2015 Event Review

NAF El Centro Airshow, March 14, 2015
Location: NAF El Centro, CA
Admission: Free
Parking: Free parking on base
Value: Excellent
Rating out of 10: 10
 
Display by the Italians
Greg “Wired” Colyer, T-33 “Ace Maker II”

The Blue Angels started the 2015 airshow season as they always do: at the NAF El Centro Airshow. And after 120 practice flights at their winter training base they were in fine form. Their closing performance capped a very nice lineup of civilian and military acts which took place under the clear blue skies of the Imperial Valley.

The weekend's activities started bright and early on Friday morning with the 5th Annual Blue Angels 10K Fun Run with the finish line at Blue Angel Park just inside the Facility's main gate. This was followed by the 18th Annual Entertainment & Food Festival featuring live musical entertainment, performances by the Metal Mulisha Motocross demonstration team, Bill Braack in the Smoke-N-Thunder jet car and food booths from local restaurants in Hangar 6. The members of the 2015 Blue Angels team were officially introduced and later mingled with the crowds, answering questions and signing autographs. Fireworks ended the evening's festival. If that wasn't enough, visitors were invited to the pre-airshow party in the Sun Downer Club, where they could party into the wee hours of the morning.

The gates opened at 9AM, which was appropriate for Pi day (3.14.15.9). Sailors quickly and efficiently guided incoming traffic to the parking areas. Security checks were conducted expeditiously and visitors were soon greeted by a large number of aircraft on static display. It was great to see the ramp once again full of warbirds and modern military aircraft. The Planes of Fame at Chino, the Commemorative Air Force Southern California Wing at Camarillo, and the Palm Springs Air Museum each vied to outdo the other in showing off their aircraft. No fewer than four Mustangs were on display, including a P-51A and the recently restored P-51D "Bunny." Wearing the distinctive red tail, it bore the signatures of four surviving Tuskegee Airmen. A number of privately owned warbirds, including Bruce Brockhagen's one-of-a-kind PB4Y Privateer, were also in attendance. The federal budget sequestration process unfortunately still limits the participation of military aircraft at air shows. So if you can only have a couple USAF aircraft, you might as well have a big one: the BUFF. Joining the B-52 from Barksdale AFB was a Dutch F-16 from Tucson Air National Guard Base. Several Navy aircraft were on display: trainers (T-34, T-45, T-6), Aggressor F-5s as well as two Seahawk helicopters. The Marines brought a CAG bird from VMFA-232 "Red Devils", MCAS Miramar, as well as their retro-painted CH-46E Sea Knight of HMMT-164 "Knightriders" from MCB Camp Pendleton. The Phrog is on its farewell tour before heading for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum later this year. An AH-64D Apache Longbow of the U.K. Joint Helicopter Command was also on display.

The USAF Academy's parachute demonstration team, the "Wings Of Blue," opened the show by flying in the US Flag. The Red Eagles got the flying started by performing a number of formation passes in their Yak-52s. The British Army Air Corps conducts a lot of flight and live-fire training with their helicopters at El Centro. In years past their Apaches have flown in the airshow, but this year spectators were finally able to see the full Attack Helicopter Display. Pilot Warrant Officer Class 2 Bruce Allen, accompanied by copilot Warrant Officer Class 2 Den Woollams demonstrated what the Apache is really capable of. It was an amazing display of aerobatics in their only US appearance this year. Missing from the airshow circuit for the last two years have been the US Navy's Hornet Tactical Demonstration Teams. The "Gladiators" of VFA-106 from NAS Oceana had been training at El Centro in the weeks before the show, so attendees were privileged to see the East Coast Super Hornet demonstration in their only West Coast appearance. LT Nate "Fonda" Miller (pilot) and the GIB, LT Jason "IADS" Hoch (WSO), lit up the skies, pouring on the afterburner in their high-energy demonstration of the capabilities of the F/A-18 "Echo." They even managed to coax a bit of vapor out of the hot (90+ degrees) and dry (13% humidity) air during their high-g turns and climbs. Spencer Suderman, flying his bright red Meteor Pitts biplane, was the first of several civilian aerobatic performers. He set the world record for the number of flat inverted spins just prior to last year's show. This year he will try to break that record (81) by attempting an even more impressive flight of more than 100 revolutions. He was followed by John Collver who slowed things down with a graceful aerial ballet in his World War II-vintage AT-6 Texan "War Dog." Bill Braack brought everyone back to earth with his high-speed pass in the Smoke-N-Thunder jet car. The Metal Mulisha Motocross team astounded onlookers during a short intermission. Some of their jumps were high and long enough to qualify as aerial demonstrations. The Navy Band Southwest provided musical entertainment and a classic car show attracted quite a few viewers. The US Navy's parachute demonstration team resumed the flying show by jumping from a C-2 Greyhound of VRC-30 "Providers" from NAS North Island. The "Leap Frogs" put on an astonishing show, astounding the audience with their speed and daring. Bill Cornick, flying his beautiful Pitts S-2C "Big Bad Green," put on another high-energy aerobatic performance. In prior years he and Spencer Suderman have raced each other while performing solo aerobatics, but not this year. Greg "Wired" Colyer flew a beautiful series of aerobatic maneuvers in his Korean War-vintage T-33 trainer "Ace Maker II." He made full use of the airshow box, skimming low over the runway before zooming high above the crowd. The Commemorative Air Force took us back to World War II. Ken Gottschall, flying the F6F Hellcat "Minsi III," and Robert "Lips" Hertberg in the A6M3 Zero engaged in a spirited dogfight. On their final pass what seemed like the entire length of the runway erupted in a Wall of Fire. The EOD team from NAS Fallon really knows how to put on a show!

Then it was time for the headliners. Fat Albert warmed up the crowd with an eight and a half minute demonstration which pushed the C-130 to its limits. After that the Blue Angels took to the skies for the first of 68 air shows at 34 different locations planned for 2015. Their timing was impeccable and their formations were tight. "Oohs" and "Aahs" erupted repeatedly from the spectators as they watched in amazement. After landing, the team members came forward to meet the crowd. The estimated 50,000 people that attended this year (15,000 more than last year) slowly dispersed, some heading directly to the parking lots, others lingering for an autograph or one last pass through the static displays. Getting off base was about as quick as it could possibly have been.

Jon "Huggy" Huggins was back as announcer and did a terrific job of keeping the audience informed but also knowing when to let the performances speak for themselves. Kudos to the show organizers for arranging such a wonderful lineup of performers and such a stellar set of aircraft on static display. Thanks to all the sponsors, volunteers and Sailors on board NAF El Centro for making the show such a success and to Kristopher Haugh and the members of the NAFEC PAO for their media support.

Performers included:

Blue Angels
TC-130 Hercules “Fat Albert”
British Army WAH-64D Apache Attack Helicopter Display Team
F/A-18F Super Hornet Tac Demo, VFA-106 “Gladiators”, NAS Oceana
Red Eagles Yak-52 Formation Team
John Collver, AT-6 “War Dog” Aerobatics
Greg “Wired” Colyer, T-33 “Ace Maker II” Aerobatics
U.S. Navy Parachute Team “The Leap Frogs”
USAF Parachute Team “Wings Of Blue”
Bill Cornick, Pitts S-2C “Big Bad Green” Aerobatics
Spencer Suderman, Meteor Pitts Aerobatics
F6F Hellcat “Minsi III”, CAF SoCAL
A6M3 Zero, CAF SoCAL
Bill Braack, Smoke-N-Thunder Jet Car
Metal Mulisha

Aircraft on static display included:

AH-64D Apache Longbow, U.K. Joint Helicopter Command
Antonov AN-2, CAF Ghost Squadron
B-25J Mitchell “Photo Fanny”, Planes of Fame Museum
B-52H Stratofortress “Apocalypse”, 93rd Bomb Squadron, Barksdale AFB
C-45 Expeditor, Rick and Janice Loomis
C-47 Dakota “What’s Up Doc?”, Palm Springs Air Museum
CH-46E Sea Knight, HMMT-164 “Knightriders”, MCB Camp Pendleton
F4U-1 Corsair, Planes of Fame Museum
F-5 Tiger II, VFC-13 “Saints”, NAS Fallon
F8F-2 Bearcat, CAF Ghost Squadron
F-16A Fighting Falcon, 148th Fighter Squadron “Kickin’ Ass”, Royal Netherlands Air Force
F/A-18C Hornet, VMFA-232 “Red Devils”, MCAS Miramar
L-4 Grasshopper, Inland Empire CAF
MH-60R Seahawk, HSM-35 “Magicians”, NAS North Island
MH-60S Seahawk, HSC-4 “Black Knights”, NAS North Island
P-38J Lightning “23 Skidoo”, Planes of Fame Museum

PB4Y Privateer, Bruce Brockhagen
P-40N Warhawk, Planes of Fame Museum
P-51A Mustang “Mrs. Virginia”, Planes of Fame Museum
P-51D Mustang “Bunny”, Palm Springs Air Museum
P-51D Mustang “Spam Can”, Planes of Fame Museum
P-51D Mustang “Lady Alice”
P-63 Kingcobra, Palm Springs Air Museum
PT-17 Kaydet, Palm Springs Air Museum 
Romanian IAR823, Steve Stavrakakis
Ryan PT-22, Terry Freedman
Ryan PT-22, Doug Schuster
SNJ-5, Lee and Carolyn Jones
SNJ-5 Texan, CAF Ghost Squadron
Supermarine Spitfire Mark XIV, CAF Ghost Squadron
T-6 Texan, Inland Empire CAF
T-6 Texan II, VT-6 “Shooters”, NAS Whiting Field
T-6 Texan II, VT-10 “Wildcats”, NAS Pensacola
T-28 Trojan, Palm Springs Air Museum
T-34 Turbomentor, VFA-122 “Flying Eagles”, NAS Lemoore
T-45 Goshawk, VT-22 “Golden Eagles”, NAS Kingsville
TBM-3E Avenger, Planes of Fame Museum

Report and photography by Norman A. Graf for The Aviation Magazine

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