WALKING THE RAMP AT OCEANA 23

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Story and photos by Bill Sarama

Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia, had their big Air Show and Open House on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 15th, 16th and 17th, last year in 2023. The annual Air Show is an old standby for Virginia Beach regulars and visitors from distant locations as well. And it’s also like an aviation “Weekend” for military aviation media who get to see old “shooter friends” again. Lining up at the Pass Office at 8 am it seemed like everyone knew everyone!

But this years Air Show was special. This years special theme, “50 Years of Women In Naval Aviation”, paid tribute to all of the Navy’s Trailblazers from “The First Six”, who earned their “Wings of Gold” in 1973, to the brave women who have since chosen to serve their Nation in the skies. Our Nation and our Navy are certainly stronger because of their service. Oceana dedicated the Flying Show to those “First Six” women Naval Aviators. Oceana noted in tribute at the start of the flying show that “Women aviators continue to Power From the Sea in every type,  model, and series of aircraft. They fly and fight in all Strike Missions, hunt submarines, protect the integrity of our Nuclear Triad, supply essential cargo and personnel to every corner of the globe, rescue those at sea and ashore and even command aircraft carriers, carrier air wings, squadrons, and  even missions to Space”. To this end, Oceana dedicated this 2023 Flying Show to the named “First Six” and all women in Naval Aviation, past and present.

INTRODUCTION:

Friday was the Air Show “Practice Day” with the morning reserved for local and national Media and special VIP guests. But in the afternoon starting at about 12:00 Noon, Oceana was invaded by about 100 yellow school busses bringing in about 5,000 5th graders from the regions public schools for Oceana’s annual “ STEM Field Trip Day” – that stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” – our National educational goal, where by the kids view and  hopefully take in some of the technology knowledge from the advanced military aircraft on display here today, both on the ramp and in the air.  Oceana has been doing the STEM Learning Day here for over five years, excluding the Pandemic stand down period. The kids every year come in with colored tee shirts in unique solid primary colors representing their special school. After they visit certain planes and go into “ STEM Activity Tent” displays, they then  go to sit in the VIP bleacher seats separated by schools and colors, to watch the Practice Flying Show in the air. It’s almost like watching flight deck flying operations on an aircraft carrier where each member of the flight deck support crew wears a unique primary colored jersey indicating the special job function they each perform to support flight deck operations both for launching and recovering carrier aircraft: Quite appropriate to see this happen on a Naval Air Station Master Jet Base!

Saturday and Sunday were the public air show days. That’s where on each day about 150,000 air show enthusiasts and avid “Plane Chasers” come on base to see some airplanes. It’s always a giant “Reunion” for the local crowd and the aviation Media where everyone has fun seeing the aircraft static displays on the ramp and the “Fast Movers” in the six hours of flying in the air. And this is what they really came for – six hours of nail biting, ear busting, high performance flying in the air, ranging from single jet demos, slow heavy metal flybys, the multi-jet Fleet Air Power demo with the Pyro guys blowing up the place, the little but noisy and colorful stunt planes and finally at 3 pm, what they all really came for — the amazing US Navy Blue Angels!

The gates opened at 8:00 AM each day and we had three days of CAVU blue skies with temps in the 80’s; perfect for the high show and the Long Lens Guys!  Judging by how long it took me to “Egress the Area”, starting from the back of the 404 Lot, when it was all over, I’d say it was one of the largest crowds ever at Oceana. And the people certainly got their fill of airplanes. As people entered from the West Ramp near 404, the first thing they saw was the off-limits “Hot Ramp”, where the performing aircraft were parked, except for the Blues, who, as always, were parked at Show Center in front of the Announcer’s Trailer. Then you make that right turn and the first birds you see were a gaggle of colorful CAG F/A-18 Super Hornets and you knew you were in Air Show Heaven! Well, maybe!  But every year there are the “Oceana Complainers” with their whispered complaints, “Where are all the airplanes?! It’s a bare ramp!” But in fact, there was a ton-load  of planes here at Oceana in ‘23!  I actually did a detailed survey: If you count everyone – the Hot Ramp, the Flybys, and the Static Ramps – there were in fact 48 airplane here this weekend!  The “Hot Ramp” – Stuff that went up in the air to perform in the Flying Show – had 29; the West Ramp over by Hanger 404 had 9; and the East Ramp – down by the Control Tower – had 10. My math says that’s a total of 48 planes total. Not bad for a reduced show.

BASE REFRESHER COURSE:

We’ll “Walk The Ramp” in a minute, but first some quick background: “Naval Air Station Oceana” consists of:  the NAS Base itself; the nearby Naval Auxiliary Landing Field (NALF) Fentress; the close by ocean-front Dam Neck Annex, home of SeAL Team-6; and even Chambers Field,  home of helo,  E-2D and C-2A squadrons, situated at Naval Base Norfolk , now considered a Detachment of NAS Oceana. Oceana is classified as a “Master Jet Base” and is under the jurisdiction of Navy Region Atlantic and is Headquarters to Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic with the following Carrier Air Wings (CVW’s):  CVW-1 (Tail Code “AB” / USS Harry Truman / CVN-75);  CVW-3 (Tail Code “AC” / USS Dwight D. Eisenhower/ CVN-69);  CVW-7 (Tail Code “AG” / USS George H.W. Bush / CVN-77) and CVW-8 (Tail Code “AJ” / USS Gerald R. Ford / CVN-78). The airfield is officially known s “Apollo Soucek Field”, named after Admiral Apollo Soucek, who, as a young Lieutenant in 1930, flying a Curtiss bi-plane, set an altitude record of 43,166 feet!  Oceana (“NTU”) has four runways: 5R/23L @ 12,008 feet; 5L/23R @ 8,000 feet; 14L/32R @ 8,000 feet and 14R/23L @ 8,000 feet. The field serves as home to 14 deployable Strike Fighter Squadrons operating the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. There is also a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS / “RAG”), a Reserve Aggressor Squadron and a Logistics Squadron.

For those who love details, the Oceana F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Strike Fighter Squadrons include:  VFA-11, “Red Rippers”;  VFA-31, “Tomcatters”,  VFA-32, “Swordsmen”;  VFA-34, “Blue Blasters”;  VFA-37, “Ragin’ Bulls”;  VFA-81, “Sunliners”;  VFA-83, “Rampagers”;  VFA-87, “Golden Warriors”;  VFA-103, “Jolly Rogers”;  VFA-105, “Gunslingers”;  VFA-106, “Gladiators” (a special home based training squadron, also a “RAG” squadron and the East Coast Super Hornet TAC DEMO Squadron.);  VFA-131, “Wildcats”;  VFA-143, “Pukin’ Dogs”;  VFA-211, “Fighting Checkmates”;  and VFA-213, “Black Lions”. There is also the Reserve Composite Aggressor Squadron, VFC-12, “Fighting Omar’s”, call sign “Ambush” and the Fleet Logistics Squadron VR-56 “Globemasters”, also a Reserve Squadron, flying the C-40A Clipper, a Boeing 737-700C. VFC-12 now sports a very cool Arctic Splinter Aggressor white, black and grey color scheme. Both VRC-12 and the RAG VFA-106 are training fighter squadrons at Oceana and do not deploy. Besides the aircraft squadrons there are also many other aviation support units here at Oceana.

THE HOT RAMP:

OK, saddle up and let’s “Walk The Ramp” and find those 48 planes, starting from Hanger 404 at the far West Ramp. Further to the west is the “Hot Ramp” where the 29 performing aircraft are parked and stage out of. The Hot Ramp is totally restricted to the public and anyone else without a special Line Pass and Security Clearance. This is a dangerous place during the Flying Show with a lot of aircraft movements and engine startups. Last year there were a total of 29 aircraft on the Hot Ramp. Blue Angels #1 – #6, being the “Stars of the Show” were parked right in front of the Announcers Trailer at Show Center but set back for the 3 PM launch.  The Announcer’s Stand at Show Center is where the Announcer, Rick Petesons, did an outstanding job in 23 in telling us what was going on in great detail, along with Wayne Boggs, the “Air Boss” and with the XO, the Lil’ Boss and the other Team controllers. Blue Angel -7, the Blue’s Announcer’s personal bird, was parked away on the Hot Ramp.

The Hot Ramp also had the following:  the seven Super Hornets for the Fleet Air Power Demo – three F/A-18F’s from VFA-11 “Red Rippers”, two F/A-18E’s from VFA-81 “Sunliners” and two F/A-18E’s from VFA-143 “Pukin’ Dogs”. There appeared to be three  Super Hornet spares on the Hot Ramp as well. I could not get an ID on the spares. At the very back row were the two F-22A Raptors from the 1st FW out of Langley that were the East Coast Raptor Demo Team, one flying and one spare. There were also two F/A-18F’s from the RAG VFA-106 “Gladiators” that were the East Coast Super Hornet Rhino “TAC DEMO Team” that perform at East Coast air shows. Instructor pilots fly the demos. Rounding out the Hot Ramp were: the C-130J Herc “Fat Albert” support plane for the Blues flown by a USMC flight crew;  the E-2D Hawkeye from VAW-126 “Seahawks” out of Chambers;  the MH-53E (Echo) heavy lift helo “Jump Plane” for the US Navy Parachute Team “The Leap Frogs” and also for the EOD Jump Team from HM-12 “Sea Dragons”, also from Chambers; finally far out to the west apron behind the trees off the active was the gray SH-60B Seahawk out of Chambers that always shows up off site to act as the SAR rescue helo with a para-rescue swimmer in case someone goes down in the nearby water. To that end, all Base Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Apparatus (ARFF) fire and crash trucks plus additional apparatus from local departments were deployed along the active runway for any emergencies during the show. There was one WW2 warbird that broke enroute and did not make it up here. That was the dark blue FG-1D Corsair from the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Dixie Wing out of the Atlanta Regional Airport (CAF calls it “Air Base Georgia”) in Peachtree, Georgia. Mark “Murtha” Hubbard was going to be on the stick and was going to do a demo and at the end, team up with the Rhino Hornet bird to do a Legacy 2-Ship. Maybe next year.

Stored in Hanger 400 and rolled out to the Hot Ramp just prior to launch time, were the stunt planes that flew the tight aerobatic displays. Here are the five pilots and their colorful stunt planes: 1) Melisa Burns and her Ziivko Edge 540 mono-wing plane in sky blue, black and white. (I have to share some interesting bio facts with you all about Melisa:  Melisa Dawn Burns, also known as “Melisa Andrzejewski”, besides being an accomplished award winning professional aerobatics pilot, is also an extreme sports athlete, skydiver, “BASE” jumper, rock climber, technical SCUBA diver, keynote speaker, film producer, an Ultra-Runner, an experienced gold dredger in her home state Alaska, a Glacier pilot in Alaska, an air tour pilot in AK, a Boeing 737 pilot for Alaska Airlines and a professor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, AND, to top it all off, Melisa is a mother of two small children !!! And you guys thought all she did was fly stunt planes!!!)

The other stunt planes included: 2) Rob Holland with his black and red all carbon fiber 16G custom MXS-RH mono-wing built by MX Aircraft;  3) Bob Carlton from Vertigo Airshows with his white twin-jet assisted  “Super Salto” Sail Plane; 4) Greg Koontz from the “Alabama Boys” with his classic yellow J3C-65 yellow Piper Cub, with “Bob’s Used Aeroplanes. If you can buy it, I can fly it” written on the side fuselage, doing his “Drunk Farmer” routine. Greg later parked right in front of of the Announcer Trailer for a quick start to his ground entry act. 5) Finally, there was Aaron Fitzgerald with his German “Red Bull Aviation” stunt helicopter (D-HSDM / D-HTDM), a 1974 BO-105C helo that he bought in 2005, and painted blue with a large Red Bull painted on the two sides (of course!). This amazing German stunt helicopter that can fly upside down, was built in 1974 by Messerschmidt – Bolkow – Blohm Gmbh (note the BO) and is now part of Airbus. This helo originally served as a police helicopter before Fitzgerald bought it. It is the only helicopter certified for aerobatics. The 5-passenger BO-105C is the first light helicopter in the world fitted with two engines, dual hydraulics, and dual electrical supply. These innovations paved the way for aerobatic demonstrations. The BO-105C is still the only helicopter that perform the same maneuvers as a conventional stunt plane. It’s maiden flight took place in February 1967 and the first models were delivered to the German Army. The one at Oceana was built in 1974. By 1997, 1,425 models had been built and in 2001 production had ceased. Today the BO-105 serves in 35 countries in civil, military and para-military roles. She is particularly suited for rescue missions and off-shore duties. The two models that made it to the “Red Bull Air Force” in 2005 were built in 1974, and they previously served as police helicopters. (And you thought this was just a regular helicopter? Not quite!).

WEST RAMP:

The West Ramp right in front of Hanger 404 had 10 static display aircraft. When you made that right turn right after the Hot Ramp, the first thing you saw were the four Boeing / McDonnell-Douglas CAG-bird Super Hornets, all done up in bright colors. They were:  1) an F/A-18E from VFA-105 “Gunslingers”;  2) an F/A-18E from VFA-131 “Wildcats”; 3) an F/A-18F from VFA-32 “Swordsmen” and 4) an F/A-18E from VFA-83 “Rampagers”. All were from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, CVN-69, CVW-3, Tail Code “AC”. Then there was 5) a 1952 Cessna L-29A (O-1A / 305A) in an unusual mix of white and Viet Nam olive green and tan; 6) a 1974  Cessna 182-P owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia DOT out of Richmond Airport; 7) an E-2D Hawkeye from. VAW-120 “Greyhawks” out of Chambers; 8) an F-15C Eagle, Tail Code “JZ” (Short for Jazz since it’s based near New Orleans, LA, home for Southern Jazz.), with a purple, yellow and green tail band, with “Louisiana” and “ Bayou Militia” on its fuselage, from the 159th FW, 159th OG, 122nd Fighter Squadron based out of NAS JRB New Orleans, previously NAS Bellchase, near Belle Chase, LA. It is interesting that in the 80’s the squadron was known as the “Coonass Militia”. In 1992 it became the “Cajun Militia.  Now currently it has the more acceptable “Bayou Militia”.  9) then, a white and orange T-6A Texan II from TAW-6 out of  NAS Pensacola; 10) and finally a privately owned colorful gloss green and purple with white floats, a 1980 A185F “Skywagon” 6-passenger seaplane all the way down from Norfolk.

CENTER RAMP:

Oceana for years has been known for having lots of stands selling everything  from garage doors and cars to all kinds of fast food and drinks (except beer) on the Center Ramp and this show was no exception.  But the best thing was that every squadron from Oceana and Chambers Field, and the CVW’s and CVN’s and even the SeAL Teams from Dam Neck and Little Creek, were out there again trying to sell you everything. That makes the Center Ramp always a lot of fun. Just bring lots of $$$ Cash!

 The Center Ramp also had a few things other than hot dogs and squadrons tee shirts: the Virginia Fire Department’s Monster Fire Truck called “The Heat Is Coming”, originally a 1944 Seagrave engine and now uniquely powered by natural gas, was here once again. There was also a 34 foot grey specialized high speed Navy Patrol Boat (34PB0822), a “Dauntless 34” built by Sea Ark Marine, armed with 3 – 50 cal machine guns. Its missions include Special Ops Insertion and Recovery, Patrol, and Security Missions. Its trailer is transportable, it has an aluminum hull and has a max speed of 40 kts and looks perfect for the SeALS from Little Creek. The Coast Guard was also here with a 25 foot transportable Small Rescue  Boat (29104) on a trailer that was based at Yorktown VA USCG Training Center. The Marines also  came in with an MRAP, a heavy truck, a HUMVEE, a 155 mm Howitzer and even a large construction crane from NAFAC.

EAST RAMP:

Keep walking east and you will hit the Oceana Transient Ramp area East Ramp in front of the Control Tower where the final cluster of 9 airplanes were parked: That is also where 80% of the public enters from the south parking area on the old A-6 Intruder Ramp. The line-up was:  1) first, a Sikorsky MH-60M Black Hawk medium assault helo used exclusively for Special Ops Extraction and Insertion from  Charlie Co., 5th Battalion, 155th General Support Air Regiment, from Ft. Eustis, VA.;  2) next, an MH-53E (Echo) Sea Dragon from HM-15 “Blackhawks”, a Mine Countermeasures heavy lift helo from  Chambers Field;  3) then the NBC affiliate WAVY TV News “Chopper 10” ((N210TV), a 1988 Bell 206L-3 “Long Ranger”;  4) an Army Reserve Boeing CH-47F “Chinook” tandem rotor heavy lift helo from B Co. / 5-159th GSAB (General Support) out of Ft. Eustis, VA;  5) a P-3C Orion from the Naval Research Lab, tail code “RL”, Scientific Squadron 1,  from VXS-1 “Warlocks” out of Pax River;  6) a dark blue T-34C Super Mentor trainer used by Oceana pilots to get additional flight time in; 7) a second dark blue T-34C Super Mentor trainer;  8) a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Cessna C-182 from the Coastal Composite Squadron from Chesapeake Airport; 9) and finally, some good old fashioned “Heavy Metal” – a B-52H Stratofortress from the 5th Bomb Wing, 69th Bomb Squadron “Knighthawks”, out of  Minot AFB, North Dakota. (I can’t wait for these planes to turn 100 years old and they will STILL be flying their mission and coming to air shows!)

THE FLYING SHOW,  BRIEFLY:

The 6-hour Oceana Flying Show, starting about 10:30, was perfect for the “Long Lens Guys” and included military aircraft demos and acrobatic stunt flying. First up was the MH-53E (Echo) acting as “Jump Plane” from HM-12 “Sea Dragons” out of Chambers with the US Navy “Leap Frogs” Parachute Team launching to get up to 10,000 to hold for the show start. Rob Holland took his MXS-RH up also to position and hold for the show start. Next we had the Opening Speeches and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner with the Flag Drop by the Leap Frogs with the black and red MXS going circles round the flag jumpers. More speeches followed with the Base CO dedicating this Air Show to the “50 Years of Women in Naval Aviation” and naming these original “First Six” women NFO’s who won their “Wings of Gold”.  We salute their Service to the Navy!  The “Patriot Guard Riders” rode by next down the crowd line wire with about 60 motorcycles with American Flags dedicating the “Ride-By Parade” to the Women In Aviation.  Then the Leap Frogs did their full high show in a clear blue sky, deploying their special directional flying chutes to literally fly in formation and each to come in at high speed and landing always exactly on target. Rob Holland came back for his full high show. Aaron Fitzgerald was up next with his BO-105C stunt helicopter flying upside down a lot like a regular stunt plane. Next, the MH-53E Echo launched again, this time with the USN  “Explosive Ordinance Disposal” (EOD) Jump Team in full combat fatigues and gear with regular camo brown chutes to do a simulated combat insertion demonstration. Next Greg Koontz from the “Alabama Boys” launched his 1947 yellow Piper Cub to do his “Drunkin’ Farmer” comedy routine starting right in front of of the Announcer’s Trailer at Show Center. It was funny and looked pretty real!

OK, now it was 11:36 and time for the Fleet Air Power Demo with seven F/A-18E/F’s highly choreographed military combat mission routine starting with a mass burner launch and later a fly by, combat maneuver demos, and very real demonstrations of Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) and low ground flying Combat Air Support (CAS) demos with attack staffing runs and bombing runs with very real exploding pyro demos courtesy of “Firewalkers International” blowing up the place.  Joining the Fly-By was an E-2D from  VAW-126 “Seahawks” from Chambers that later gave a flying demo. To describe the full Fleet Air Power Demonstration with all the combat simulations, attacks and flybys would have been a separate story in itself. And it may have contributed to some temporary hearing loss in the crowd, but WOW, it was great! The final “Piece De Resistance” was the seven F/A-18E/F’s doing the Fleet Fly-By, first in trail with the E-2C Hawkeye leading. Then the 5 Hornets did a diamond behind the Hawkeye with 2 Hornets coming in fast on top of the formation.  Finally the 7 Hornets did a diamond again behind the E-2D. Then the 7 Hornets came around to do a high speed Carrier Break and positioned on Glide Slope for the carrier trap and the Hawkeye was last to break. After the simulated Carrier Recovery, the planes lined up at the east end of the active, and did a slow taxi in trail past the crowd wire and very close to the crowd line — perfect for the 50mm with the motor drive going. Best spot to be — the northwest corner of the crowd wire where they all stopped for Final Checks before making the right turn to park back on the Hot Ramp.

OK, back to the Sky: Greg Koontz next took his yellow Piper Cub back up again to do some demos and a landing on “The World’s Shortest Airport” – a landing platform on top of an “Alabama Boys” white pick-up truck going 60 mph down the runway. Yes, he did it on the first try!  The jet glider show was next with Bob Carlton and his white jet-assisted Salto Sail Plane. No need for a a tow plane here. Bob just fired up his mini jet engines mounted on top of the sail plane fuseloge and he was up fast like a JATO launch.

OK, time to loose your hearing again! The F-22 Raptor Demo Team from the 1st Fighter Wing out of Langley, did a burner high performance launch and did a fine demo of the Raptor’s full capabilities, including the one that’s the most popular to watch – the Raptor goes to altitude, then stops facing nose up, yes, literally stops facing frozen facing nose-up, then rotates into a frozen flat spin eventually breaking loose into a nose-down attitude and high speed egress. And the USAF wants to retire all of the F-22’s!  Crazy! It’s still a “Sierra Hotel” airplane! 

Melisa Burns was up next with her black, blue and white Zivko Edge 540 doing a great show. She landed and Oceana’s own F/A-18F Rhino Super Hornet TAC DEMO Team from VFA-106 “Gladiators” launched next to do their high performance aerobatic show. Yep, we temporarily lost our hearing again with all those burner moves! But it was fun! Then we had Rob Holland up again with his red and black MXS-RH for a great full demo: he just loves to fly! But the F/A-18F Hornet was still up and the Rhino came back for some CAS Pyro bomb runs. The final controlled bomb blast created by design was a “Black Smoke Doughnut” rising upward into the blue sky. Then Rob took his MXS going upward right through the middle of the doughnut hole!  (I think he’s the only stunt guy that does this!) The “Opening Act” for the Blues this year was the HOT STREAK II Jet Truck “flown by” Neil Darnell, a 57 Chevy Pickup Truck with twin-engines attached to the back body with 12,000 HP, 12,000 pounds of thrust with full afterburner, and capable of speeds of 400 MPH. On back are two Westinghouse jet engines rescued from a Navy T-2A Buckeye jet trainer. It makes a lot of noise and a lot of environmentally safe white smoke and flaming after burner hot flames. Rob Holland stuck around and the Jet Truck raced his MXS. It was close, but Yes! – the Jet Truck won by over 300 MPH.

OK, now it’s 3 PM and the Blues will fire up at Show Center. But first at 2:50 “Fat Albert”, the Marines dark blue C-130J support plane for the Blues did good show with a fast high speed pass at entry, then a tight 45 degree high performance turn, then a high speed flyby circle turn with re-entry from low behind the crowd, then the world famous “K-Turn” backup at midfield and the midfield takeoff. We miss the JATO’s but there are no more fuel bottles to do that anymore. OK, 3 PM and the Blues pilots and ground crews do there military precise aircraft boarding routine and engine start up and departure taxi, with a new music rock track for 2023. The diamond launches first  and then the two solos take off low and the six blue F/A-18E’s Super Hornets start another 45-minute graceful but nail-biting aerobatic performance one more time. This is what the crowd came to see: the Blue Angels doing their fast moving ballet in the air. We’ve all seen it many times but it still remains a real crowd pleaser.  The best move — the low and loud “Sneak Pass” where the two solos come in low and fast from behind the crowd while everyone is watching the Diamond bank right for departure in the opposite direction. Everyone always ducks for cover. No one expects it. Cool move!

Ok, that’s it ‘till next year. Good luck on “Egressing the Area”.  It will be a long wait outta here. Drive safely. See you in September 2024 and we’ll do it all again!

“PhotoRecon Aviation Magazine” wants to thank Jackie Parashar, Senior Public Affairs Officer at NAS Oceana and her PAO Staff once again for her outstanding continued cooperation in allowing us access to cover this great Oceana Air Show in 2023. We look forward to the 2024 Show!

BILL SARAMA

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