Home to the United States Navy’s east coast strike fighter squadrons, Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana is one of the largest navy bases in the United States. Every year in mid-September, the base opens its doors to the public giving a chance to see the daily going on at the base up close. Adam Duffield reports on the NAS Oceana Airshow 2017, with additional photography from Duncan Monk and Doug Monk.
NAS Oceana is home to no less than 17 Hornet Squadrons with a mix of F/A-18A+/B/C/D Hornets and newer F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that operate under the four assigned Carrier Air Wings. Immediately as you enter the airshow grounds, it’s clear to see the sheer volume of aircraft that reside at the base with distant dispersals becoming the parking ground for the many airframes not taking part in the show.
Unlike a typical airshow in the United Kingdom, static displays at many US shows are very much a ‘hands-on’ experience with barriers virtually non-existent and many airframes being opened up for a look around. In fact, of all the static displays at Oceana 2017, only the US Navy E-6 Mercury had any form of rope around it and even then, it was barely visible and placed on the floor in a rough circle. Of course, the downside of having free reign over the displays is that sometimes it can lead to people getting too close, especially children, and swinging from an aerial underneath a B-52 or testing just how strong the mounting bracket of an F-15C pitot tube is – both real examples of witnessed occurrences.
The static display area spanned a large portion of the available apron – an approximate 10 minute walk – with the majority of aircraft located at either end of it. With NAS Oceana home to so many Hornet units, there were plenty of the based jets on display including no less than ten wearing ‘special’ schemes. Other US Navy types included a NAS Corpus Christi based T-6B Texan II, a shark mouthed T-34C Turbo Mentor, VAW-120 E-2C Hawkeye and HSC-9 MH-60S Seahawk. Of all the Navy assets on show however, two in particular stood out as real highlights – the NP-3C Orion operated by VXS-1 based at NAS Patuxent River and the MH-53E Sea Dragon operated by HM-14 from nearby NAS Norfolk.
Of course, whilst the US Navy made up the vast majority of the static display, the other military branches were present like the aforementioned USAF B-52 and F-15C along with a relatively new US Army CH-47 Chinook. A small number of civilian operated types made up the remainder of the display, which included an F-4U Corsair and B-25 operated by the Military Air Museum just down the road in Pungo and a Cessna 182T of the Civil Air Patrol.
For those of a penchant for Squadron merchandise, Oceana is certain to have your wallet open and bank manager worried! With a line of stalls stretching some 150 metres, every home based flying squadron alongside associated units were well represented with everything from t-shirts and patches to DVD’ and coffee cups. That’s not to also mention many of the visiting units selling their own merchandise by their aircraft – a collectors dream!
Opening the flying show was one of a handful of warbirds to display throughout the day in the form of a gleaming North American T-6G Texan. Originally delivered to the United States Air Force as 49-3376, this particular example ended its military service with the Spanish Air Force in 1983 before being sold on to private owners. The raspy sound of the radial engine filling the skies during the gentle aerobatics were at contrast to the sight and sound of another participant from the same era.
One of only a few flying de Havilland Vampires, Jerry Conley’s ex-Swiss Air Force DH-115 was a rare addition to the display, even when compared to many UK shows! Representing a Royal Air Force jet during the Suez Crisis and Operation Musketeer – eye catching yellow and black stripes on the wings denoting this – the jet was put through a graceful display that commenced with an opening topside pass that pleased all the photographers present. It was also great to see such an aircraft demonstrated with underwing stores in place giving even more of an insight to an operational fit. Also flying a civilian operated jet, although somewhat more modern, was a solo display from the Warrior Flight Team with Lieutenant commander Mark ‘Crunchy’ Burgess (Ret) flying a L-39 Albatros nicknamed ‘Vandy 1’. In a gloss black scheme representing the US Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-1 , the display clearly demonstrated the additional power available over and above the Vampire.
The only rotary in the flying display, Eugene Nock’s Bell 47G, is somewhat a star in its own right, having been on screen in the 1960s Batman series. Still painted to represent the ‘Batcopter’, it was joined in the display by a ‘Batmobile’ racing along the runway. Although missing the wings that adorned it during its TV appearances, the tubular boom and bubble canopy give it a distinctive look many will remember.
Throughout the day a number of parachute drops were performed by members of Skydive Suffolk and the US Army’s Black Daggers – both drops utilising a Shorts Skyvan as a jump platform. Demonstrating a number of different canopy types, along with solo and close formation work, each display gave something a little different to the day’s line up.
No show can really be considered complete without at least one demonstration of unlimited aerobatics and, at Oceana, Bill Stein was on hand with his Zivko Edge 540. A type rarely seen in the UK, with the exception of when the Red Bull Air Race comes to town, Bill’s solo display put the machine through its paces with a display full of lomcováks, snap rolls and various other stomach-churning manoeuvres. The end of the display saw Bill ‘race’ down the runway against the Flashfire Jet Truck – a converted Dodge pickup powered by the jet engine from a T2 Buckeye. Earlier in the day, Bill also took to the air for another customary display at many US airshows – the ‘comedy’ skit. With the Edge 540 in the middle of its supposed display, hang glider pilot Dan Buchanan was launched on the runway behind a tow car, seemingly interrupting Bill’s own display. A lighthearted segment of the show that definitely appeals to a family audience, the skill of both pilots shouldn’t be underestimated as the hang glider gracefully swept across the sky with Bill Stein buzzing around it attempting to cut the streamers being trailed. What is soon apparent once the display ends, is that Dan Buchanan the pilot of the hang glider, is confined to a wheelchair following a landing accident over 30 years ago – an incredible display of determination and inspirational to those watching who may think they cannot achieve their dreams.
Also providing an aerobatic display, albeit at the opposite end of the scale to the Edge 540, was one of the most respected pilots in the airshow industry, Gene Soucy. Having first displayed the Pitts Special, a type that dominated much of his early career along with the Christen Eagle, it was however another, much larger, biplane that is his current display mount – a highly modified Grumman Ag Cat known as the ‘Showcat’. Originally designed for crop dusting, the modifications make its current guise visually very different with changes to the rudder, cockpit section and wings instantly recognisable. Flying a very low-level display, the 9 cylinder radial may not be the most powerful engine in the world but with an experienced pilot such as Gene at the controls, it is a display that appeared effortless in its execution.
With the show being hosted by one of the largest active bases in the US Navy, it should come as no surprise that there was a significant number of military assets forming the bulk of the flying display, albeit just a single US Air Force item denied the Navy a monopoly. Flown by Maj John ‘Rain’ Waters, the USAF F-16 Solo Demonstration Team – part of the 20th Fighter Wing based at Shaw AFB, South Carolina – displays an F-16CJ ‘Wild Weasel’ used by the unit in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role. With its solo display complete, one of the most evocative display segments took place with the F-16 joined in the air by P-51D Mustang ‘Bald Eagle’ flown by a founding Heritage Flight pilot, Jim Beasley. With Dwayne Obrien’s We Remember echoing across the airfield, the F-16 could barely be heard above the purr of the Mustang’s Merlin as the dissimilar formation completed a number of close passes before splitting. Watching the crowd, it was clear to see just how much this display means to people with the pride for US Veterans and their service evident.
Home to so many Hornet Squadrons, the shows at NAS Oceana are always known as a ‘Hornetfest’ and 2017 was certainly no different. Responsible for both the F/A-18C ‘Legacy’ Hornet and F/A-18F Super Hornet Tactical Demonstration, or ‘TAC DEMO’ VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ are the only unit at the base to operate both types in their role as a fleet replacement squadron. Purposefully split across the day, the two demonstrations gave a chance to see both the old and new Hornet models performing a range of dynamic manoeuvres only capable within a solo demonstration. Thanks to the humid Virginia air, both were also accompanied by vast amounts of vapour as the moisture was squeezed from the air during the higher-g segments of their routines.
Bringing an operational context to the show, the capabilities of the Super Hornet in particular were shown with an Air Power Demonstration led by VFA-105 ‘Gunslingers’. Originally planned to be joined by a pair of Legacy Hornets operated by VFC-12 ‘Fighting Omars’, the adversary training squadron whose jets were amongst the most photogenic at the show thanks to their varied splinter schemes and the single example of the new Su-35 Fullback scheme. The low cloud base on Saturday saw the initial element of the display cancelled which should have seen one of the VFC-12 jets pitted against a single Super Hornet in displays of both flat and vertical dogfight scenarios. Able to continue with the rest of the planned display, VFA-105 gave a demonstration of the various ground attack profiles that are typically flown, complete with pyrotechnics provided by Firewalkers International. Possibly one of the most significant differences in roles for the Super Hornet is its capability to act as a ‘buddy’ tanker refuelling platform, as was shown during the Air Power Demonstration. A single Super Hornet flew in a ‘3-Wet’ configuration (although typically this would be a ‘5-Wet’ configuration in theatre) with the ‘buddy’ refuelling system on the centerline hardpoint and hoses trailing for its following companion. Although not quite making the contact on the Saturday, again due to the weather conditions at the time, it was still impressive to watch as the second jet sat within inches of the basket. Prior to the grand finale from the Hornets, the US Army Black Daggers demonstrated a high-altitude tactical drop using ‘swoop chutes’ that saw them descend to the landing point at an impressive rate drawing gasps from all around. To close off the segment, a quartet of Super Hornets arrived for a diamond formation flypast in front of the crowd before the fifth aircraft made a fast, close and low-banked sneak pass catching many out. Despite being affected by the weather, the segment was almost constant action with some excellent commentary from US Airshow stalwart Rob Reiner describing the evolving situation perfectly.
Having been grounded during the Air Power Demonstration earlier in the day, VFC-12 were to return later for a unique event – an airborne change of command. Starting off with a Tactical Support Wing flypast (consisting of a pair of Legacy Hornets operated by VFA-204 ‘River Rattlers’ being joined by a single EA-18G Growler from VAQ-209 ‘Star Warriors’) the outgoing and incoming Commanders of VFC-12 took centre stage. With Commander Lopes handing the baton to Commander Hood, the pair of ‘River Rattlers’ jets broke off for a single high-speed pass before landing. As formal ceremonies go, it was certainly an impressive sight that will no doubt be even more special for those taking part in front of such a large audience.
Closing the show was the US Navy’s very own flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels. World-renowned, almost the entire showground flocked to the crowd line to witness the hour-long show starting with the ‘formation’ startup of their six blue and yellow jets. Following the tragic KC-130T accident in Louisiana earlier in the year that saw the lost 16 personnel, the Blue Angels ‘Fat Albert’ display has been grounded whilst investigations into the cause take place, leaving it to the six Hornets to entertain the crowd – and entertain they did! With their trademark precision formation diamond four perfectly demonstrated, the display is dotted with the high energy moves of the synchro pair making it a display that lives up to its reputation – especially the exceptionally low high-speed pass over the airfield by Blue Angel 5. Many are desperate for the team to return to the UK, their last display being at Finningley in 1992, but it is difficult to believe that certain elements of their display would be permitted under the UK regulations and the changes required would likely mean that a lot of the presence and spectacle of the show would be lost.
Whilst the flying programme for the day, along with the quality of the static items, there were some unfortunate downsides to the show – the main one being the surprise restriction on camera lenses. Unannounced prior to the show, a large number of enthusiasts found themselves turned away at the gates for having ‘oversize’ lenses. It seems this rule may have been a very last minute decision with very little information available on what was considered unacceptable with a number of people telling us different applications of the rule. It seems that it was down sheer luck on which gate you entered through as to how strictly, if at all, this rule was applied leaving many disappointed as clearly seen on the shows Facebook page that day. Although an attempt to clarify the ruling was made prior to Sunday’s show, it was still somewhat unclear as to what was considered acceptable, therefore, we would strongly recommend anyone looking to attend in future years to research as much as possible the rules in force. However, if you were able to get your camera equipment onto the base, the show offers excellent opportunities for photography especially in the flying display, which sees the sun in a favourable position for the vast majority of the day (and, if it is sunny, you’ll soon be praying for shade!). The second drawback was the speed at which the showground closed after the Blue Angels landed. Whilst announcements were made that, to help the flow of traffic exiting the base, it would be beneficial to hang around and take in some of the stalls and static items, less than an hour later the showground was already being cleared. Maybe UK airshows spoil us in often allowing us to remain behind for lengthy periods after flying finished but there was barely time to walk from one end to another, let alone stop to look at anything. Once again, a handy planning tip for anyone looking to attend in the future.
With an exceptional flying display lineup, including an excellent representation of based Hornets, well presented warbirds and the impeccable Blue Angels alongside a well presented static display, the NAS Oceana Airshow 2017 was a real gem of a show. If the fast jets of the US Navy interest you in any way, then this is a show that needs to be on your bucket list and, once ticked off, likely to draw you back time and time again.