Sixty Three Hours at the Boston-Portsmouth Air Show
It might sound a bit excessive, but spread out over a six-day span, I spent sixty three hours of voluntary time helping to set up and then staff the Media Center and Photo Pit at the 2012 Boston-Portsmouth Air Show. It wasn’t as bad as it seems… in between setting up chairs or fencing, escorting news crews to their next interview, taking photos for the organizers, and helping to facilitate the early morning photo tours and staffing the Photo Pit, I did had a bit of down time awaiting my next task. I got to hang around an airport for a few very rewarding hours, watching some extremely talented aviators practice, and then perform their routines in front of 60,000 fans over the weekend. Additionally, when I wasn’t occupied doing the air show tasks, I had a front row seat to watch the regular operations at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease, which attracts some interesting visitors to the former Air Force base in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. Some of my highlights include:
Tuesday June 26th: After a heavy thunderstorm around 5PM, Blue Angel 7, flown by the team’s narrator and carrying his crew chief, arrived at Pease to brief the air show organizers and insure preparations for the rest of the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron were underway. A few news correspondents were present; I rode along with them to meet the first air show performer to touch down this year. Two hours.
Wednesday June 27th: I helped assemble the media and VIP passengers that would depart in a pair of New Hampshire Air National Guard KC-135 tankers to join the remainder of the Blue Angels’ jets over South Carolina, and refuel them so a nonstop flight from Pensacola Florida to Pease could be accomplished. After all of the paperwork was signed and collected, the passengers were sent on their way and I went out to see how our Photo Pit and Media Area was beginning to shape up out on the air show ramp. Our enclosure sat right next to a well used taxiway, and the show organizers set aside a great deal of space for media and premium ticket holders to be able to photograph aircraft without spectators, tents or flags in the way. In between putting up fencing and chairs in our prime vantage point, I saw some sharp corporate aircraft come and go, including a rather rare Falcon 10 jet. “Ernie”, the current Blue Angels support KC-130T, arrived shortly after 4PM, and the six Blue Angel jets arrived at 5PM, right on schedule. Ernie is Fat Albert’s (or “Bert” as he is affectionately known) stand-in during a period of scheduled maintenance this year for the normal blue and yellow, Marine Corps-crewed team transport. In a preview of coming attractions, the six jets taxied within 100 feet of the front of our Photo Pit, perfect for our premium photographer seating at our weekend air show! Twelve hours.
Thursday June 28th: I arrived at the airport early in the morning, as it was Media Day at the show. Many of the local television, radio and newspaper outlets sent reporters and cameramen to interview, among others, the Blue Angels. It was great to watch the professionals at work… both the media representatives and the Blue Angels pilots. I’m still amazed at the large amount of time spent interviewing, filming, and picture taking that is culled down into a 30 to 45 second report that goes out on radio, newscasts or front pages. Hearing the whole story, instead of the short blurbs you see and hear, is more interesting to me. One pilot commented upon the beauty of the area… when the Diamond formation descended below the broken cloud deck, the lush green colors of the New England summer, followed by the picturesque coastline really caught their attention. In fact, the team wanted to know where the lighthouses in the area were, for a possible team aerial formation photo op! At noon, the team began doing their Course and Distance timing/practice maneuvers to get used to the area, and check for obstructions they’d need to avoid. Later that afternoon, there was a full dress rehearsal by the Blues, including Ernie’s routine. Some of the static display aircraft began to arrive too, including a soon-to-be-retired MC-130E Combat Talon I transport and a Minot ND based B-52 bomber. Either side of the full team practice, a non-air show heavyweight visitor arrived, much to my delight. Before the practice show, a Southern Air B-747 freighter landed and parked in its normal spot in front of the cargo building, where it would stay throughout the weekend. After the dress rehearsal, a surprise Boeing Dreamlifter appearance caught many by surprise. Operated by Atlas Air, the oversized cargo carrier used Pease as an intermediate stopover point between Europe and Charleston SC, presumably carrying B-787 parts between factories. The big jet stayed for about 90 minutes to clear customs and grab some fuel before departing to the south. Both Boeing cargo craft dwarfed the B-52 bomber, which surprised me a lot! Twelve hours.
Friday June 29th: Practice day for the air show, with another day’s worth of media guests in the Area. Many of the dozen volunteers who’d later staff the Media/Photo Pit Area were on hand to meet, greet, and discuss what we’d be doing the rest of the weekend. Besides this volunteer dress rehearsal, we watched a full air show rehearsal too. Around mid-morning, a moderate rain fell for an hour, making for a change of photographic conditions, and some interesting lighting for an LC-130H Herc arriving for static parking. The sun came out quickly, and the weather remained bright and warm for the rest of the weekend… glad we got that out of our system in the morning! The remainder of static aircraft arrived throughout the day, as well as many corporate jets…- it was still somewhat business as usual. A Boeing BBJ, registered in Aruba, but operated for a Saudi Arabian company, was an unusual visitor who cleared customs, refueled, and departed in a short amount of time. Friday evening was the sponsor’s reception with the air show performers. It was a chance to mingle and talk about the upcoming show, about how so many organizations benefit from the performers and the sponsors’ efforts. Additionally, each performer said a few words, such as why they wanted to perform in New England, or to thank the show organizers for inviting them to what has become a prestigious event in three short years. As a beautiful orange sunset faded to cobalt blue, it was time to leave for a few hours, until the main event began early the next morning. Fifteen hours.
Saturday June 30th: A wonderfully warm and breezy day for an air show. Our early morning photo tour allowed around 75 lucky fans early access to photograph our static display without much activity around the aircraft, and those who purchased the Photo Pit add-on tickets got into our compound, right next to the active taxiway. Our Pit area had an access directly to the flight line, and the Golden Knights walked through the Pit on their way to and from the general admission spectator area when it was time to repack their parachutes… our photographers in the Pit got great photos of the team landing only 50 or 60 feet away from our fence. I happened to meet Marine Lt. Col. (Ret.) “Mac” McLean, who is a World War II and Korean War veteran fighter pilot, with hundreds if not thousands of hours of prop and jet fighters, including Corsairs and Panthers. In fact, at one point I had the honor of sitting with three World War II veterans at the same time. The B-25 “Panchito” taxied so close to our area, that all of those “long lenses” everyone was using became bulky, expensive protuberances as we all scrambled to get a wide angle lens on a camera body! In the end, it was another safe air show day, with nary a complaint or even constructive criticism uttered by our patrons. It was heartening to watch the interaction between some of the media photographers and our Photo Pit customers, talking about cameras, techniques, and even possible career opportunities. Eleven hours.
Sunday July 1st: One more day to go… and another beautiful day for an air show, although it got a bit hotter and more humid towards the end of the day. The photo tour was a smaller group on Sunday, and gained access to three transport cockpits to take photos earlier than the general admission spectators did. One of the aircraft was the MC-130E, which had begun its career in Vietnam, and was the command aircraft on the ground in Iran during the aborted Desert One mission. Nicknamed “The Phoenix”, 64-0565 will the last of her breed retired in the Autumn of 2013; a very historic aircraft whose crew were very eager to tell of the aircraft’s missions and some of their experiences. Again, the show went off without a hitch, and we volunteers began to breathe a sigh of relief as the Blue Angels lit their engines. By 4:15PM,, the last Blue Angel had landed, the crowds streamed out the gates, and out air show was all but over. A few of us broke down the chairs and tables in our Photo Pit, turned in some equipment that was assigned to us, and left the ramp at 5PM. Eleven hours.
I reflecting upon those sixty three hours as I walked out of a service gate. I had achieved a pair of goals I had set out to do… that the air show was as safe as I could make it, and that our media and photo tour/photo pit spectators enjoyed themselves. As bonuses, I’d seen and photographed a lot of aircraft over the past six days; some which I was familiar with, others that I’d never seen before. I learned a bit about the Pease airport and how it handles some interesting international air traffic too. And I gained a new appreciation of how many performers deal with interviews, and in social settings too… and all of it was quite positive. Luckily, I had a lot of time to give, and that time I spent volunteering repaid me with some great aviation experiences.