2011 Patuxent River Air Expo
During the two weeks that preceded the 2011 NAS Patuxent River Air Expo, southern Maryland endured the rattle of an earthquake and the rain and winds of Hurricane Irene. Definitely not good air show weather! The two-day (Saturday and Sunday) Labor Day weekend air show went on as planned though, with only a few downed trees and departing convoys of electric service trucks serving as reminders of the power of nature that inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay area felt just days earlier.
“Pax River”, as it is usually called, is home to a number of Naval research, development, acquisition, and test and evaluation organizations, as well as the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. It is common to see multiple examples of almost every fixed and rotary winged aircraft in the Navy and Marines inventory spread around the base. The nearby Webster Field Annex contains much of the Navy’s unmanned air systems research and development too. The base prides itself as being “where the future of Naval Aviation begins”. For an air show enthusiast, it’s a rare opportunity to see some seldom-observed aircraft close up.
An air show at Pax River always contains an interesting aircraft static display. The Navy’s Test Pilot School uses a mix of old and new aircraft in its curriculum; an example of this was the 1950’s vintage NU-1B DHC Otter, parked next to a 2006 American Eurocopter H-72A Lakota, spanning half of the 100 years of Naval Aviation. The Navy’s newest manned patrol aircraft, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, was parked adjacent to a modified version of today’s workhorse P-3 Orion. The future was also in attendance as a Global Hawk, the unmanned Broad Area Maritime Surveillance jet, was parked further up the taxiway too.
The energetic push by the US military to embrace alternate fuel was evident at the show. The Navy’s first jet to fly with a 50/50 percent bio- and jet fuel mixture, a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet, was parked next to a T-45 jet trainer and a MH-60 helicopter; all had been used to validate the usefulness of so-called bio-jet fuel. The MV-22 Osprey that flew a series of passes in the beginning of the air show was powered with the 50/50 mixture, and in one of the biggest news stories of the show, all 6 Blue Angels flew with the mixture during their routines too. A show spectator “in the know” stated one reason that a full tank of 100 percent bio-fuel can’t be flown yet is because there are some elements found in petroleum-based jet fuel that aren’t found in the bio-fuel… natural lubricants that treat fuel pumps and engine seals against wear and tear. The industry and the Navy are actively working to solve that issue.
Being a Centennial of Naval Aviation Tier 1 event, there were six very interesting aircraft on display with CONA color schemes. An F/A-18C Hornet wore the vivid orange and cream pattern used for weapons development aircraft from the 1960s. It is based at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California. Another test aircraft, one of only four active Lockheed S-3 Vikings flying in the U.S., came from the Naval Air Weapons Station Point Mugu in California, and is painted in a World War II Battle of Midway color scheme. The newest and final of the 27 CONA-painted aircraft is a Pensacola Florida-based T-6A Texan II finished in a deep blue color, with a white checkerboard nose commemorating Marine Corsairs from World War II and beyond. A T-44A Pegasus trainer (a militarized Beech King Air 90) from Corpus Christi Texas is finished in the colors of the NC-4 flying boat that was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The other two were NAS Whiting Field (Florida) based T-34C Turbo Mentors, one featuring 1930s Coast Guard colors, the other one in pre-World War II Marine colors.
The aerial portion of the show offered an interesting Naval Aviation heritage flight presented through a loose formation with the aforementioned MV-22 and a Curtis-Ely pusher replica flown by retired Navy Commander Bob Coolbaugh. A trio of prop-driven civilian trainer teams, the Aerostars, Trojan Horsemen, and GEICO Skytypers performed, as did the Air Force’s Viper East F-16 team, Larry Kelley and company in the TB-25 “Panchito”, and Art Nalls in his Sea Harrier (that’s right – a civilian owned Harrier!). Two parachute teams, the Army’s Golden Knights and the Red Bull Air Force’s jumpers, thrilled the crowds, as did two other Red Bull members – Kirby Chambliss (Edge 540 aerobatics) and Chuck Aaron (BO-105 helicopter aerobatics). The flying began with the Radio Active model plane show, which was somewhat ironic as much of the Navy’s unmanned air systems are tested at nearby St. Inigoes’ Webster Field Annex. The flying ended with the newly “green” Blue Angels using the 50/50 fuel mixture to grace their way across the southern Maryland skies.
An interesting omission from the show was the lack of either F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) variant from the Navy and Marines, that are being tested at the base. Many air show enthusiasts had hoped to see one or two of the newest aircraft in the fleet, either in the air or on the ground. There was no official announcement at the show as to why the locally-based jets weren’t on display.
In any event, the show drew large, enthusiastic crowds, and with Monday being Labor Day, hopefully some of the hard-working participants and volunteers from the show had a day off to clean up after the previous weeks’ forces of nature!