Photorecon Visits Naval Air Facility – El Centro

On November 5, approximately 40 photographers drove two hours east of San Diego for a photocall on one of the country’s most active air fields.  Naval Air Facility El Centro was first commissioned on May 1, 1946.  Over the years the base has had a wide variety of assignments, from a parachute experimental division, an aeronautical escape system testing, evaluation, and design, to the filming of some scenes from the movie “Topgun.”

El Centro is a Naval Air Facility, not an Air Station.  The difference between the two is that an Air Station has assigned squadrons.  An Air Facility, like El Centro, has no permanently assigned squadrons.  Despite having no permanently assigned squadrons, NAFEC is still one of the busiest airfields around!

For the training of aircrews, NAFEC is an ideal air facility because of its remoteness; it has its own gunnery and bombing ranges, and has year round flyable weather.   Because of its great flyable weather, especially in the winter months, NAFEC is the winter home of the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Team the Blue Angels.  For several months in the winter, the Blues Angels will practice and refine their flight routine before their first show of the year.

NAFEC is used by USN/USMC aircrews, as well as foreign aircrews, such as the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and Canadian Air Force.

I have been fortunate enough to have visited NAFEC on photocalls several times over the last few years.  I can honestly say I have never been disappointed when it comes to aircraft activity at NAFEC.

I, like a lot of other photographers, get to the base early (about 7-8am) and shoot off base until we rally up at the main gate at 1130am.  For about 3 – 3½ hours we are able to shoot incoming and outgoing aircraft off base.  The amount of aircraft and aircraft types varies from visit to visit.  On this visit we were very fortunate, with “non-stop” flying until we left to meet up at the main gate.

For me, I shot for almost 3 hours and was able to get some great pictures of Hornets (both legacy and Supers), Prowlers (including a color CAG bird), and Harriers (including a color bird as well).  What was cool about this visit was that the Prowlers shot touch and go’s for so long, I literally put my camera down and quit taking Prowler pics because after 500 Prowler photos, I didn’t need any more.  But from a photographer’s perspective, these multiple touch and gos allowed you to have a great chance to get a great picture and/or try different angles, etc.

Another cool treat during the morning shoot was when the CAG Prowler shot a high speed fly by in between his touch and go’s.  That was definitely a first for me at NAFEC and technically speaking “pretty badass!”

At noon we drove into the base and met with the base Public Affairs Officer Michelle Dee and her staff Petty Officers Probert and Sanchez.  During this meeting, the base commander welcomed us and PAO Dee gave us our safety brief and other do’s and don’ts for our airfield visit.

We then boarded buses and drove to the airfield.  Another first for me at NAFEC was when our bus was driving down the taxiway and met an oncoming Prowler!  The Prowler folded its wings while it taxied towards us and rolled right on by!

We were on the airfield and ready to shoot pictures by 12:30pm.  All 40 photographers found their spot on the edge of the runway and got ready to shoot.  We were scheduled to shoot until 4:00 pm.  During the next 3½ hours we shot Harriers, Hornets, and Prowlers.  Many of these aircraft did multiple “bounces” or touch and gos which made for some awesome pictures.

There had been some scuttlebutt that the Canadians were at McCarran in Las Vegas and would be flying to NAFEC during our photocall.  The scuttlebutt turned out to be true when over the course of about 2 hours, 15 Canadian Hornets landed.  The Canadians came in formations of 3-4 aircraft, one of which was a colored bird!

Also at NAFEC were the “Brits” and their Chinooks and Apaches.  Because we were at the west end of the airfield, we had no real view of the helo pads.  However, later in the afternoon, the Apaches took off.  One of the Apaches must have felt sorry for us photographers not getting any British Apache pics and did a flyby down the runway just for us!

As quick as it started, it was soon time to board the buses and head back.  As I drove home, I had to admit this was probably my best day at NAFEC (although I have never had a bad day here either). The only thing we were missing today was the “Blues” and some C-2s/E-2s to make it perfect!

Naval Air Facility El Centro is, and has been, an incredible place to shoot.  One of the key components to these photocalls is Michelle Dee.  Michelle is nothing short of incredible.  She and her staff always roll out the red carpet for the photographers attending these photocalls.  Michelle is simply the best PAO around! A special thanks to Michelle and Petty Officers Probert and Sanchez for an incredible NAFEC visit.

Lastly, a thank you to our partner aviation website APSOCAL (www.apsocal.com) for inviting the Photorecon team to this photocall.

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Phil Myers

Phil Myers, a military aviation photojournalist with a passion for telling stories and documenting the history of military aviation. In addition to his website publications, Phil’s articles and photographs have been published in several magazines. Phil resides in Southern California.

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