Tuscaloosa Air Show

 

Held bienially, the Tuscaloosa Airshow is hosted by the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport, at the Tuscaloosa Municipal Airport, Alabama. AeroResource's Ben Montgomery detoured past to catch the latter half of the events....

The theme of the 2012 show (held in partnership with David Shultz Airshows LLC) was "Honouring Our Heroes", and was set to feature displays from military aircraft from World War II to present. One bonus of this show was the free entry, although you could pay $27 for seating closer to the runway. The free entry area did provide a very restricted view of the runway, meaning takeoff and landing shots were very difficult - but who can complain when you don't have to pay anything! Sunlight for photography was good in the afternoon, with the sun moving further behind the crowd as the day went on (compare the photographs of the C-31A and the final photos of the Blue Angels to see the difference between 1:30PM and 3:30PM) - although in the morning it would seem that any photos would be backlit.

With thunderstorms all around up where I was staying in Huntsville on Saturday evening, I attended the show on the afternoon of Sunday April 1st. With a lengthy drive down to Tuscaloosa, most of the flying had already been completed by the time I arrived (on the transit bus on the way in, the Beech 18 was doing some very impressive aerobatics!). This wasn't a problem, as the real reason for visiting the show was the static display, and more importantly the show finale - the United States Navy Blue Angels!

Also displaying at the show, which I arrived just in time to see, were the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. Jumping from a military version of the Fokker F.27 (known as the C-31A), the team jumped in with The Stars and Stripes during the National Anthem at the start of the show, as well as providing a full display later in the afternoon. The Golden Knights are split into two display teams - Black Team and Gold Team, with the latter being on display in Tuscaloosa. Due to the wind direction at jump altitude, the jumpers exited the aircraft from behind the crowd line to land on a spot at the centre of the flight line. Unlike teams such as the RAF Falcons, the Golden Knights only sent a few jumpers out of the aircraft at a time, each of whom demonstrated something different during their descent - the most impressive was the single jumper who deployed a primary chute before detaching it and freefalling, finally deploying a second chute closer towards the ground. The show was ended by a low and fast flyby from the C-31A (one of two used by the team, in addition to UV-18A Twin Otters) which then performed a reasonably short landing before returning to its parking spot.

After the display by the Golden Knights, I wandered down towards the static park at the other end of the airfield, drawn by the tempting sound of several Vietnam era Helicopters which had been buzzing around all day.

Offering passenger flights at the show were two UH-1H Iroquois (more commonly known as the Huey) aircraft, from Sky Soldiers. As we only currently have one flying UH-1H in England (72-21509), to experience two flying together was very special. Had we arrived at the show earlier in the day, I'm sure I would have had to lighten my wallet and take a flight with them! The Sky Soldiers (officially the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation) also display and offer rides in AH-1 Cobras, and have a fleet of over 40 aircraft (including an OV-1B Mohawk and OH-6A Cayuse), but these were not present at Tuscaloosa. As would be expected, the price to fly in a Cobra is significantly higher than that to fly in an Iroquois (for a UH-1 flight, a minimum donation of only $50 gains you a 10 minute flight). These flights were obviously popular as the two aircraft at the show were flying almost continuously from when we arrived up until they had to clear the airspace for the Blue Angels demonstration. The two aircraft present were:

Aircraft Type

Registration

Operator

 

 

 

Bell UH-1H Iroquois

68-16104 (N104HF)

Army Aviation Heritage Foundation

Bell UH-1H Iroquois

70-16426 (N426HF)

Army Aviation Heritage Foundation

The Tuscaloosa show was well supported by the US Military for the static display as well. As I found out, static displays at US airshows are far removed from those we experience in the UK - namely in the fact that there are no barriers around the aircraft! Whilst this does make clean photographs of static exhibits pretty difficult, the access available to the aircraft is fantastic (in the 84°F heat, many people were using them as improvised sunshades to watch the flying from!).

Personal highlights of the show were the four T-45C Goshawks, on display from VT-9, based at NAS Meridian. Perhaps not the most flamboyant of aircraft, but another development of the hugely successful BAe Systems Hawk - used as the primary fast jet trainer by many world air arms.

The only major disappointment for me was the lack of the E-2C Hawkeye that was advertised in the program - presumably due to operational reasons. Still, this is just another reason to go back to the 2014 show and see if I can catch one then! There was also due to be a USAF T-6 Texan II on display, but it departed on the Sunday show (I assume before I arrived, as it wasn't seen in the static park!).

My wander around the static aircraft was cut short by the imminent display of the USN Blue Angels - once again, I'd lost track of time from behind my viewfinder, and had to rush back down to the other end of the airfield before the displa started. Unfortunately this meant that I didn't manage to photograph several of the aircraft - including the rare (to UK shores at least!) US Coast Guard MH-65C and US Navy TH-57C helicopters. Listed below are the aircraft I photographed, or at least made a note of:

Aircraft Type

Registration

Operator

 

 

 

Eurocopter MH-65C Dauphin

6513

CGATC, United States Coast Guard

Bell TH-57C Sea Ranger

162672

HT-8, United States Navy

Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk

162328

HSL-46, United States Navy

Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon

164765

HM-14, United States Navy

Boeing CF-188A Hornet

188771

425 Squadron, Canadian Forces

Douglas C-47D Skytrain

43-16369 (marked as AC-47D 43-770/EN)

American Flight Museum

Boeing A-10C Thunderbolt II

80-0201

303 FS, United States Air Force

Raytheon T-1A Jayhawk

93-0637

86 FTS, United States Air Force

Lockheed KC-130T Hercules

162310

VMGR-234, United States Marine Corps

Boeing T-45C Goshawk

165478

VT-9, United States Navy

Boeing T-45C Goshawk

165491

VT-9, United States Navy

Boeing T-45C Goshawk

165495

VT-9, United States Navy

Boeing T-45C Goshawk

165601

VT-9, United States Navy

Ending the show on both days were the Blue Angels (or more officially, the United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team). It's certainly no exaggeration to say that Americans tend to be more outwardly patriotic than the British, and this could be felt in the crowd's anticipation before the display - although I will have to admit I was playing host to a huge grin only a few minutes into the display.

The Tuscaloosa show was the 7th venue for the 2012 Blue Angels team, which consists of 6 display pilots and aircraft, the commentator (Lieutenant Mark Tedrow, who flies a 7th twin seat F/A-18B for VIP and Media flights), as well as the many additional personnel necessary to support such a team.

In addition to the display by the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft the team use, their support aircraft - a USMC C-130 known as "Fat Albert" - also usually provides a dynamic show itself. Unfortunately Fat Albert was not present at Tuscaloosa - reported to be undergoing a maintenance session that occurs once every five years. It was anticipated to have Albert ready for Tuscaloosa, but the maintenance took longer than expected. The Blue Angels were making use of another standard KC-130T for transport (which they've nicknamed Ernie), but whilst this did make it to Tuscaloosa, it too experienced problems meaning it could not be displayed either day of the show. This was a great shame as there is always something amazing about seeing a transport aircraft being thrown around the sky.

One of the impressive things about the display from the Blue Angels are some of the close formations - for an aircraft the size of an F/A-18 to maintain a mere 18 inch separation between the canopy of one jet and the wingtip of the next takes some skill and nerve from the pilots!

The show starts with a formation take off from aircraft 1-4. The two solo/opposition pilots, flying aircraft 5 and 6 launch from the opposite end of the runway, with 5 pulling up as soon as possible whilst 6 keeping the Hornet on the deck until the end of the runway, pulling into a vertical climb. Whilst 5 and 6 have been launching, the four ship have moved behind the crowd and perform a low level crowd rear entry.

The format for most of the show is very consistent - opposition passes and high G manoeuvres from aircraft 5 and 6 (flown by the Leading Solo Lieutenant C. J. Simonsen and the Opposing Solo Lieutenant David Tickle respectively), whilst the four ship of aircraft 1-4 perform more graceful formations. The pilots for these four aircraft are the team leader, Captain Greg McWherter (flying Aircraft 1), the Right Wing pilot Lieutenant John Hiltz (Aircraft 2), Left Wing pilot Captain Brandon Cordill (Aircraft 3) and the Slot pilot in Aircraft 4, Major Brent Stevens. Captain Cordill and Major Stevens are the only two US Marine Corps pilots on the team (other than the pilots of Fat Albert), with the rest being drawn from the US Navy.

One of the most recognisable passes from the Solo pair is a mirror pass with both aircraft in "dirty" configuration - gear and arrestor hook extended. For myself, the best pass had to be of the Solo pair, coming from behind the crowd at high speed and low altitude - far lower than what would have been allowed in the UK! Following this routine, the 6 aircraft formed up for some mass formation work, before a run and break along the runway ended the show.

The following list gives the aircraft used in the display and their corresponding registrations.

Aircraft Type

Registration

Operator

 

 

 

Boeing F/A-18C Hornet

163451/1

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

Boeing F/A-18C Hornet

163435/2

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

Boeing F/A-18C Hornet

163765/3

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

Boeing F/A-18C Hornet

163754/4

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

Boeing F/A-18C Hornet

163768/5

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

Boeing F/A-18A Hornet

163093/6

Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Exhibition Team

After the aircraft had taxiied in and shutdown, the pilots all made themselves available for a meet and greet session, signing everything from hats to inflatable F/A-18s - before having to head off to the post display debrief. By this time, everyone was heading to the exits and the transit buses back to the car parks (which just involved parking along the edges of nearby roads - although the whole system was much smoother than it sounds!). It was estimated 75,000 people attended the Tuscaloosa show this year, and I do hope to be able to return for the next event in two years time!


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