Most years Nellis sports some sort of airshow, this year it was the USAF's 60th anniversary.
Spread over two days, this November 10th/11th show was to be a tribute in the midst of an unpopular and ugly
war, to the men and women that have valiantly defended the skies these past 60 years.
November. Most places people interested in aircraft live, November is not the time of year
they would consider going to an airshow - it's too cold, far too cold. Las Vegas however, is in the
middle of the desert and is an oasis of warmth in comparison to the bleak North Eastern US march
to winter. Hotel rooms are quite easy to find, rental cars gush from the airport, and flights are
obtainable, and relatively low cost - all part of the recipe for a good long distance Airshow trip.
So with 18 Gigabytes of compact flash memory cards for the camera, and a new 70-200mm zoom lens begging
to be tried, we headed off to Vegas, the flight taking off into a snow storm...
I had checked the show web site the day before leaving, but it really made no odds, as it was
never updated to show the correct schedule or actual display aircraft. Instead we aimed to turn up
at about 11:30am to Midday and see what was to be seen. I had read there would be parking on the
base and at the nearby Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a big oval race track. On getting to the base
it was clear there was no parking there. On to the Speedway. Getting in was slow, then queueing
to get a bus was amazingly slow. Thanks to Osama everyone now needs to be inspected before
getting into the airbase for the show, and with an expected 100,000 people, the two sets of
metal detectors and various wand equipped guards were overloaded, not to mention that there
are barely enough busses in the whole of Nevada to move this many people the couple of miles to the
base. Two and a half hours of queueing later, we were deposited just behind a C-5B from Travis
AFB, the transport aircraft being from the Brother-in-law's squadron, even.
While queueing all those hours a veritable plethora of aircraft were trawling around the skies,
including Mig's, Skyraiders, C-47's, and even a B-52. Explosions could be seen on the far off airbase!
When we finally got in they all the planes had landed. There's timing for you. There was a quiet
period during which I deposited the wife, who is just getting over a broken leg (long story), and
was very game to come out and try all this walking. I started looking the static parks over, and
Warbirds were littered all over two large apron areas, these being opened to the public
shortly after we arrived. The announcers started introducing the Thunderbirds; I know when this
happens there is going to be a long period of nothing much happening. This is my opinion folks -
The Thunderbirds tend to do a lot of pretty stuff, but remarkably little real flying. It takes
10 to 20 minutes for them to get up in the air, lots of marching, saluting, posturing, etc, then
a 20 minute display that looks like a quiet day at Binbrook in 2007 (not 1960), with just the
occasional fly past, then they have the cool down, a strung out landing, formation taxiing, and
then theatrical engine shutdown. I really would prefer more flying. More flying in front of the
crowds, not over the adjoining 3 States.
So I got on with walking the flight line, and clicking away, using up that camera memory.
Nellis is a BIG base. You've seen big bases, I'm sure. But Nellis is bigger than any of them.
It's huge. The apron at Nellis is a couple of miles long. They only use half of it for the airshow,
they put all the aircraft that are stationed there or that are visiting from somewhere to stage right.
An armed guard prevents the curious for further exploration. Due to the grounding of F-15's following
a crash in Missouri the prior week, there were a lot of Eagles sitting on the ground with nowhere to
go. This also impacted the flying display for the airshow, I am sure.
At the end of the public, airshow, flight line though, were the aircraft of the US Air Force.
A nice collection, really missing just the B-2 bomber, which was intended to be on site on the Sunday.
The show sported 2 F-22's,
and an aircraft marked as an F-35, but which I think was actually the X-35.
A line up of electronic warfare aircraft second to none, including a J-Stars, EC-135, and an E-3. No
U-2 this time, nor and UAV's on the ground (that I saw.)
A fly past of a Predator and a Reaper occurred while I had the super wide angle lens on, and as
they a) made only one pass and, b) are tiny dark things, I decided not to
try and shoot them. But the use of them at the show was interesting - they did not take off from or
land at Nellis.
With the Thunderbird's F-16s gently pinging as they cooled down, an F-22, a P-51 Mustang,
an F-4 Phantom, and an A-10 of the took off, to form the Hertitage Flight. The A-10 did a nice
flying performance, real ammo in the gun would have been cool to watch for the targeting demo's,
but I guess that might be hard to squeeze by the safety rules. We had to do with exploding
barrels of petrol, instead. Then it was time for the F-22.
I have not previously seen an F-22 do a display, and while this display was not the best
flown display I have ever seen, it was an impressive demonstration of this new fighter. The
pilot threw the aircraft around the sky, not wasting an opportunity to give it some stick and
treat our eyes to the blistering white reheat, or our ears to the muted crackle of the twin
Pratt & Whitney's - this is a stealth fighter after all!
The tail slide was a nice maneuver
to see, but the really impressive one was a vertical climb to a 270 degree rotation, that looked to
have its locus right at the jet pipe. The aircraft looked to fall on it's back from the vertical,
then continue round, pointing to the ground, then back up to level flight, all the time pirouetting on
it's jet pipes. It was an astonishing maneuver. Several of the photos I took show that the exhaust
plume coming from the aircraft is bent.
I guess all that work on vectoring the exhausts really does work!
The announcers told us of a break in the program to allow a medical helicopter to leave, though
from my place on the airfield I could see nothing of that ilk occur. Instead what I saw were all the
aircraft that had earlier taken off form up on the back of the circuit. Soon enough the announcers
started to discuss the historic flypast of the Air Forces Heritage Flight that now took place with
the P-51 leading, the A-10 on one wing, the F-4 Phantom on the other, and the F-22 as rear guard.
It was a rare and poignant reminder of the history that the USAF (and USAAF) have in aerial combat.
As the sun started to set, this quartet of warplanes wheeled around the sky, is very close formation,
it was a stirring sight.
But the show must go on! The historic flight broke up, and the Phantom took center stage. It has
been many years since I last saw an F-4 perform. This pristine example of a Phantom was said to come
from Holloman AFB, NM, though I have to say I find no references to it, and the only F-4's in US service
are QF-4's that have very "short lives" as target aircraft. The F-4 demonstration was fairly gentle by
Cold War air display standards, but the pilot still burnt off a few pounds of avgas.
The Heritage flight landed, and overhead an F-117 came in from stage left. An unusual display, in that
the F-117 actually did more than a single fly past, instead actually turning and doing several
crowd line passes. But the light was fading fast, and this display left the camera with little more
than a black spec on a graying sky. We, and thousands of others, started to make our way back to the
bus pickup points.
The day ended with an hour long line up and a short trip in a coach to the car parks at the Speedway, the
sun long forgotten.
The F-22 flight will long be remembered. I guess, next up is the USAF's 75th Anniversary - in 2022 -
any takers for that trip? By then the F-22 will be old hat, and we will be waiting for its replacement
to be making a showing. That could be a great show!