My 2015 Air Show Finale Weekend
The distance “as the crow flies” between NAS Pensacola and Moody AFB is just 280 miles. What a coincidence that this pair of military air bases would host the final large events of the 2015 North American air show season, being so close to each other. Two of the U.S.’s top military flight demonstration teams, the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, would be just 20 minutes apart (by jet speed) on the same weekend, and within reach for me to attend both of their season’s finales.
Better yet, Pensacola’s shows were scheduled for Friday and Saturday, while Moody’s shows were to be presented on Saturday and Sunday, giving me a bit of flexibility with my travel plans. Unfortunately for us (my wife, sister-in-law and me), foggy weather at Pensacola and rainy weather at Moody left my precise plans in disarray, but I still got to watch most of a full day of flying at each venue, and witnessed each team’s finale weekends.
A big bonus for any Pensacola air show – otherwise known as the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show – is that the base is also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum. That facility contributes a fair amount of pristinely-restored retired veteran aircraft to the static display, and many even look airworthy! This is always a great warbird show as far as static displays go, at least. The nearby Museum displayed the only Vought F6U-1 Pirate in existence, as well as an A4D-1 Skyhawk, EA-3B Skyraider, and an F-14A Tomcat… all early versions of the aircraft types.
Friday’s shows – both the daytime and the evening air shows – were occasionally impacted by low clouds and visibility, but for the most part, all performers flew their routines at least once. Morning scud delayed the flying introduction, but by early afternoon, the skies cleared and many performers, including the Blue Angels, displayed some mighty vapor trails as they flew.
Civilian performers who welcomed home the Blue Angels included: Doc Serrato in his T-28, The Stearman Team, Kevin Coleman in his Extra 300SHP, The Shockwave Jet Truck (team truck drivers Neal Darnell and his son Chris ran their Shockwave jet truck at Pensacola and their Flashfire jet truck at Moody AFB too), Gene Soucy with Teresa Stokes on his AgCat’s wing, Team Redline in their RV-8s, The GEICO Skytypers in their SNJ-2s, Jeff Boerboon in the Screaming Sasquatch Jet WACO, and Mike Goulian in his Extra 330SC.
A surprise series of fly-bys from a pair of Navy F-35C Lightning IIs (that had been operating at nearby Eglin AFB) included individual approaches followed by a join-up and departure, with vortices streaming from their wingtips. Fat Albert, the C-130T, streamed vapor vortices off the ends of its props as the Marine Crew put the aircraft through its paces. And the Blue Angels jets continuously streamed vapor too.
A few interesting notes about the show stuck in my mind. Delta Airlines presented a newly refurbished Boeing B-757 on display, fresh from the factory after a new cabin interior was installed. The blue cabin Moodlighting and slimmer seats were inviting, and although Delta has had an air show team working for 20 years now, this was the first and only show they did this year. That has a lot to do with aircraft not being available to do a weekend’s “down time” at air shows, when the volume of passengers during the busier summertime is growing and aircraft are out of service for retrofit too.
A great feature were the Captains posing with kids of all ages as they sat in the engine cowlings on the jet for pictures!
Both the GEICO Skytypers and Team AeroDynamix used lighting and smoke to paint a surreal picture in the sky during their evening flights. Pyrotechnics from Gene Soucy and the Redline Team drew admiring “ooohs” and “aaaahs” too!
Friday evening’s show was cut short by two events… a low cloud bank that curtailed flying due to low ceilings, and just a few minutes after the clouds cleared away, something else happened that one seldom gets to watch in person – an actual in-flight emergency arrival to the airport. NAS Pensacola’s Sherman Field has three main runways, a parallel pair and an angled single runway; all three have arresting cables available at the ends for emergency arrests.
A group of Navy EF-18G Growlers departed from a nearby base, and announcer Rob Reider relayed that one reported landing gear problems. The decision to divert to the nearest Navy base (and to the Blue Angels’ home base where expert F/A-18 Hornet fixers are stationed and maintain the same base model as the Growler) was made, and the arresting gear was rigged. Team Advantix was recovered onto the now-darkened airfield, and all surface lights were turned up as Crash/Fire/Rescue trucks deployed. Soon, the ailing jet came into view and with a shower of sparks marking the point where the tail hook contacted the runway, successfully caught the arresting gear and came to a halt. In an amazingly short time – maybe 10 minutes or so – the jet was towed away, the cable was re-rigged, and the evening’s fireworks finale went off, pretty much on time.
With the best of intentions, we hit the road early Saturday morning to arrive at Moody AFB in time for the flying to begin. Unfortunately, a costly pair of errors… a balky GPS and my forgetfulness of the time zone change from Pensacola’s Central Time to Moody’s Eastern Time, cost us a couple of hours, enough to miss about a third of the show on Saturday.
Moody AFB is located to the north of Valdosta, GA and home of an Air Combat Command Wing that hosts a Group of A-10C Thunderbolts, and a Group that specializes in Combat Search and Rescue, using HC-130J transports/refuelers and HH-60G rescue helicopters too. These and other units all fall under the command of the 23rd Wing, which can trace its heritage back to the Flying Tigers/American Volunteer Group formed during World War II.
A Commemorative Air Force P-40 Warhawk fighter, complete with the requisite shark’s mouth and Chinese markings, was one of the flying acts, tying the past with the present.
Finally arriving mid-show, one of the first acts we watched was a bright yellow T-6 Texan aerobatic routine, followed by Greg Koontz in his Super Decathalon. Clouds were boiling up around us as they flew, but fortunately they never reached rain or lightning-producing levels for the rest of the afternoon. The Air Force Academy’s Wings of Blue Parachute Team descended onto show center next, in two groups from a home-based HC-130J transport. Next up was Greg Colyer in his Acemaker T-33, which made a few additional bonus passes for the crowd at the end of his show, down low and fast training thick smoke. The Commemorative Air force’s FG-1D Corsair was the final warbird presentation in the sky, although we had missed a P-51 Mustang, P-40 Warhawk and F-86 Sabre demonstration because of our later than expected arrival. Current U.S. National and World Freestyle Aerobatic Champion Rob Holland finished up the civilian performances by presenting his unbeatable aerobatics, and then raced the Flashfire jet truck for good measure… and it looked like a tie between the screaming vehicles to me… Of course, the grand finale was the Air Force Thunderbirds, which flew one of their twin-seat F-16D jets in the slot position for their performance, an unusual sight.
On the ground, a trio of warbirds, A C-47, T-6 and B-17 were arrayed on the static ramp, open for inspection. The B-17 Memphis Belle, operated by the Liberty Foundation, drew large crowds, not only because it is a rare bird, but its broad wings could shade dozens of spectators. The C-47 was a real World War II veteran, flying dangerous missions during the D-Day invasion and Operation Market Garden. It was transferred to the Canadian Air Force, and after declared surplus, was used as transportation by the crew of the Greenland Expedition Society, which recovered the P-38 Glacier Girl between 1989 and 1992. Later, it returned to Europe, and flew during a 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion commemoration, complete with a paratroop drop from the aircraft!
There were a few surprises in the Moody static display as far as active military aircraft go. A TH-1H Huey helicopter, utilized by the 23rd Flying Training Squadron, was one on a handful of this type still operated by the Air Force. The unit is based at Fort Rucker AL, and provides follow-on training for undergraduate aircrew members before they continue in the Combat Search and Rescue field. The Afghanistan Air Force’s A-29 Super Tucano on display was the 13th and most recent arrival to Moody AFB, where they are used as trainers for new pilots and rear seat flight officers. The A-29s will ultimately number 20, and be sent to their parent country after training the entire initial cadre of air crew occurs in a year or two at Moody. Through the Military Assistance Program, these aircraft are actually USAF owned right now, and will be transferred to the Afghanis when the program at Moody ends. The aircraft on display was just delivered, and had never performed a training flight yet.
In the end, a large storm system dealt both shows some challenges… Pensacola’s Saturday morning show changed their schedule to have the Blue Angels fly just after noon (a few hours earlier than their normal time slot), to (successfully) try to avoid forecast weather, and unfortunately the Moody AFB show on Sunday was cancelled outright due to rain and windy conditions.
I got lucky and saw both the shows under the best weather conditions of the weekend at each venue. For the many performers it was a safe, if abbreviated weekend, and that counts a lot in anyone’s book. I’m quite happy to catch a pair of high-quality finales during the same weekend, and wonder if it’ll happen again in a few years?!