Centennial of Naval Aviation Kicks Off in San Diego

The Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA) Parade of Flight, held on February 12th 2011, will be what I judge all other aviation events against for a very long time.  It was the Kickoff event of the year-long celebration of 100 years of naval aviation.  The Parade of Flight featured more than 170 aircraft in the air and close to 75 more on the ground at NAS North Island.  It was largest fly-over of San Diego since the end of World War II, and it was billed as the first Parade of Flight there since 1932’s exhibition in support of the Los Angeles Olympics. During the Parade, every minute or two an aircraft or a formation was in the sky in front of the estimated 70,000 spectators aboard NAS North Island, or the other thousands that lined the opposite shores or watched the spectacle from boats and ships.  The flying show centered in front of the super carrier USS John C. Stennis, which was berthed at North Island.  The Stennis hosted various Distinguished Visitors and VIPs during the event, becoming a towering 103,300 ton stage that is a testament to the progress of US Naval Aviation.

San Diego is rich in aviation history.  The future first Naval Aviator, LT Theodore G. Ellyson, watched as pioneer Glenn Curtiss made the first successful “hydroaeroplane” flight in San Diego Bay in January, 1911.  The site was less than a half a mile from where the Stennis was docked a century later.  Glenn Curtiss taught Theodore Ellyson how to fly on Coronado’s North Island too.  Before the main Parade event, the San Diego Air and Space Museum’s replica Curtiss A-1 Triad, which was the Navy’s first airplane, was taxied into the Bay and raced around the area, even lifting off for a brief period.  A century later, Naval Aviation had come full circle, and the Centennial Parade of Flight had begun.

To give the show full credit, one has to look at the two different, smaller programs that made up the entire one-day Kickoff event.  One focused on activity in the air, the other focused on the ground.  On the NAS North Island ramp, a portion of the 75-plus aircraft on display included seventeen Centennial “retro” or “throwback” color-schemed aircraft, ranging from small single-engined trainers to large, multi-engined patrol aircraft.  Each design was chosen a few years ago, and went through a long approval process before a high ranking officer signed off on the non-standard markings on the Navy aircraft.  Many designs were significant for the host squadron, or followed a famous design from, say, a World War II color scheme.  Although not perfectly matched (airframe designs change, and old schemes can’t be duplicated well on them), most faithfully tried to replicate “how it was”, even right down to the official military paint color specifications.   Which aircraft got the paint scheme usually depended upon which one was coming out of a maintenance cycle and needed new paint, after depot level inspections and repairs were made.  There were F/A-18 Hornets, T-45 Goshawks, MH/HH-60 helicopters and others with attractive schemes, including one Hawaii-based P-3 Orion in the stunning 1950s era color scheme of Seaplane Gray on the bottom and Insignia White on top.

If you liked color, there were more specially painted aircraft besides the Centennial ones.  There were plenty of warbirds about, in their colorful period costumes of bright colors.  Even a large group of today’s jets and props sported “CAG bird” colors, those are specially marked airplanes each Navy squadron is allowed to produce. Although not at ground level, even more aircraft that participated in the Parade of Flight were painted in high visibility colors too… a total of 52 active military aircraft had markings of interest out of a total of nearly 250 that were involved in the show.

In the air, the two-hour long procession was broken down into roughly four acts: warbirds showing a brief history of naval aviation, followed by Marine Corps aviation, then Coast Guard aviation, and finally active Navy representation.  The timing of this Parade was spectacular; every minute or two yielded another aircraft or formation on stage.  The Blue Angels opened the Parade in their signature Delta formation, trailing smoke.  The grand finale was just that; a thirty five aircraft formation made up of 29 F/A-18s, 3 EA-6 Prowlers, and 3 E-2 Hawkeyes from Carrier Wing Nine, assigned to the USS Stennis.

This Parade was not supposed to be a traditional air show, with stunt flying and anyone “turning and burning” over downtown San Diego.  In fact, nearby San Diego International Airport/Lindberg Field (the commercial airport across the bay) operated seemingly normal, as jetliners were coming and going throughout the Parade. What the parade did do was to present a vast amount of aircraft to gaze at for nearly two hours; a different kind of air show indeed.  As soon as one flight would pass, you’d turn and look over your left shoulder to find the next “inbound”, and try to identify the aircraft as it (or they, if it was a formation) approached. This went on for almost two hours!

In my 30-plus years of attending aviation events and air shows, this is the largest in terms of sheer numbers of aircraft that I’ve seen in flight on one day.  Most types and models that the modern Navy, Marines and Coast Guard operate were present; most models were represented in the air as well as on the ground.  An amazing amount of colorful aircraft were assembled, many more than what is normally seen at an air show too.  It’ll be a long time before this event will be eclipsed by another of its kind, I suspect. The Kickoff was a great start to what is shaping up to be an exciting year of Centennial events.

Ken Kula

Additional Photos by Dave Budd

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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