Aviation Nation Roars Back to Life at Nellis AFB
After a one year hiatus due to a base inspection, 2016’s Aviation Nation roared back to life in the Nevada desert just north of the famous Las Vegas strip. Approximately 300,000 visitors entered the bases over the span of Veteran’s Day weekend for the two-day show, which was held on November 12th and 13th. Base personnel actually had to start turning folks away after the parking lots at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway filled to capacity by 1230 on Saturday. Of all the air shows I go to every year, this is by far my favorite show due to the awesome display of modern-day air power and the vast array of aircraft that you don’t see very often at other shows. Notable aircraft that were in attendance included a TC-135 Rivet Joint, a Mi-24 Hind, an AH-64D Apache Longbow, a RC-12 Huron (which had antennas coming off of it from seemingly every angle), an EO-5C, an Aggressor F-5, Draken International’s A-4 Skyhawk, L-159E ALCA, and Aermacchi MB-339CB, and two magnificent QF-4 Phantom IIs, one of which flew each day.
The shows were kicked off each day with morning parachute jumps carrying the flag of all US military branches and the playing of the national anthem. One of the many things I love about the Nellis show is that while they have civilian performers to compliment the military acts, the few they have are top notch acts. This year, show goers were treated to a 24-plane formation by the West Coast Ravens in their custom built RVs, Chuck Coleman in his Extra 300, and Vickie Benzing in her red 1940 Stearman.
After Vickie landed, aircraft of multiple generations were launched in chronological order. For starters, several warbirds raced down the show line, while pyrotechnics exploded just behind them. A P-40 Warhawk battled a Japanese Aichi Val, while T-28s, a T-6, a P-63 King Cobra, and a P-51 Mustang raced though the pattern. A B-25J Mitchell made several passes on low altitude bombing runs, as did a gorgeous PB4Y Privateer.
On came the Korean War aircraft which had a beautiful red and silver Mig-15 screaming across the airfield being chased by a T-33 Shooting Star and F-86 Sabre jet.
Then, as we got to the Vietnam era, the star of the show took to the air for the final time in front of an air show audience. The mighty QF-4 Phantom II thundered past the crowd for 6 breathtaking passes each day. Jim ‘Wham” Harkins and Lt Col. Ron ‘Elvis’ King traded piloting duties each day giving most people in attendance what would be their last look at the “Phamous Phantom in Phlight” before being retired for good, later in December. If the show had nothing else, just spending time with my Father, who worked on the Phantom during Vietnam, and seeing the look on his face as the Cold War legend thundered by each day, was well worth it, but there was even more.
After Greg Colyer put his T-33 ‘Ace Maker II’ through its paces, he was challenged by the Smoke-N-Thunder jet car to a race. The way I saw it, they split the 2 races by very close margins, but it depends on who you ask. Just as they crossed the finish line, an intense wall of fire erupted behind them. To tackle this fire, an OV-10 Bronco guided in a DC-10 Fire Bomber to drench the flames with over 11,500 gallons of water.
Immediately following the fire-fighting efforts, Nellis’ own demos came into play. Suddenly, air raid sirens were blaring as two F-16C Fighting Falcons from the 65th Aggressor Squadron, home based at Nellis, came screaming by the crowd in full afterburner. As they banked hard to get into position to “re-attack”, each one kicked out flares to evade any missiles that may have been launched at them. Two F-15D Eagles leaped off the runway in pursuit, and then the fight was on. Jinking back and forth and spewing flares, the enemy aggressors tried to doge their pursuers, but they were no match for the Eagles this day.
After they departed the airspace, F-15E Strike Eagles and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs performed bombing and strafing runs to eliminate enemy ground positions in preparation for a medivac extraction. After several passes with explosions erupting and scorching the earth, two HH-60 Pavehawks came swooping in to extract the wounded Airmen. While one hoisted the patient into the hovering helo, the other kept a close eye out for any further enemy activity. As they departed the airspace, the Thunderbolts and Strike Eagles napalmed the area to further ensure that all enemy forces were vaporized. On their final battle damage assessment runs, both Eagles dumped all their remaining flares as they rocketed up high into the deep blue sky.
Other military demonstrations this year included the C-17 Globemaster III, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the always breathtaking F-22 Raptor, the Heritage Flight, (with the F-22, F-35 Lightning II, and F-86 Sabre) and the always impressive home based Thunderbirds in their final show of the year.
Nellis has something for everyone and seems to get better and better each show. I can’t wait for this show each year, and just like that, it’s over. However the planning and preparation is already underway for the 2017 air show.
I’d like to thank Ms.Lea Greene, A1C Kevin Tanenbaum, and the entire 99th Air Base Wing’s Public Affairs Office for their incredible hospitality as they have always shown, and for allowing us an up close look into the best and brightest Air Force the world has to offer.