2009 AirPower Over Hampton Roads
Langley AFB, Virginia
Airshow report written on April 29, 2009.
I never thought it would come to this, but I have decided to somehow continue airshow reports for some of the airshows that I will be attending this airshow season, and Langley AFB is among those. The reason being is that there were a host of acts at Langley AFB that were of some significance to me. Now, I've been attending shows at Langley since 2002, and have noticed many historical events at previous year's shows. For instance, the 2004 show featured a rare Airborne Red Horse demonstration, along with performances by the late Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin. The 2005 show featured the airshow debut of the F-22 Raptor, while the 2007 show featured the first full-up F-22 Raptor demonstration. Last year's show featured the Red Arrows on their three-week North American goodwill tour. This year's show featured the very last public demonstration of the F-15 Eagle and the F-15 West Coast Demo Team, along with a demonstration by Art Nalls in his Sea Harrier, among others.
A lot of people have told me (and even I had to agree to this) that Langley AFB was on the worse end of the performer lineup for that particular weekend. The reason being was that there were two other large airshows on the East Coast - the Blue Angels performed at Seymour-Johnson AFB and there was a large performer contingent at an airshow in Vidalia, Georgia. Most of the performers who had performed at Langley in the past were booked for either Shady J or Vidalia, and I was somewhat worried. Oh yeah - add Sun & Fun to that list. Some of the performers who did appear at Langley AFB this year were scheduled to perform at Sun & Fun during the Langley show days, but were nice enough to be able to perform at Langley (I'm pretty sure I know why, and I won't discuss it here). While the lineup of performers seemed smaller than past years (in particular - 2004 and 2006), it was still a list of some of the very best performers in the airshow industry and not only that, but also some of my good friends.
One of the most recent additions to the airshow lineup was Art Nalls and his Sea Harrier. Art is a former USMC Harrier pilot as well as a test pilot who knows the Harrier inside and out. The Sea Harrier that Art owns was formerly with the Royal Navy and was purchased from the Royal Navy after they had retired the type and declared it surplus. It is a genuine Harrier, built by British Aerospace (the Harriers that the Marines fly were built by McDonnell Douglas), and has seen service aboard Royal Navy aircraft carriers. Art had done many test flights with the Sea Harrier at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland prior to officially calling the aircraft airworthy and safe to fly at airshows. He debuted the Sea Harrier at a small airshow in Culpepper, Virginia in 2008 and I believe Langley AFB represented the second airshow appearance for the Sea Harrier. Runway permitting, Art flies a much different demonstration than what you'd see with the Marines and their Harriers. Art's performance includes at least two photo passes in addition to a significant amount of hovering, and if a concrete runway is available, will do a vertical landing and a vertical takeoff. On Friday, Art had an Aerobatic Competency Evaluator on site, reviewing a completely different performance. In coming weeks or months, Art will be approved to fly an aerobatic performance in the Sea Harrier, which will feature loops, Cuban 8s, point rolls, and aileron rolls. I do have video of the performance, but it and all of the Friday afternoon video that I shot suffers from bad audio tracking, as the external microphone I used seemed to be turned off.
Among the other civilian performers I was really looking forward to seeing was the Vintage Thunderbird. I have seen the Vintage Thunderbird a few times in the past, and as of 2007, is now flown by Jerry "Jive" Kerby. I had actually taken care of some video for Jive and his wife Lunar when they were at McGuire AFB last year, and in talking with them, it seemed as if Jive wanted to go above and beyond what I did for them at McGuire. What Jive had in mind was to take the smaller video camera I had and mount it to the cockpit of the T-33 and film the entire aerobatic sequence from takeoff to landing. I was a bit skeptical because I wasn't sure if he could secure the camera safely to the aircraft and if he was able to do so, if he could safely look forward of the aircraft, and he said it was no problem. Jive was successful in finding some green duct tape from some maintenance guys and successfully got a video that started at engine start until parking. The video showed everything, and Jive, who I don't think is a professional photographer, took the nose of the T-33 into account with the video, and the results were outstanding. It was the perfect debrief video, and even prompted the camera to go flying again on Saturday. Jive states that the Saturday video turned out a lot better because he flew a better demo and cleaned the canopy. I had plans on combining both the video from the plane and the video from the ground on Friday, but my Friday video suffered from the same audio problems I mentioned above.
Now, I did not want to leave out any of the other civilian performers. Matt Younkin, Kyle Franklin, Herb Baker (and Ditto), Bill Leff, Sean Carroll, and John Mohr all put on some fantastic performances. I am starting to really appreciate John Mohr's skill behind the Stearman and really think he is in a league of his own in regards to his aerobatic performance. I recall the first several times I had seen him perform that I really liked the parts of his aerobatic routine when he demonstrates when the engine quits. Nowadays I can truly appreciate every aspect of the routine, especially when he got the aircraft LOW to the ground, and when I mean low, I mean LOW - like a few inches off the ground and when he is able to plant the landing gear on the grass during parts of the routine. Aside from John, what was interesting with the lineup of aerobatic performers was that every pilot who flew an aerobatic routine flew it in a warbird and not an aircraft designed for aerobatics. That's right - no Extras, no Pitts, no Edges, etc. I think this was the first show I had gone to in my entire life that featured only warbird aerobatic performers!
The military performances at Langley AFB this year were all top-notch. The United States Air Force Academy's Wings of Blue parachute team was in attendance and jumped from a C-17 Globemaster III, which was brought in from Altus AFB. The Wings of Blue put on two shows on Saturday and Sunday, both of which were pretty good, but I still think the Golden Knights put on a better show. I am impressed with the fact that the Wings of Blue is comprised of all cadets - most of whom are between 20 and 23 years of age, while your Golden Knight jumpers are at least twenty-four years of age. Following their morning jump, the C-17 performed a short demonstration. I can now scratch off Altus AFB as the list of C-17 bases I've seen C-17 demos from. The Altus crew put the aircraft through its paces in a spectacular demonstration that absolutely highlighted the Globemaster IIIs handling characteristics. It still amazes me to this day that an aircraft of its size can be thrown around the sky like a fighter. On a side note, I think it was also the oldest C-17 I've ever seen perform a demonstration...
Fighters also ruled the skies over Langley AFB. The US Navy brought in an F/A-18C Hornet for a demonstration. The Hornet demonstration was unique in the fact that it was flown in a specially painted aircraft - much unlike what the Navy or even the Air Force has done for any of their single-ship demonstrations. Back in 1978, the first F/A-18A Hornet made its first flight, and the aircraft was painted up all white with blue and gold stripes on the wings, fuselage, elevators, and tailfins. The United States Navy painted up an F/A-18C Hornet in that very same paint scheme late in 2008 to help commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Hornet's first flight. The only differences in the paint job between the prototype and this Hornet was the recognition of the 30 years of Hornets and when it was transferred to VFA-106, a small Gladiator was painted on the tails. The aircraft flew demonstrations at Keesler AFB in Mississippi in early May but did not fly demonstrations at Cecil Field - a week before Langley's show. I had talked to a former Hornet demo pilot and asked him if he could pull some strings to bring the "White Hornet" to Langley AFB. He told me it was mainly based on operational requirements and would not make any promises. Lo and behold, it showed and it flew ALL of the Hornet demonstrations that weekend. I was definitely a happy camper.
The Air Force and Air Combat Command supplied three fighters for Langley's show - a QF-4E Phantom, an F-15 Eagle, and the home-based F-22 Raptor. Each day all of the aircraft flew earth-shattering, ear-splitting demonstrations. Lt.Col. Greg "Bluto" Blount was responsible for flying the Phantom and put together three spectacular passes in all of his "demonstrations" - if you want to call them that. Flying the F-22 Raptor demonstration was Major Dave "Zeke" Skalicky, who put on one heck of a performance each day, and by observing the way Zeke flew the aircraft, you could tell there was a personal touch to the demonstration - much different than when Lt.Col. Paul "Max" Moga flew in 2008 (there was a different demo profile in the 2007 season). On Sunday's show, Zeke was kind enough to switch demo slots with Nuke, and flew his performance much earlier in the day. When the ACC demos were to take place in the later part of the afternoon, Zeke volunteered to fly a SECOND time that day, as a result of Bill Leff not being able to fly his T-6 Texan performance. Zeke's second performance was an abbreviated demonstration, mainly to give Nuke some additional air time.
Speaking of Nuke, I wanted to take time to write a bit about him and his F-15 demonstration. Captain Sam "Nuke" Joplin will go down in the history books as the last of the F-15C demo pilots and the last F-15 West Coast Demo Team pilot. With the withdrawal of the F-15C Eagle from Eglin AFB, the West Coast Demo Team was to stand down at the end of the 2008 airshow season - with NAS Pensacola as the last show for the team. That was one of the reasons I went to Pensacola last year. This year, there was funding available AND aircraft available at Eglin (because they weren't being withdrawn fast enough) to warrant a partial season for Nuke and the West Coast Demo Team. That season was to end with one final public demonstration at Langley AFB. Nuke promised to me and to the world that he would make sure that the last demonstrations he would fly would be remembered, and he came through with that promise. Each demo he flew had the most afterburner and noise I had EVER seen come from an Eagle demo. Following the Heritage Flight on Sunday and the recovery of the Mustang, Phantom, and Raptor, Nuke put on yet ANOTHER show - which I believe was to have started with a sneak pass. Two more ear-splitting afterburner passes later, he landed on Runway 26 and taxied in with the remainder of the Heritage Flight, only further back. Two Langley AFB crash rescue trucks were situated at far show left and shot off water into the air and over Nuke and his F-15. It is a tradition anywhere in the world, whether it be military or airline to have the pilot's final flight be ceremoniously honored with a hose down by the crash trucks. In addition, Nuke took a bow right at show center prior to taxiing back to his parking area, shutting down in front of the crowd, and exiting the aircraft to a huge applause, hugs from the crew chiefs, and eventually getting hosed down himself with champagne. I tell you - it was rather sad and bittersweet, but an absolute honor to be able to attend Nuke's last demonstration and to be able to capture as much of it as possible on video. You can be sure that he will have a memento of his last performances. His next assignment - South Korea in May. While he says he will miss flying airshows, he says his next assignment is among the very best he could ask for while being on TDY.
Rounding out the performances were the Thunderbirds. This year is the first year for the team in their new Block 52 F-16s, which feature, among other upgrades, Pratt & Whitney F100-229 engines, which deliver about 29,000 pounds of thrust - a significant upgrade from the F100-220 engines that delivered around 22,000+ pounds of thrust. The added thrust of the -229s enable the team to perform maneuvers they have never done with the F-16 - the most significant being the diamond performing a loop immediately upon taking off. The routine is changed up a bit, with two more opposing passes in the show and some of the maneuvers being repositioned into different parts of the show. All three days the team had a difficult time with their aircraft and struggled to put all six aircraft in the air. Once all of the jets were in the air, none of the jets had any problems that would have delayed the show. I was VERY impressed with this new routine and was very happy to see the high show during the practice as well as on Saturday and Sunday. I tell you, the -229s also produce a very distinctive sound, almost sounding like the GE F110 engines found in Block 30, 40, 50, and 60 F-16s.
Overall, the weather played bigtime in our favor for the entire weekend. For about 85% of the flying times, the skies were practically clear. Any clouds that appeared in the sky were well above any of the minimums for high shows from any of the performers. There were winds, but they were under 15 knots, and actually helped out a lot, since Saturday and Sunday did climb well into the 90s. It felt EXTREMELY hot for me, considering the days before the show weekend I had to put up with winter-like temperatures and lots of rain. Oh yeah - we did have a B-2 do three passes. Not a whole lot to say there, but let's just say that the three passes were much better than any B-2 passes I've seen all of last year. I am so very glad I was able to get down to Langley for an AMAZING airshow and am looking forward to next year's show!
Military Demonstration Teams
USAFA Wings of Blue
Military Aircraft Demonstrations
1st Fighter Wing F-15 Eagles
B-2 Spirit Flyby (Saturday)
C-17 Globemaster III Demonstration
F-15 Eagle West Coast Demo Team
F/A-18C Hornet Demonstration - VFA-106
F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team
QF-4E Phantom in Heritage Flight
Aerobatic Performances, Warbird Performances, and Others
Kyle Franklin - Waco
Matt Younkin - Twin Beech
Art Nalls - Sea Harrier
Jim Beasley Jr.
Herb & Ditto
USAF Heritage Flight
US Navy Legacy Flight