Situated just across the Potomac River from Washington DC, Joint Base Andrews is home to a number of units that include the Presidential Airlift Group. Over the weekend of September 16-17 though, the base opened its doors to the public for the Joint Base Andrews Air Show 2017. Adam Duffield attended the second day of the show along with Duncan and Doug Monk for AeroResource.
Possibly the most well-known aircraft in the United States Air Force (USAF) Joint Base Andrews is home to the VC-25s that assume the callsign ‘Air Force One’ during their Presidential duties. Along with the rest of the assets under the 89th Airlift Wing (AW) that call Andrews home, they convey both the importance of the US Military along with the political importance of Washington to many across the globe. With both USAF and United States Navy assets based at Andrews, the base houses a wide variety of types across ‘both’ sides which the airshow allows the rare chance to see.
On first glance, the static display area seems compact however, it soon becomes clear that not only are there plenty of types present but the sheer quality of those on display is exceptional. Standing out clearly at either end were the giants of the USAF transport fleet, a C-5M Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III whilst the tanker fleet was represented with a KC-10 Extender and a KC-135 Stratotanker from the home based 459th Air Refuelling Wing (ARW). Rounding out the largest of the modern air force types on show was the sleek but still distinctively futuristic shape of a B-1B Lancer of the 77th Weapons Squadron based out of Nellis Air Force Base.
Taking centre stage was a large display of numerous Army and Air assets of D.C Air National Guard (District of Columbia ANG) units with the former providing both a UH-60L Blackhawk and UH-72A Lakota and the latter dropping in with a C-40C and F-16C Fighting Falcon with a special tail – the aircraft sitting amongst a number of non-aviation related displays.
Although the normal practice is for flying display items to be parked away from the public, it was great to see the four large warbirds that were to feature later in the day available for the public to get up close to during the morning, all of them offering the public a chance to look inside. The quartet of B-29 ‘Doc’, B-17G ‘Memphis Belle’, C-47 ‘Whiskey 7’ and B-25J ‘Panchito’ attracted a long stream of visitors before they were towed out onto the flight line – one they returned back to the static after their displays, the queues appeared even longer. Warbirds and America… they get it right!
The show also seemed to attract more than its fair share of rare types when compared to others across the country. With its natural association to politics given the proximity to D.C, the appearance of a Lockheed Martin T-50A on static alongside a sizeable publicity stand may not have been a big surprise – especially given the T-X programme. It was interesting to see the static example, TX-1, fitted with the dorsal spine air-to-air refuelling tank. Not to be outdone, Boeing were also present with their offering which they are working with in conjunction with Leonardo as part of a programme looking to replace the ageing UH-1N. Based on the AW139, the MH-139 certainly looked the part in a matt grey finish while being fitted with a defensive aid suite, FLIR [Forward looking infrared] camera turret and mounting point for a gun.
Of course, there was plenty more aircraft to see in the static display including a pair of AFRC [Air Force Reserve Command] A-10 Thunderbolt IIs of the 303d Fighter Squadron (FS) based at Whiteman, an F-15E from 335th FS at Seymour Johnson and a T-38C from the Columbus based 50th FTS [Flying Training Squadron]. The US Army were on hand with a RC-12X Guardrail while the Department of Homeland Security sent a King Air and AS350 Ecureuil – both used by the US Border services. Whilst the base is known for its distinctive blue and white VIP schemed transport fleet, only two of the smaller operated examples – a C-21A and C-12 – were on show although it was possible to catch glimpses of various C-32, C-37 and C-40s on the ‘active’ ramp across from the static area which continued to operate throughout the show.
The job of starting the days flying display fell to two units that call Andrews home. In the lead was a single KC-135R operated by the 459th ARW with ‘her’ boom extended with a quartet of UH-1H Huey’s of the 1st Helicopter Squadron, 11th Wing following behind in a scene that was only missing Ride of the Valkyries playing. Tasked with VIP evacuation and airlift, the aircraft may now be ageing, however they look pristine in their dark blue scheme broken by a single gold stripe. Later in the day, a single example took to the air once more for a number of photo passes, something appreciated by many of the ground based photographers with the sun being in a much more favourable position.
Also taking part in the opening segment was the United States Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. Jumping from a Fokker C-31A Troopship, their first jump featured the Stars and Stripes being gracefully brought back to earth against a backdrop of the national anthem. Their second jump, which took place much later in the afternoon, was a much more dynamic presentation of the team’s skill including solo and relative canopy work. A first for the author however was the demonstration of a primary chute cutaway as part of their display, showing exactly what would happen in an emergency if the primary chute were to fail – quite incredible!
Possibly the biggest surprise in the flying display line up was an aerial demonstration of the Lockheed Martin T-50A. With the first aircraft starring in the static display, it was a somewhat rare occasion to see the only two examples in the same place, especially when considered that the maiden flight was only ten months prior! Although a relatively benign display featuring just three ‘fly throughs’, something that really isn’t a surprise given its current test status, it was a standout item of the show.
Sponsored by well-known car insurance giant Geico, the Geico Skytypers are often seen both on the lineup at US shows and also in the distance with their distinctive ‘skytyping’. However, Andrews was treated to a more traditional formation display from the six SNJ-2 aircraft flying a number of crossover and horizontal breaks – their display being accompanied by that distinctive sounding Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine.
In the middle of the show lineup, a 45-minute segment was set aside for series of displays that commemorated the American war in the Pacific – from start to finish. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor leading to the United States entering the Second World War. This attack was represented by the Tora! Tora! Tora! Display Team who opened the segment with a formation of eight aircraft marked up as various Japanese types used in the attack – five Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters and three Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers. Accompanied by a very informative narration along with a seemingly never-ending barrage of pyrotechnics, the display consisted of close, low passes along the crowd along with diving strafing runs in the background. A truly non-stop 20 minutes, the only downside was the sheer volume of smoke from both the pyrotechnics (and the aircraft’s own smoke systems) that, helped by the wind, made it very difficult to see most of the display.
Following on after were solo displays from four beautiful multi-engined warbirds that had previously been seen as part of the static display during the morning. First up was ‘Panchito’ representing the type that first struck the Japanese mainland during the daring Doolittle Raid. Although the aircraft itself entered service too late to see wartime action, the original Panchito did operate in the Pacific theatre with the 41st Bombardment Group.
Based at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York, Boeing B-17G ‘Memphis Belle’ and Douglas C-47 ‘Whiskey 7’ took to the air at the same time to perform their own individual displays. Both types are well known for their participation in the war over Europe however, they also played a part in the Pacific where the B-17 was mostly utilised as a maritime bomber – rather unsuccessfully, it must be said!
To close the section was one of the biggest, and most successful, restoration stories of recent times. Returning to the air last year following an incredible 16-year project, Boeing B-29 ‘Doc’ is one of only two Superfortresses airworthy in the world and represents over 350,000 hours of manual work. The historical significance of the B-29 in the Pacific is one that should be known to all and, whilst ‘Doc’ was not involved with the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima or Nagasaki, it serves as a living reminder of these world-changing events. In its natural metal finish, it really is a magnificent sight in the air especially during the numerous topside passes showing the large wingspan the type has.
Although not part of the Pacific war set piece, another pair of warbirds were present in the display line up as the Class of ’45. Opening with Jim Tobul performing a solo routine in his F4U-4 Corsair, he was soon joined by Scott Yoak in P-51D Mustang for a truly wonderful pairs display. The Corsair is a true war veteran having seen action during the Korean War completing over 200 combat missions with two units – VF-884 ‘Bitter Birds’ (the scheme in which it wears) aboard USS Boxer and VF-653 aboard USS Valley Forge.
The award for the busiest pilot of the day must go to Kent Pietsch and his Interstate Cadet. Performing three times throughout the display, each gave something very different to entertain the crowd. Opening with the comedy routine whereby Kent ‘interrupted’ an earlier display by Quicksilver, this was followed by an impressive rooftop landing on an ageing Camper van before finishing with perhaps the most impressive of the three displays – an engine off aerobatic routine from 6,000ft. Whilst similar in design to the Piper Cub with which us ‘Brits’ are much more accustomed, watching Kent turn the Cadet into a glider and then fly a routine including loops and high bank angle turns really was something different – especially with the taxiway landing directly in front of the crowd to finish.
Keeping with Aerobatics, albeit much more advanced than the Cadet is capable of, were two of the leading pilots in the country. Patty Wagstaff holds an incredible number of records and achievements in both competition and display flying and her display at Andrews was testament to her skill. Flying an Extra 300S, she barely spent anytime flying straight and level with an exceptionally performed display. Following on later in the afternoon was a similarly well-respected display pilot in Matt Chapman this time with an Extra 330LX. Following the completion of his superbly executed routine, it was time for a race between him and the Shockwave Jet Truck. For those unfamiliar with Shockwave, this truck is powered by three Westinghouse J34 turbojets and capable of hitting over 370 mph – a truly serious piece of kit! With a standing start for the truck, the Extra dove for the start line and, as the race progressed in front of a huge wall of flame, Shockwave soon made up the advantage to cross the finish line first.
For many attending, the USAF Raptor and Thunderbird displays would have been the highlight. With both present in the UK for RIAT 2017, it was interesting to compare the displays based upon the different rules that are seemingly applied – in the case of the F-22 it was almost like a completely different display. Much closer, faster and more aggressive that seen in the UK during the summer, it certainly seemed to flow far better between manoeuvres. At the end of the solo display, the Raptor was joined by a natural metal finished P-51D for the USAF Heritage display. Alongside all the emotion that is felt when watching the display, especially amongst the very patriotic visitors when on ‘home turf’, one of the other most noticeable aspects is the sheer size difference between the two types – both state of the art during their service years, 57 years separating their first flights.
Closing the show was the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds. Flying six F-16C’s, the entire performance lasts around an hour, although it is a good 35 minutes before the jets take to the air! Like the Raptor display, the Thunderbirds appeared slightly closer to the crowd line than their appearances at RAF Fairford, however the remainder of the display seemed unaltered with Thunderbirds 1-4 carrying out a number of formation moves whilst 5 and 6 carried out their precise synchro pair routine. It’s clear to see how well respected the team are by the crowd with everyone jostling for position to get the best view and, despite it being the final display of the day, they attracted by far the biggest crowd at the fenceline.
Whilst the quality of the static and flying displays was certainly high, the show did have a small number of niggling downsides. For the photographers, the most obvious is that the vast majority of the show is spent shooting into the sun, especially during the earlier portion of the flying. As the day progresses, top side passes from either side can attract flashes of light but it isn’t really until the last hour that it favours the crowdline fully. Those after merchandise may also find themselves somewhat disappointed with what is on offer. Whilst a few of the visiting units had selections of swag, there was surprisingly little when compared to many other shows. That said, the opportunity to acquire items from SAM FOX for both Presidential and Vice Presidential airlift missions is a definite rare chance. Of course, the situation may well have been different on Saturday which appears to be the ‘main’ show day, something apparent when it was noticed that the AC-130 static display had departed prior to the Sunday show and also the inclusion of a B-2 in the flying display on Saturday. The final point to note is that parking for the show is not on Joint Base Andrews but instead at Fed-ex Field approx 9 miles north of the airbase. Whilst a continual stream of busses worked to ferry visitors to and from the airfield, queues at the end of the day were lengthy along with a large number of reports of heavy traffic when trying to leave Fed-ex Field itself.
Joint Base Andrews Air Show 2017 was a rare opportunity to step foot inside one of America’s most well known bases whose mission is unlike any other in the country. Although a strong flying display with highlights such as the Pacific War segment and T-50 demonstration, perhaps the strongest element of the show was the static items. Items such as the 1st Helicopter Squadron UH-1H’s (of which almost all of the Squadrons aircraft could be seen spread across the airfield), various DC ANG assets and future USAF perspective types in a second T-50 and the MH-139 alongside other items such as the RC-12X and B-1B really set the show out with a focus on quality rather than quantity. If you are looking at visiting the area around the time of the show, it is certainly worth the time and effort to spend at least one day taking it in, if only to pick up an Air Force One challenge coin or whiskey glass!