Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, California, has been a key location on the map since its completion in 1961, fulfilling a requirement to support the Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy. After eight years, NAS Lemoore returned to the US airshow calendar.
NAS Lemoore is firmly established and recognised as the Western Coast ‘Master Jet Base’ and home to several United States Navy (USN) strike fighter squadrons, each with their own rich history.
The NAS Lemoore base is located approximately 200 miles north of Los Angeles and over the weekend of 21st and 22nd September 2019, it opened its doors to the public for a free airshow. One cannot fail to be inspired by the NAS Lemoore based squadron monikers like ‘The Top Hatters,’ ‘The Fighting Redcocks’ and the ‘Bounty Hunters’ to name but three.
When operations at NAS Lemoore first commenced in 1961, the units based there were under the jurisdiction of the Commander Fleet Air Alameda. However, from August 1969, the Strike Fighter Wing’s home ported units were transferred to the responsibility of the Commander Fleet Air Lemoore.
In July 1973, the command name was changed once more to become the Commander Light Attack Wing, U. S. Pacific Fleet and various other taskings for base command were assigned and implemented at that time. There was a transitional period for the fleet when it swapped operation of the venerable A-7 Corsair to the F/A-18 Hornet and the command ‘Wing’ name changed once more in April 1991 when it became the Commander Strike Fighter Wing, US Pacific Fleet, or CSFWP.
The NAS Lemoore fleet has flown a diverse range of aircraft during its tenure, going back to the piston propeller driven A-1 Skyraider, the A-4 Skyhawk jet, the aforementioned A-7 Corsair and through to the various versions of the F/A-18 culminating in the dominant F/A-18E-F Super Hornet we see at Lemoore today.
CSFWP exists partially to inform and update the Commander Naval Air Force, US Pacific Fleet regarding the status and operations of the West Coast strike fighters. It takes responsibility for the currency and preparedness training of all strike fighter squadrons deploying aboard the West Coast based US Navy aircraft carriers. The Wing also has a responsible role relating to training, staffing, maintenance upkeep, and logistical support for all units under its command.
There are several shore-based command units centred on the NAS Lemoore footprint of operations and these include the Aviation Supply Department, Western Fleet Readiness Centre and the Pacific Strike Fighter Weapons School.
As times change, so the USN adapts to modern threats and the new Lockheed F-35C Lightning II has commenced squadron delivery. Two examples of which were on static display, one of these being courtesy of VFA-125 ‘Rough Raiders’ and the second being from VFA-147 ‘Argonauts.’ There was a third F-35C airframe in the flying display, also provided by VFA-125.
At the time of the report, there were 15 fleet squadrons based at NAS Lemoore, along with another 4 permanently forward deployed F/A-18 squadrons (Carrier Air Wing 5) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and operating from MCAS Iwakuni, in Japan.
Speaking to pilots of various squadrons at NAS Lemoore during the airshow weekend, it was evidently clear and admirable in terms of their patriotism and professional pride in the tasks that they perform and the protection it ultimately serves. Around the base, there are symbolisms of this meaning, outlining the purpose and the determination of the Naval Pacific Fleet aviators.
The eagle with sword emblem represents the courage, the strength and the air superiority of the Strike Fighter Squadrons based on the West Coast. Latin inscriptions translate to ‘Train, Maintain and Equip,’ a key ethos of the CSFWP. The other Latin motto being ‘Victory in Combat,’ Victoria In Certamen.
As for the air display itself, being a two-day show following on from the family open day held the day before, NAS Lemoore became a key date in the North American airshow season for 2019. Not least because of the attention-grabbing headline of securing the attendance of the US Navy Blue Angels display team in their 73rd display season.
Entering the base, It felt quite novel using runway 32-left as part of the inbound drive to the public parking! Once parked up, it became clear that security on base was understandably tight and with strict limitations on what attendees could take in with them. The ‘no rucksack’ and camera bag rules meant that this reporter went onto base with just one camera and lens and having to purchase food and drinks once inside.
Upon entry to the showground, attendees were welcomed by two lines of F/A-18 Super Hornets, totalling over a dozen and forming a corridor of aviation delight. The key attraction to these Hornets being that they were squadron ‘CAG birds,’ all with special markings. At the end of the corridor, there were two F-35C Lightning II aircraft, one operated by the VFA-125 ‘Rough Raiders,’ and the other from VFA-147 ‘Argonauts. The F-35s were positioned head on as attendees walked between the corridor of Hornets and together, they formed a nice tight loop of aircraft.
On the show days, photography of these Hornets and Lightning IIs was a challenge as squadron pilots and crew were present with stalls and gazebos that enabled the public to speak to the aircrew and purchase squadron memorabilia ranging from challenge coins, patches, bandanas, prints and key chains etc. That’s the airshow game, the opportunity to learn and discuss with the crews, even if photography is sometimes limited.
Elsewhere in the static line up, highlights included a Fresno based Air National Guard (ANG) F-15C, a NAS Whidbey Island based E/A-18G ‘Growler,’ a colourful T-34C ‘Turbo Mentor’ and a selection of warbirds, including a F4-U Corsair.
The flying display commenced mid-morning on the Saturday in wonderful flying conditions with a civilian owned T-33 Shooting Star in an attractive polished metal finish depicting its ex-military background. Named ‘Ace Maker,’ pilot Tim Tibo put on a spirited display, complete with smoke effects and top side passes.
The air display continued apace, with the Pacific Aero Ventures operated TA-4J ‘Skyhawk’ taxying out and taking to the air to commence its display. It looked resplendent in light US Navy grey with red flashes on the tail plane and drop tanks. The Skyhawk really did look and sound the part in the skies above NAS Lemoore, one delightful slow and low pass included the wheels down and with the arrester hook deployed.
Next up into the air was slower paced, but no less an entertaining civilian act in the shape of award winning Kent Pietsch, flying the very colourful ‘Jelly Belly’ Interstate Cadet aircraft. Weighing in at around 800lbs and with a wingspan of 37 feet, Kent put on three very different performances during the show programme, each one bringing a very thrilling and thought-provoking sequence of aerobatics and with dramatic moments of aerial theatre.
The three performances of the ‘Jelly Belly’ included an aerial ribbon being torn by the propeller, landing the Cadet on top of a moving truck, and this reporter’s personal favourite of the three, an ‘engine off’ aerobatic display in the Cadet with streaming smoke and set to Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow.’ That sequence ended with the aircraft touching down and still with the engine turned off, taxied to a waiting pre-positioned colleague on the ground within touching distance. Remarkable airmanship from a pilot with phenomenal experience going back to 1973, it is easy to see how Kent has earned the awards that he has in the ensuing time.
Vicky Benzing provided her own display routine in a striking red Boeing Stearman of 1940s vintage, the tell-tale rasp of the propeller tips as they went supersonic conveyed the power of the display to the appreciative audience. Vicky herself has had an extensive aviation career of over thirty years and has more than 8,500 pilot hours logged across a plethora of types.
This particular Stearman has an extensive history, including being under the charge of the War Assets Administration. Since it has been in civilian hands (discharged in 1946), it has been fitted with a 450HP Pratt & Whitney R985 engine and was converted into a crop duster. It undertook that role in the Californian Sacramento Valley until 1973. Following a period of storage, the aeroplane has since been restored to permit aerobatic performances.
Because Vicky’s Stearman has 2 ailerons rather than the 4 normally found on this type of aircraft, she needs to keep two hands on the stick and use a fair amount of strength to make the aircraft pitch and roll. All the more reason to admire the airmanship of this display, the turns and rolls complemented by the smoke effects.
The Commemorative Air Force had brought along a PBJ-1J Mitchell bomber in attractive navy blue and grey colours, and aptly named ‘Semper Fi.’ This was accompanied by a rare Mitsubishi A6M3 ‘Zero’ (tail marking X-133), it’s large red Japanese insignia clearly emblazoned in contrast with the Mitchell and other war birds in this set piece. The P-51D (wearing tail no. 414292 and named ‘Man ‘O’ War’) was bedecked in a striking grey and red scheme with black ‘zebra’ stripes along the top side of the wings and D-Day invasion stripes on the main fuselage. Making up the 5 warbirds in this sequence were a navy-blue pair, a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat and Grumman F6-F Hellcat.
As the historic element of USN aviation taxied in from that wonderful warbird sequence, it was time for the Navy of the current day to taxy out, heralding the start of the Air Power demonstration. F/A-18E/F Super Hornets of VFA-14 ‘Top Hatters,’ VFA-151 ‘Vigilantes,’ and VFA-2 ‘Bounty Hunters’ launched with multiple examples for the demonstration.
The Hornets were joined in the air for the demonstration by a Lemoore based Navy Knighthawk MH-60S search and rescue helicopter bedecked in the colourful red and white livery. The final element of the Air Power Demonstration team was made up of a VFA-125 ‘Rough Raiders’ F-35C Lightning II. This sported ‘Marines’ branding on the starboard underside fuselage to the rear, and ‘Navy’ on the port side.
The Lightning II was very much a highlight of the flying display and made for a very imposing shape in the sky as it performed several ‘profile’ passes, both low and high speed. One pass was made with the arrester hook deployed, and a fast afterburner pass with the weapons bay doors open was quite spectacular against the blue sky. Completing the F-35C element of course was a wonderful topside pass – loud and proud.
The Lemoore MH-60S helicopter simulated personnel insertion onto the runway, allowing personnel to disembark from the helicopter, before landing back on later in the demonstration amidst yellow smoke to pick them up again.
Meanwhile, the Hornets continued to showcase the different roles they can undertake for the Fleet as the Air Power Demonstration progressed, simulating the beating up of the airfield, air support and most interestingly, the ‘buddy-buddy’ air to air refuelling that can be performed. Before the assets used in the demonstration landed, there was time for a unique flypast that included 5 Hornets and single F-35C Lightning II.
As the Air Power Demonstration Hornets taxied back in, it was poignant to see the panel of remembrance towards the front on the port side of two of the VFA-151 ‘Vigilantes’ F/A-18E Hornets commemorating the life of Lieutenant Charles Walker, 33 years old, who lost his life on 31st July 2019 whilst undertaking a flight training mission north of China Lake, California. Blue skies sir.
Another acknowledgement of US Naval Aviation took to the air, involving a pair of VFA-122 ‘Fighting Redcocks’ F/A-18E Hornets and a civilian operated North American FJ-4B Fury, itself wearing the attractive light Navy grey colours complete with a red and white checkerboard tail fin. This aircraft is based out of Wyoming State and looks stunning, its lineage very similar in style to the F-86 Sabre.
The Hornets and the Fury flew in formation for several passes of the ‘US Navy Legacy Flight’ before landing on and taxying back to their dispersal in front of the appreciative crowd at the fence line. The Fury taxied in with its wingtips folded – a lovely touch.
The Patriots Jet Team were the next act into the sky, their striking black L-39 Albatross aircraft providing a nice contrast with the blue sky and the use of red, white and blue smoke. A civilian jet display team, the Patriots were formed in 1999, and they feature ex Thunderbirds and Blue Angels military display pilots along with pilots more accustomed to flying around the Alaskan bush!
The six Albatross aircraft flew a series of looping formation passes, synchronised opposition elements, along with fast and very low passes of single aircraft – two pilots trying to outperform each other in the Californian sunshine, down and dirty! The routine was fast paced and dynamic, and the spectators fully bought into the enthusiastic commentary.
John Collver took his turn in the air display schedule flying the attractive looking AT6/SNJ Texan known as ‘War Dog.’ It flies in the colours of the era it flew when based at El Toro with the green stripes indicating that it was an ‘instrument trainer’ at the time as part of VMT-2 training squadron. Although based at El Toro, the ‘WD’ tail code stands for ‘Walt Disney,’ a nod of appreciation for the famous animator who designed the El Toro mascot motif – a red bull with small wings.
As a popular pair on the American airshow circuit, John and ‘War Dog’ have been on the programme of airshows for over 35 years and they fly as an honorary salute to his father’s military service. John has over 15,000 hours of flying time across many types, including the helicopter used in the ‘Air Wolf’ television series in the 1980s. The ‘War Dog’ routine employs white smoke and was very nicely flown at Lemoore in a series of passes, and soaring wing overs.
There was a surprise for visitors of the air show on Saturday when a Fresno based F-15C Eagle taxied out from the shelters behind and to the left of the crowd line. And no simple plain grey jet either. This was the ‘colour jet’ of the Californian Air National Guard, 144th Fighter Wing no less, celebrating 75 years of both the 144th FW and the 194th Fighter Squadron (2018).
The routine involving this glorious example of a Fresno F-15C was not technically a full air display, rather more accurately it would be described as a loud and proud role demonstration. There were several passes, including a wonderful full afterburner topside pass that impressed the crowd as well as a missed approach before landing. It was a great surprise for this report writer and others in the crowd. It is unclear why this airframe did not fly on the Sunday of the show.
The flying display concluded as planned with the patriotism and spectacle of the United States Navy display team, The Blue Angels. Coming towards the end of their tenure flying the aging F/A-18C/D legacy Hornet, they will look to the future and soon convert to Super Hornets.
The display of the Blue Angels commences well before the aircraft start their engines and taxi out from the hardstanding. Led by Captain Eric Doyle this season, the pre-display routine is well worth watching as the ground crew examine and prepare the immaculate Hornets being used in the display and the pilots meet, greet and salute each other, walking out to the aircraft together, peeling off one by one to get show ready with their respective Hornet.
The anticipation builds with the Blue Angels display, the commentator explaining what was happening, the music beginning to herald the engines being run up. The air display itself is very tight, the formations roll, and loop and the numerous opposition passes performed by the synchro-pair are as impressive and any display team around the world.
In the right light, which Lemoore had in spades over the weekend, the Blue Angels really do have the power to work the crowd… to engage in the patriotism, and the pride in what the USN sets out as its mission.
So, with the flying over and done with, what was my perception of the 2019 show at NAS Lemoore? Definitely, a weekend to savour… Okay, it isn’t the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, but it had many highlights and gems. It also had perfect weather.
Okay, there were challenges getting off the base, and the static display park was all about those CAG birds of the home-based squadrons. But my accompanying colleague Jason Grant reminded me that this was about ‘quality, not quantity.’ When will we see so many CAG birds roosting like that again in our lifetime? Probably never, and so I would say I was very happy indeed to have been part of that weekend.
For a more in depth look at NAS Lemoore operations, check out Mark Forests report here: Strike Fighter Wing Pacific
The author would like to extend his thanks to US Navy Lieutenant Commander Lydia Bock (VFA-125 ‘Rough Raiders’) and to Marcelo Calero, NAS Lemoore Public Affairs Officer for their co-operation in supporting AeroResource at this event. NAS Lemoore Airshow Website