Air Show Report : Los Angeles County Air Show 2014
Los Angeles County Air Show 2014
On March 21-22, 2014, the first Los Angeles County air show took place at the William J Fox airport in California. Report and photos by Danny Hale
General William J. Fox Airfield in Lancaster, California, set to host its first Los Angeles County air show. Lancaster and nearby Palmdale are the principal cities in the Antelope Valley. Known by the local flying community as “Aerospace Valley”, the Antelope Valley is home to aviation giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems. This area has also is the base of operations for Scaled Composites, a company that made headlines world-wide during the summer of 2004 clinching the Ansari X Prize for the first private manned reusable spacecraft. Plus only 21 miles northeast from the William J Fox airport lies the historic hub of U.S. military aviation: Edwards Air Force Base.
From development of spacecraft such as SpaceShipOne and the U.S. Space Shuttle to aircraft such as the U-2, SR-71, B-1, B-2, F-117 and now the F-35 Lightning II, Aerospace Valley has one of the richest heritages in aviation history. Sharing the same skies as William J. Fox airport, the history of this place would be celebrated on the ground and in the air of the inaugural Los Angeles County Air Show.
Thursday Media Day
Arriving before sunrise, I become aware that I was the first person on the grounds in a spectating capacity. Without a soul in sight I exit my vehicle to my chilly surroundings. Not knowing where I might or might not be allowed, I cautiously made my way to the flight line. Making my way passed the outlying structures, dominating my view is the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornets. Not having any direction or visual contact from airport personnel I walked to the separating fence mid taxiway and was able to spend 20 uninterrupted minutes gawking at these gorgeous machines in the middle of the flight line all by myself. As the sun began to barely illuminate the sky I spotted Greg Colyer’s Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star named “AceMaker” with Blue Angel number six parked behind to the left. Slowly personnel and other media folks trickled in, and before I knew it I was asked to relocate to make way for Los Angeles local news, channels four, five and seven. Amidst the action of news-van audio and video technicians it was time for some breakfast. Open for business was the Foxy’s Landing Restaurant. The flight line facing wall made of glass and the opposite, festooned with wallpaper of framed aircraft pictures both military and private. Many of the pictures, apparently sun-bleached and quite old, conveyed the history that has been written in the local skies.
With increased action on the tarmac, it was time to begin filling in the blanks. Rolling straight toward me from behind the barrier fence was the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star with Pilot Greg “Wired” Colyer in tow. Designed by legendary systems engineer and aeronautical innovator Kelly Johnson and first flown in 1948 by test pilot Tony LeVier, better known as the father of infamous U.S. Air Force Installation “Area 51”, the advanced jet trainer based on the P-80 (F-80) was introduced as T-33. In speaking with pilot Colyer, he informed me that only a limited number of the thousands of T-33s built have made their way into civilian hands, such as the California based T-33 Heritage Foundation and actor Michael Dorn (Star Trek’s own Lieutenant Commander Wharf), just to name a couple. As a non-profit organization, the T-33 Heritage Foundation dedicates itself to sharing and educating present and future generations of the America’s proud aviation history and honoring the brave airmen that flew these first generation jets through obtaining, restoration, preservation and maintaining these flying pieces of history.
The next opportunity that presented itself was a one on one interview with Red Bull aerobatic helicopter pilot Chuck “Malibu” Aaron. Mr. Aaron delighted me with answers to all of my technical questions regarding his custom built Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm Bo-105, explaining the challenges of replacing the moving parts of a helicopters rotor with precision engineered exotic and composite materials enabling him to perform maneuvers not possible in a normal helicopter. He illustrated the difficulty of achieving such a feat as “not possible” without a complete understanding of the physics of an entirely original design operating outside the envelope of traditional helicopter flight. This they accomplished by use of sophisticated computer modeling software and one bold step in verifying design data by actually flipping the helicopter over. Receiving the Art Scholl Showmanship Award, recognizing him as one of the worlds most outstanding air show performers, he also has since been inducted in 2011 to the prestigious Society of Experimental Test Pilots and is the only person certified in the United States by the FAA to perform aerobatic maneuvers in a helicopter. During our entire conversation, not once did he take on a demeanor of a jaded, deserving performer, however reinforcing the fact that you can’t fly outside the envelope forever and fully realizing the danger in his performance. He even stated that 2015 might very well be the end of the road for his performing career. Curious to know if he would pass the torch to the next pilot eager to fill his shoes if he retires, he replied apprehensively, not interested in bearing the responsibility for his enterprise with another behind the wheel.
Running concurrent to my performer interviews last minute arrivals and departures touched down or left town before limiting access to arriving static and performing aircraft. First to arrive with a flight size in echelon formation was the Planes of Fame Museum P-38 Lightning and American Heritage Flight Foundation P-51 Mustang. With one pass they broke formation and circled to land. Unfortunately, once the Lightning touched down, it would not take to the sky again through the remainder of the show. Stricken with an undisclosed mechanical problem, the P-38 aerobatic display would have to be cancelled.
Not long after the arrival of these WW2 icons, Greg Colyer taxied out in his T-33 for a performance rehearsal. The plane, once airborne, quickly gained altitude and began an elegant exhibition of long high-speed loops and graceful barrel rolls before transitioning to a succession of fast knife-edge photo passes at low altitude. Following the T-33 rehearsal was Steve Oliver and his highly modified 1956 de Havilland Chipmunk. Only performing segments of his twelve-minute Skydancing routine without audio accompaniment provided only a vague premonition of the presentation to come. The Skydancing presentation was succeeded by another display of aerobatics, Chuck Coleman flying an Extra 300L. Executing moves at higher speeds and tighter turning radii than the last aerobatic performance, Coleman stalled, flipped, tumbled and skidded utilizing most of the display area linking each of his high attack angle stall maneuvers with high g pull outs navigating “The Box” with a pendulous cadence. Next up, the West Coast Ravens Formation Team. Piloting custom built and painted Vans RV Aircraft, many of the formations participants built their planes in their very own garages. Most notably the West Coast Ravens were featured in the season nine finale of Mythbusters, testing whether flying in a V formation can save fuel.
The touchdown of the Ravens signalled arrivals of two very impressive aircraft, the Commemorative Air Force’s Red Tail Squadron P-51C Mustang and NASA’s F-18A chase plane. The P-51C, while not an actual veteran of the European theater, was used as a stateside trainer during 1945 then declared as postwar surplus shortly thereafter. Acquired in the late eighties with restoration beginning in the early nineties, the plane would take to the skies in 2001 christened “Tuskegee Airmen”. The plane worked the air show circuit entertaining and educating as it went until an unavoidable engine failure brought down the P-51C killing the pilot and project leader Don Hinz. After another five years of fund raising the CAF volunteers reached their one million dollar goal to go ahead with the Mustang’s restoration. In July 2009 “Tuskegee Airmen” lifted off again to join the air show circuit on its mission to entertain and educate. Flying out of the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, this F/A-18B was obtained by NASA from the U.S. Navy along with three F-18s between 1984 and 1991 to be used as chase planes for camera platforms during research missions.
As the day rolls on, another formation team flying dissimilar aircraft entertained as well as some jumps by the Red Bull Air Force. Now it was time for Red Bull’s heavy hitters, two-time world aerobatics champion Kirby Chambliss and helicopter aerobatics pioneer Chuck Aaron. Kirby Chambliss flew his Zivko Edge 540, a competition aerobatic and racing aircraft. The Edge 540 is a purpose-built machine used in the adrenalin packed Red Bull Air Race World Series. As a seasoned veteran Kirby dazzled us with maneuvers that would make anyone rethink and possibly revisit whatever they had eaten for breakfast. With manipulations of his plane that seem utterly impossible, Kirby grips and rips with a confidence befitting a world champion. Chuck Aaron then initiated his display of long back-loops, downward barrel rolls and horizontal barrel rolls that confuse the mind. Observing his custom painted Red Bull BO-105 performing stunts that one wouldn’t ever see any other helicopter perform, left me in awe even after seeing him in three other performances over the years. After a bow to the crowd it was now time for a private media performance of the Blue Angels.
Friday Air Show
Another early arrival facilitated brilliant parking and an expedient route to the flight line where a bustling of activity reinforced a sense that this was the culmination of all acts and displays advertised. Again it was time to enjoy Foxy’s Landing for breakfast.
Once on my way, I passed displays from Scaled Composites, Lockheed Martin and NASA presenting accomplishments in remote controlled automated reconnaissance to high altitude research. Taking my time perusing the array of booths and static aircraft it was again the moment for which all had been waiting. Lifting off with a payload of skydivers, Chuck Aaron’s chopper escorted a team of jumpers trailing a large American flag to initiate the beginning of the LA County Air Show. Immediately followed by another aerobatic performance from Kirby Chambliss and his Edge 540, the Red Bull team stunned the crowd with their aerial spectacle.
Subsequently, a pair of A-4 Skyhawks taxied out, and roared down the runway. Both A-4s painted with a sort of black and white zebra scheme were presented by Draken International. These Skyhawks are former Royal New Zealand Air Force A-4K aircraft that had been upgraded during the 1990s, enabling Draken International to provide the military with a capable multi-role adversary.
Taking to the sky was the B-25 known as “Executive Sweet”. A former stateside trainer and movie star from the film Catch-22, this B-25 had an extensive career as both a training aircraft and as an extra in a Hollywood production. Later purchased in 1972 the B-25 underwent a restoration down to its crew’s crash axes and intercoms. Roaring into the air, the Mitchell made passes while a diatribe was spoken regarding the now infamous Doolittle Raid, reminding the air show entrants of the sacrifice made by the airmen, knowing the grave nature of their journey and bravery in the face of their inability to return.
As a patriotic vibe swept over the crowd, the next spectacle made its way to show center. Far above the desert floor soared NASA’s ER-2. Gliding eerily silent, the ER-2 gracefully maneuvered to an ethereal audio accompaniment. The ER-2, or earth resources U-2 variant, is used as a science platform for in situ sensing. From the edge of space, it monitors earth’s shorelines, water levels, profiles the atmosphere, and can be used for stratospheric sampling, assessing flood damage and forest fires. Reaching low level crossing show center, the ER-2 went full power pulling skyward in a steep climb with air traffic control immediately clearing it to 14,500 feet.
Next up, another strangely configured aircraft, the N9MB Flying Wing. Built in 1944 as the fourth and final in a series of 1/3 scale test platforms of the Northrop XB-35 flying wing bomber, the N9MB would serve as the great grandfather to the more commonly known B-2 stealth bomber. The propeller driven flying wing was purchased by Ed Maloney of the Planes of Fame Museum in the 1950’s with restoration beginning in 1981 and lasting for 13 years. Painted in its original yellow-over-blue scheme, the N9MB was the first aircraft to utilize a fully hydraulic flight control system with airspeed-sensitive feedback.
It was at this time that the P-51C would grace the crowd with a performance then the West Coast Ravens followed by the T-33. Toward the end of the T-33 showing Bill Braak and his Smoke N’ Thunder jet car taxied down the runway billowing fire and smoke from its Westinghouse J34-48 jet engine out of a T-2A aircraft fitted with an afterburner. Lining up at the end of the runway, the T-33 swooped down, and the race was on. Leading the jet car for most of the runway, Bill quickly closed distance with an incredible display of acceleration to tie the T-33 at a speed of 325 miles per hour (523kph).
Then it was time for the Korean War Reenactment, an assortment of Korean War era planes in a mock dogfight including actors simulating anti-aircraft operations on the ground. Beginning with a P-51D Mustang, T-6 Texan and F4U Corsair making passes with a Yak-3, pilot radio communications called out a fast mover up high (MiG-15) and requested support by an F-86 Sabre, which subsequently launched. Maneuvering about with the MiG-15 up high, the F-86 and the Mig eventually made their way into the parade of planes providing us spectators with a non-stop pan-and-shoot melee of photo passes accompanied by the allied pilot communications enveloping the crowd in the chaos that an air battle might be. The mock battle would then be followed by a heritage flight of the P-51D and the F-86 Sabre flying in formation making several passes while the announcer again got a patriotic vibe flowing.
At the close of the heritage flight, Kirby Chambliss and Chuck Aaron again wowed the crowd with flights as winds picked up to about 25 to 30 knots, with gusts up to 40 and while rumors coursed through the media community as to the possibility of the Blues being cancelled. Just as the conditions reached a point of maximum intensity a convoy of vans sped down the tarmac shuttling the Blue Angels to the flight line.
As always, the Blue Angels support C-130 Hercules “Fat Albert” was the first to take off. Making low altitude high speed passes, hard banking turns and a short field combat landing, Fat Albert performed more like a small bomber than a quad engine cargo plane. With a crewmember protruding from a small access on the top of the plane and waving the American flag signaling the end of the Fat Albert portion, it was time for the Blues.
In lock step the pilots of the Blue Angels’ F-18s made their way to each aircraft. After a salute to their crew chiefs, the Blues were ready to roll. Taxiing to the end of the runway, the Blue Angels diamond formation roared to speed and lifted off with their patented military precision. Following the diamond roll out and loop, opposing solo five took off into a low altitude barrel roll with his landing gear down. Opposing solo six would then lift off, gain speed, retract his gear and pull a high g transition to a climb practically standing his F/A-18 on it’s tail.
Just after the first five and six opposing pass there was an inordinate lull in the action followed by touch down of Blue Angel six. Perhaps experiencing a malfunction, number six quickly taxied away out of sight. Confused by his landing and fully expecting the show to continue truncated or without number six, Blue Angel seven came into view, taxied and launched. Without missing much of a beat, Blue Angel six, now flying number seven, reentered his slot and the show picked back up from there. Continuing a performance that thoroughly impressed, I was shocked to see how quickly the pilot transitioned from one plane to another without the integrity of the overall show suffering. Following this strange occurrence, the Angels flew in rock solid formations even tighter then what I had seen the day before. Obviously having contingency plans for such a situation by preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, I can absolutely appreciate the all go, no quit determination of the Blue Angel organization.
Pleasing a crowd of over 22,000 on a Friday, Fox field had estimated accommodating approximately 40,000 per day as told to me by photo tour coordinator and media products coordinator at Lockheed Martin, Bob Driver. Originally slated for much later in the year, the LA County Air Show was moved up to March due to an availability of the Blue Angels being offered. With less than optimal time to prepare, Fox field had put together an impressive lineup with an all too familiar headlining act that just pushed this endeavor over the top.
Already sunburned and jaded from the two days previous, I figured I would arrive when the first acts were taking to the air. This would prove to be a negligent decision. Thinking I had already seen a large crowd the day previous, I was soon to learn of the immense interest this air show had attracted. Leaving my hotel I opted for the streets. Taking back roads, I was oblivious to the traffic I was to encounter. I made my way to the thoroughfare that would take me directly to the airport when I got a clear view of the freeway off-ramp that I had taken the two days previous without any delay. Cars, as far as I could see waiting to exit the freeway only to wait in another two mile long, three lane wide procession of vehicles headed to the airport. Reaching the front gate I was able to take in true scale of this event. 77,000 people had made their way to see this inaugural event.
Another day of awesome displays would delight myself and everyone else. Every performer would conduct flawless performances including the Blue Angels who had number six back in the air as if there wasn’t a problem to begin with. Everywhere I looked were masses of awe struck onlookers, totally amazed by the spectacle taking place before them.
As the birthplace of, or one time home to a prestigious lineage of game-changing military flying machines, Edwards Air Force Base and the larger Antelope Valley grew up on flying. Whether on the ground with a slide rule or among the clouds with a stick and rudder, the legacy of pushing the envelope evident from the Valley’s past is sure to continue well into the future for this Mecca of aerospace innovation.
Edwards Air Force Base
Originally named Muroc Field, the inverse of the original town name, the base was established due to the need for bombing and gunnery ranges away from areas of increasing growth in southern California. Among dry lakebeds, Muroc Field served as a bombing test range well before the Second World War.
Post WW2, Muroc Field fell under the jurisdiction of the Air Material Command, its burgeoning facilities and vast expanses of sky initially became home to test work on projects such as the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the Consolidated Vultee XP-81 and the Republic XP-81 Thunderjet. The advent of these projects later lured new research undertakings, most notably, the rocket-powered Bell X-1. The X-1 (#46-062) known as Glamorous Glennis, would carry Muroc test pilot Chuck Yeager beyond the speed of sound and into the annals of history for the first supersonic flight. Succeeding the breaking of the sound barrier, Muroc field was undergoing a re-designation as Muroc Air Force Base when two test pilots, Captain Glen Edwards and Major Daniel Forbes were killed during stall recovery maneuvers due to a structural failure of their YB-49 Flying wing. A year later the base was named in honor of Captain Edwards for his tragic death in the line of duty testing an aircraft many would recognize as the predecessor to the B-2 stealth bomber.
During the Cold war, Edwards played an invaluable roll in the development of America’s first generation jet powered aircraft. These aircraft include the North American F-86 Sabre, and later, true supersonic fighters of the famed “Century Series”. While these fighter developments were defining basic speed and altitude envelopes that are still useful today, there were advancements being made in platforms that truly projected intercontinental power, for instance, the B-52 Stratofortress, C-133 Cargomaster, KC-135 Stratotanker, C-130 Hercules, U-2 high-altitude spy plane and the world’s first Mach-2 bomber, the B-58 Hustler. As remarkable as these accomplishments were, none would even come close to the raw speed and altitude exploits of the rocket-powered North American X-15. During flights throughout the 60s the X-15 was able to climb to 354,200 feet, making this aircraft a suborbital spacecraft, and accelerating to an official current world record holding 3,794 mph (6,106 km/h).
Innovations throughout the sixties were not limited to rocket-powered flight; breakthroughs in design and testing would be manifested in the T-38 Talon, B-52H Stratofortress, F-4 Phantom, F-111, C-141 Starlifter, C-5 Galaxy and the world famous SR-71 Blackbird, whose full capabilities are still to this day classified. The seventies would witness the advent of fly-by-wire technology ushering in a new generation of supersonic fighters and bombers. For example, the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, B-1 Lancer and toward the end of the decade, the F-117 Nighthawk; Lockheed’s production low-observable aircraft based on proof of concept undertakings Have Blue and Tacit Blue. Even becoming a test center and alternate landing site for NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Through the eighties and into the modern era, Edwards hosted development and testing of the Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth Bomber and later the maturation and showdown of Northrop’s YF-23 Black widow II and Lockheed’s YF-22 Raptor fifth generation advanced tactical fighters.
Report and photos by Danny Hale ( view portfolio )