 Hercules from an active squadron, and temporarily nickname that Hercules 'Ernie.' If any of you reading are Sesame Street fans, you'll instantly recognize the significance of 'Bert' and 'Ernie.' The C-130 they borrowed was from VMGR-234 'Rangers' based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. Aside from a black and white smaller painted Blue Angel crest logo just under the cockpit, this C-130 Hercules looks just as it was in the normal squadron with the standard US Marine grey tones, so it's a bit odd to see if performing before the Blue Angels, who fly very colorful jets and with 'Fat Albert' usually just as colorful. As always, the US Marine crew flying 'Fat Albert' did a really great job making some really nice passes demonstrating the power of the long-lived C-130 Hercules. Following Bert's landing, it was finally time for the Blues to take the show.
If you've never seen a Blue Angel performance, you're missing out. Don't bother trying to watch a performance on Youtube; and ESPECIALLY don't say "Well, I saw the USAF Thunderbirds and they are all the same!" These two teams are not the same in many different ways, and you have to be there in person to really feel the thrill and power of the F/A-18 Hornets flying as close as 36 inches apart at times. Starting off the show, the USN Blue Angel pilots march in Navy precision formation and break off as each is introduced and reaches his jet. Once all the Blues are inside their aircraft and their support crew has very quickly prepped their aircraft, it's time for engines on. With the Thunderbirds, this process can take a good 30 minutes. The Blue Angels do it in 10 or less. Soon, Blue Angel #1, or 'Boss', taxis out and each Blue Angel in numerical order follows behind. Reaching the end of the taxiway and on to the runway, the team will split into two groups (at most airshows this happens, but not all depending on the airfield setup): the Diamond group (Numbers #1-#4) and the two solos (#5-#6) and head towards opposite ends of the runway. After a short check of the systems, the Blues are off with the diamond formation taking off together in formation and immediately performing a loop. Then the Solos will take off, sometimes together and in this case one at a time, with the #5 pilot doing a dirty (landing gear down) roll immediately on take off and the #6 pilot pulling up the gear but staying low to the ground till just after the runway ends where he'll pull up suddenly. The maneuvers vary throughout the show, but mostly consist of the diamond formation doing all the graceful rolls, loops, breaks, etc while in perfect tight formation and the two solo pilots down all the aerobatic, high G, and passing eachother at high speeds going opposite directions seeming to be on a collision course. Finally, the team will join up together in what's known as the 6 plane delta formation for their final aerobatics before the end of the show.
Just in the time between seeing the team at the NAF El Centro photocall and this first public performance at an airshow, you could easily see the improvement. The formations were tighter; the aircraft hit the cues on time and with great precision. There were still some things that could be fixed, but after flying airshows week after week performing demos, the team will have perfected these maneuvers in no time flat. Practice makes perfect, and they will certainly get a lot of it! The sun to our rear, the light on the Blues was beyond beautiful bringing out the vivid blue and gold colors against the lighter blue sky. Our nation's Ambassadors in Blue is a very fitting way to describe the Blue Angels, and as they performed there wasn't just about anyone who wasn't staring skyward either with their mouths hung open, a big smile, or a camera pushed against their faces. With every airshow, and NAF El Centro is no different, it's the Blue Angels that bring all the people closer to the crowd lines, and suddenly all movement stops to watch. After landing, the Blues taxied back in the same precision they showed in the air and all lined up perfectly, with the help of their support crew, parking right in front of the VIP tent area on the taxiway that they left on. Each pilot exited their aircraft while once again introduced, and the first demonstration of the season finished with a salute towards the crowd and handshake among all the pilots.
Following a short debriefing, the Blues headed over to the VIP/Media area to sign autographs and briefly meet with the fans. The lines where soon huge as people mobbed the pilots trying to get autographs on anything with a Blue Angel picture, even toys. Yes, these are TRUE celebrities and people you can look up to. Even I dreamed, when little, of being a Blue Angel pilot. With the conclusion of the Blue Angels demonstration, the first military and Blue Angel airshow of the year had come to a close. The crowds dispersed rather quickly, and from what I heard the traffic wasn't too bad getting out. Some people waited around enjoying the static aircraft some more before finally heading out as the sun started its journey towards the distant mountains. Myself and several media photographers decided to hang out and wait for a while as the crowds left, a way to make up for the earlier shots we missed of the static aircraft without people in the morning. Once we finally made our way from the media pit and chalet tents back to the main airshow area, the crowds were almost nonexistent. There were very few people left in the base. With the sun turning all the aircraft into golden orange colors, it was a perfect time to snap shots. While the security forces weren't telling people they had to leave immediately, they were encouraging people to at least make their way, even if somewhat slowly getting their shots, towards the exit. Only the die hard photographers pretty much remained at this time. After capturing some of the final shots of the aircraft I really wanted without people, I decided it was time to go. It was good timing anyway, as the security forces had finally started to encourage people to head out with a little more urgency; after all they wanted to be done with their day! Walking through the fence I looked back at the MV-22 Osprey, CH-53E Super Stallion, and the noses of Hornets that sat under the large shade overhangs I smiled and headed towards the car.
Overall, the airshow was a pretty good success. With the declining in so much funding and rising of fuel costs, we should all be thankful that we still have these wonderful events and get to witness the power and amazement of these incredible machines. Yes, the airshow wasn't as big as previous years, but with the Blue Angels headlining, the F/A-18 Super Hornet demo, and a large list of statics to look at on top of your usual line-up of aerobatics… I'd say it was a well done show. The light was perfect for photography, and the weather warm but not nearly unbearable with the nice breeze. It's a wonderful show to start the Airshow season and a traditional airshow for many people to catch every year. I'm already looking forward to next year's show, but I have a feeling I'll be back to NAF El Centro sooner than that!
|REVIEW AT A GLANCE: NAF EL CENTRO 2012|
|PARKING:||Free, and a short walk from the entrance to the base. Lines to get in for the best parks start an hour before gates open.|
|COST:||As with any military base airshow, the cost is free! There were VIP chalets and grandstands you could purchase tickets for.|
|SEATING:||With the large flight line, the sitting area for people to put chairs down was gigantic. There's plenty of room to see the show just about anywhere on the base. Otherwise, for a fee you can purchase the chalet tents or grandstands.|
|WEATHER:||Very HOT. Drink water and bring sunscreen.|
|SECURITY:||Normal military base bag check screening.|
|A few warbirds mixed in with a vast assortment of US Marine and US Navy modern aircraft. Several vintage vehicles were also on display.|
|Several aerobatic demos by various performers.|
|The US Navy Leap Frogs performed a jump twice in the day, the US Navy Super Hornet demonstration team, and the US Navy Blue Angels (headliners).|
|FOOD:||Several food vendors there offering about average airshow food prices. Burgers, hot dogs, nachos, etc.|
|VENDORS:||There were a couple of merchandise vendors and local organization booths. A large play area was constructed for kids.|
|EXIT TIMES:||Pretty quick exit, very efficiently.|
|NEXT AIRSHOW:||March of 2013|
(dates not released during this posting)
|OVERALL:||A great show to catch to start the airshow season and catch the USN Blue Angels. You can always count on there being lots of modern military aircraft at NAF El Centro.|
For more photos from the event, you can check out the photo gallery for the entire
NAF El Centro Airshow 2012 here on Warbird Photos.