Unfinished Business: The Yuma Airshow 2024

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Story and photos by Shawn Byers

The last time I was Yuma, it was March 2020. The Airshow was canceled two days before it was supposed to occur in line with the rapid onset of the Covid-19 shutdowns. I published an article about the “airshow that never happened” and vowed to return. This was the year.

The Yuma Airshow is a one-day event. Although the odds are in your favor, you hope for sunny weather and that you do not miss anything as there is no tomorrow. It is an All-Marine show with some special guests and civilian acts. I cannot recall in recent history of them having an organized multi-jet team in attendance.

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Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is the busiest Marine Air Station and, in my opinion, the most “complete”. From Helicopters to F-5s and Ospreys to F-35s, the only offensive airframe it does not host is the F/A-18. Every unit seems to visit Yuma with its proximity to military ranges and all season flying weather. A number of exercises are also held here.

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MCAS Yuma shares space with a Commercial Airport. There is a small passenger apron on the north side while the Air Station occupies the east side along the two, major, staggered parallel runways. Runway 03L/21R is a monster at 13,300 feet long and 200 feet wide. Runway 03R/21L is 9,239 by 150 feet. The sun rises behind and to the right of the show line, moving left before crossing the runways to the west side. Two other runways support Regional Airline and smaller General Aviation Traffic. They are 08/26 at 6,146 feet and 17/35 at 5,710 feet.

Here is a laundry list of tenants at this busy base:

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122, “The Flying Leathernecks”, F-35B

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Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, “The Wake Island Avengers”, F-35B
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, 214, “The Black Sheep”, F-35B
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, 225, “The Vikings”, F-35B

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Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, “The Watchdogs”, RQ-21A, MQ-9A

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Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, MV-22B, F-35B, RQ-21B, UH-1Y, AH-1Z.
Marine Fighter Training Squadron 401 “The Snipers”, F-5N
Headquarters Squadron, UC-12F Huron.
Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13
Marine Air Control Squadron 1
Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1

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There are no more Harriers at MCAS Yuma. All squadrons have now made the transition to the F-35B. Three of those squadrons were home and had aircraft on display. We heard that there were three Harriers on the ground at El Centro but, disappointingly, none of them came over for static display.

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The MV-22 Ospreys were still grounded so the scheduled demonstration did not occur. The F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstration dropped off the schedule for unknown reasons. We also did not see the Hot Streak Jet Truck or a Pitts S-1D demonstration by Retired Lt. Gen “Rooster” Schmidle.

The show began with the Military Freefall School Skydiving demonstration. They did not drop a flag but the National Anthem accompanied the drop. I was too far down from the show center “bend” to see if the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band or the Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard were present. The jumpers were dropped from a KC-130J from VMGR-352, “The Raiders” that took off earlier.

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An F-35B of VMFA-211and two visiting F/A-18s from VMFA-323 “Death Rattlers” took off on the far runway and would return for the Marine Air Ground Task Force Demonstration (MAGTF).

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By MAGTF standards, this was on a smaller scale. The three jets simulated the Battlespace Management by the F-35B and attack or Show of Force by the F/A-18s. An AH-1Z and UH-1Y arrived for Close Air Support. Some pyrotechnics were employed here. The UH-1Y landed and deployed a half dozen Marines while the AH-1Z circled above. Both helicopters then departed the area.

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Before recovering, the KC-130J, F-35B and two F/A-18s returned in an aerial refueling scenario. After landing, all aircraft taxied by my location but an unfortunate fence setup incident in the morning pushed our position back a few feet. This had me at a visual disadvantage to anything to the left which was frustrating but not the most important thing to capture. Thanks to being able to be present on Media Friday, I did get a little more photographing opportunities of taxiing aircraft.

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What drew me back to Yuma was the unique Reserve tenant, VMFT-401, “The Snipers”. They fly colorful F-5N Tiger IIs in the adversary role and are currently the only such squadron in the Marine Corps. Another squadron is planned to stand up in Beaufort in the near future. The F-5s had their own performance slot. Four F-5s were launched and returned for a few formation passes. One was an echelon and another was a diamond. On the third pass, they broke out of the diamond to land on the two parallel runways. The last F-5 to land popped the drag chute.

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I was very happy to see a World War II era P-38 flown by Steve Hinton Jr. as most of these very few flyable airframes are on the West Coast. He lifted off first into a hold for the Heritage Flight. The Air Force F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team performed next. “Razz” Larson is in his second year with the team. Depending on the show location, I am never sure when he will give us any flares. We got a bunch at Yuma. After the demo, the P-38 joined up for the Heritage Flight which was on double duty. A few hours later, they launched to perform again at Naval Air Facility El Centro, about 70 miles away.

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As the Heritage Flight was recovering, “Fat Albert”, the Blue Angels C-130 made a flyby of Yuma.

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The final performance was the F-35B Lightning II Demonstration. After a short takeoff, there were a number of fast passes and maneuvers to include a minimum radius turn and a slow high alpha pass. This demo seemed longer than others I have seen. I do not know if it is a growth of the “B” demo or just a routine flown by the West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron, VMFAT-502 “The Flying Nightmares”. An aircraft from VMFA 211 was used and this was the first performance of this Demo Pilot. After a lift fan landing, the flying portion of the show was done. I checked my watch…it was 12:30.

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I stuck around in an attempt to get some static aircraft in better light than in the morning but I had to outwait a lot of people. At about 2pm, Airshow Announcer, Rob Reider, in his final season, announced that they wanted everyone off base by 2:30. That got people moving, thinning out the crowd. I used almost every available minute.
Notable statics included an F/A-18E from VFA-151 “Vigilantes”, the only flyable PB4Y Privateer, a Russian Hind Helicopter, a Grumman Bearcat, A B-25, a P-51, a Mig 15, a Reaper Drone and four F-35Bs lined up behind fencing and squadron tents.

I do love going West to see squadrons I do not see and to merchandise as many of them as I can. This leads me to a funny story about VMFA-122 “The Flying Leathernecks”. Their shirts and patches had “The Crusaders” on them. Years ago, this controversial name was replaced by “The Werewolves” and back to Crusaders before changing altogether to Flying Leathernecks. I do not know where this identity crisis is headed and am curious enough to check in on it.

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As I mentioned, 70 miles away, Naval Air Facility El Centro also has a one-day airshow. I have never been to it but wouldn’t it be a great weekend to see two shows so close together on the same weekend? I know there is a reason for this but it has always bugged me and I do not have to like it. Maybe, someday. Setup finished sometime overnight Saturday and it was already being broken down by Saturday afternoon.

Did I have fun? Heck yeah. Although it was a short show, it had great content and I can certainly deal with that. I was glad to finally be on the inside of the base. I wish to thank all the Marines and Volunteers of MCAS Yuma, Gunnery Sergeant Scott Roguska for his assistance in Media credentials and Captain Owen VanWyck for onsite coordination and hospitality.

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