Homecoming in Pensacola
The 2011 Blue Angels Homecoming Airshow was held under bright skies and cool conditions on the Friday and Saturday of Veteran’s Day weekend. The marquee flying act, as always, was the Blue Angels. Their homecoming late in the year signals the traditional end to the North American air show season, and the finale to their grueling schedule containing close to 70 aerial performances. Beyond the Blue Angels there was another homecoming of sorts to celebrate too, the culmination of the year-long Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA) public salute. Combining these two themes, the organizers of NAS Pensacola’s air show had plenty of material to produce a memorable event, and they succeeded with a great program.
The Blue Angels faced a bit of adversity towards the middle of the 2011 season as their commanding officer stepped down. The previous “Boss”, Commander Greg McWherter, rejoined the team, personifying the team’s creed of “Once a Blue Angel, Always a Blue Angel”. During the 2011 finale, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron looked as sharp as ever. With the phrases “100 Years of Naval Aviation” and “Fly Navy 100 Years” painted on their aircraft, the pilots carried aloft the pride and character that has defined Naval Aviation for a century. The team also celebrated 65 years of Blue Angels history this year, and there were plenty of Blue Angels alumni in attendance. Al Taddeo was introduced to the crowd on Friday; he’s the last surviving original team member and flew both the Grumman F6F Hellcat and F8F Bearcat during his years with the team.
There were hundreds of Navy and Marine veterans in attendance, especially during Friday’s show which fell upon Veteran’s Day proper. The organizers put together a rich CONA heritage display both in the air and on the ground. A collection of rare and historic World War II-era aircraft were assembled, including FM-2 Wildcat, F4U Corsair, and F8F Bearcat fighters, SBD Dauntless, and SB2C Helldiver bombers, plus Japanese Zero and Kate replicas. Trainers included PT-17/N2S Stearman biplanes, a pair of SNJs and examples of the T-28 and C-1 Trader. Most of these aircraft flew during the show. Leading off the procession of warbirds was Bob Coolbaugh’s Curtis Pusher replica, which was lapped by the other airborne aircraft rather easily! The pilot later answered questions by the plane, and were supported by crewmembers wearing costumes from the 1911 period. No fewer than eleven of the brightly painted active military aircraft, painted in “throwback” CONA color schemes, were assembled too.
A pair of Air Force squadrons now call NAS Pensacola home, training navigators and combat systems operators. A B-52 Stratofortress bomber and KC-10 Extender were some of the larger aircraft on display, as well as a Pittsburgh PA based C-130. Home-based Air Force T-6A Texan and T-1A Jayhawk trainers participated in the Parade of Trainers too. A Navy E-6B Mercury TACAMO communications aircraft and P-3 Orion were parked close by, and a number of National Naval Aviation Museum joined them. A German Air Force Tornado attack jet represented just one of a number of foreign countries that send aircrew to the Florida Panhandle to train.
A pair of Marine Harriers were part of a wide-ranging display of smaller aircraft, which included trainers, helicopters, and attack jets. A nearby Panama City FL-based MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter and its crew highlighted the anti-naval mine research and development work done by the Naval Surface Warfare Center. A vintage deep sea diving suit was displayed along side of the sleek helicopter. The Although the aircraft were interesting to look at, some of the crew that were answering questions alongside them had more riveting tales to tell. If you were lucky enough to listen to conversations between active military personnel and retired veterans, you heard of shared experiences as well as some stirring highlights of each one’s military careers. It was quite fitting to listen to these stories during the Veterans Day holiday weekend.
In the air, civilian performers included John Mohr in his Stearman, Bill Leff in his T-6 Texan, Jan Collmer in the FINA Extra 300, Roger Buis corralling Otto the helicopter, David Martin in the Breitling CAP 232, Chuck Aaron in the Red Bull Helo, Bob Carlton in his jet-powered Super Salto sailplane, and Skip Stewart in the Prometheus Pitts. Skip and John Mohr teamed with Les Shockley and Rich’s Pyro in their TinStix routine too. There were plenty of styles and lots of noise and smoke put forth by these performers, many of whom were completing their 2012 air show campaign. The Parade of Trainers, a yearly highlight at the Pensacola base, featured examples from now and then… modern T-6, T-39, T-1 and T-45 military aircraft followed by civilian-owned Stearman (Stearmen – there were a pair), SNJs, a T-28, and a C-1A Trader. The aforementioned warbird fighters and bombers made multiple passes to the delight of photographers. Aerobatic shows by the Corsair and the Grumman Bearcat drew particular interest.
Military demonstrations by the F/A-18 Super Hornet and A-10 Warthog, and their Heritage and Tailhook Legacy flights afterwards, saluted the veterans on each afternoon. The GEICO Skytypers squadron performed their flying routine, and overflew the field on both days writing “100 Years of Naval Aviation” high in the sky. Add to all that two parachute teams, Les Shockley’s jet truck, plenty of Rich’s Incredible Pyro, and the final Blue Angels 2011 performances, and one had a full days’ entertainment with over 6 hours of air show action. Friday night’s twilight show featured loads of fireworks and pyro action too, plus he startling effect of an F/A-18 Super Hornet lighting off its’ afterburners in defiance to the fading dusk. With wind chills hovering near freezing, any fire and heat was welcome!
As Blue Angel 6 touched down on the runway at the end of Saturday’s show, the 2011 air show display season ended for the team. Their tasks weren’t finished for the year though, as there was routine aircraft maintenance to do, debriefs and reviews to be carried out, and training for the newest Blue Angels members to begin so that they’d be ready for the 2012 season, only a few months into the future. As for the CONA celebration, the finale of 35 events that began in February signaled the close of the commemoration of a century of naval aviation history. The staff will spend another three months or so archiving all of the written words, photographs, and video history that were produced throughout the year, so that the next naval aviation history event’s organizers can look back and build upon this year’s success. Whether you attended this year’s Blue Angels Homecoming Airshow to see the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, or to take in the CONA displays, or to just enjoy a great airshow, it was truly a memorable event.
Story and photos by Ken Kula