NAS Oceana 2023 Air Show
Article written by Daniel O. Myers, photos by Bob Finch and Howard German
First built eighty years ago as a World War II auxiliary military landing field, NAS Oceana (NASO) has grown into the U.S. Navy’s East Coast Master Jet Base- home to sixteen F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons. Even though two-thirds of those sixteen squadrons are away at any one time, (deployed to Carrier Air Wings aboard four aircraft carriers) NASO still routinely executes about 600 aircraft launches and recoveries daily.
Welcoming visitors from across the country and around the world, the September 16-17 NASO show opened with the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs jumping from a NAS Norfolk based Navy MH-53 helicopter. The Parachute Team brought a 30 ft. x 50 ft. “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to the surface while Rosa Moreland sang the American National Anthem.
With Air Boss Wayne Boggs directing the flying and Ric Peterson announcing, this year’s show theme was “50 Years of Women in Naval Aviation.” Before the official flying got underway, tribute was paid to all of the Navy’s women-trailblazers. Several of “The First Six” to earn their Wings of Gold in 1973 were on hand to be personally recognized. Today, women naval aviators fly every type, model, and series of Navy aircraft.
Every year, NASO’s squadron pilots proudly show off the awesome power of their Strike Fighter aircraft. This year’s traditional Air Power Demonstration launched seven F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets from three squadrons as well as an E-2 from nearby NAS Norfolk. The jets took off in full afterburner and formed up high over Oceana before returning to the field for battle-engagement. In sections of two above the runway, the jets aggressively dived down to the ground, simulating air-to-ground weapons delivery. With each pass, explosions from ground pyrotechnics sent balls of black smoke and orange fire high into the sky. More jets entered the fray with high-speed crisscrosses in front of the spectators, employing real-world combat maneuvers and tactics.
Before it was over, one remaining jet shocked the audience with a max-high-speed sneak pass. The seven jets then formed up with the E-2 in an arrow formation Fleet Fly-By. Upon landing, all players taxied back to their parking spots directly in front of and just feet away from the crowd. As the jets passed by, the smell and feel of hot jet exhaust permeated the air. The excited air show fans enthusiastically welcomed the pilots home and the pilots, clearly visible from their cockpits, returned the favor with appreciative waves back.
The audience barely had time to relax when Red Bull Aviation took to the air. Taking off with smoke trailing, Aaron Fitzgerald took his ATP-rated helicopter to altitude where he then pointed the nose straight down to the ground before turning his helicopter upside down! Children screamed and adults froze in disbelief as Aaron performed somersaults, barrel rolls as well as front and back flips. Fitzgerald is a seasoned pilot who built his career flying in film and television productions. He also flies flight-test programs for NASA and Lockheed/Martin and UH-60 Blackhawks battling forest fires in the Western United States. The stunned spectators could finally catch their collective breath when Aaron safely landed.
High performance military jets returned to the air when NAS Oceana’s very own F/A-18F Super Hornet Rhino Demo Team took to show center. Throughout the weekend, three different VFA-106 “Gladiators” pilots shared the flying responsibilities of exhibiting the capabilities of the multi-role fighter flown by both the U.S Navy and Marine Corps.
Next up, from across the bay at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, VA, the crowd anxiously awaited the F-22 Raptor Demonstration. The team’s newest demo pilot, Captain Samuel “Razz” Larson, showcased the unique capabilities of the world’s premier 5th generation fighter aircraft. The F-22 performs aerial maneuvers like no other aircraft in the world! Since it’s March 2007 inception, the F-22 Raptor demo team has been supported by a team consisting of a safety officer, superintendent, team chief, multiple crew chiefs, and avionics specialists.
Meanwhile back on the ground, with flames belching from the rear, Darnell Racing’s “HOT STREAK II” Jet Truck taxied down the runway. Once in position, the twin-jet-engine ‘57 Chevy Pickup Truck was ready to race Rob Holland in his all carbon-fiber MXS-RH aerobatic airplane. With breaks released; Hot Streak’s two Westinghouse 25,000 horsepower J34’s engines, rescued from a T-2A Buckeye Navy jet, achieved a speed of 350 mph. As Rob Holland passed over the truck, the Boise, ID based Firewalkers International Pyro Team, ignited a huge Wall-of-Fire!
The U.S. Navy Blue Angels finished out the day’s flying activities. In their Blue and Gold Super Hornets, the flight demonstration team related the skills taught and practiced by all U.S. Navy and Marine Corp fighter pilots. The graceful maneuvers of the four-plane Diamond contrasted by the fast-paced maneuvers of the Solos performed a near flawless show.
Before joining up in the six-jet Delta Formation to conclude their show, the six jets executed a rarely seen near-perfect Six Plane Cross! The 2023 Blue Angels return to NASO was a home coming of sorts. At some point, five out of the seven team’s pilots were previously stationed at Oceana including history making Blue Angel # 3- Amanda “Stalin” Lee.
For Saturday evening, the show moved to the Virginia Beach front. Jumping from the Blue Angel’s KC-130J “Fat Albert,” were the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Leap Frogs Jump Teams. The EOD team is the U.S. military’s only EOD force that can both parachute from the air and dive under the sea to disarm chemical, biological and radiological threats. The Leap Frogs began in 1969 when Navy SEALs and The Underwater Demolition Team members volunteered to perform at weekend air shows. Officially commissioned “The Leap Frogs” in 1974, active-duty team members serve for three years before returning to their operational units. Two F/A-18s Super Hornets then made several afterburner passes up and down the beach, echoing off the city’s high-rise hotels! The evening was capped off with a Blue Angels meet-and-greet, and concert at 31st street under the thirty-four feet tall bronze Neptune Statute.
The NASO air show has been held nearly every year (except for COVID-19 cancellations) since 1953. 306,000 spectators attended the 2023 weekend, along with 5,400 5th grade Virginia Beach public school students on Friday, continuing to make NASO the largest Navy open house and air show in North America. Next year’s show is scheduled for September 21-22, headlined by the Blue Angels.