The Nellis Air Force Base open house or to give it the official title, Aviation Nation, is a renowned event that is often considered a bucket list show. The many attractions of Aviation Nation are easy to see with Nellis being one of the most famous fighter bases in the world, home to the United States Air Force (USAF) Aggressors with their amazing paint schemes as well as the Thunderbirds demonstration team. The airfield is sited within easy reach of Las Vegas with all that this brings for visitors to the show in terms of ease of transport, accommodation and evening entertainment. Aviation Nation is always held around Veterans and this provides an important remembrance aspect to the show; this year the show took place on 12th and 13th November. The weather in Nevada in mid-November is also fantastic with very little cloud, almost no rain and temperatures in the mid-twenties. Taking all this into consideration, first time attendee Paul Smith provides this report from Nevada, of an experience which certainly did not disappoint.
Aviation Nation 2016 was billed as a celebration of 75 years of airpower, Nellis AFB having been transferred to the military and opened as Las Vegas Army Airfield on 20th December 1941. The field was originally used for air gunnery training, and around 45,000 B-17 gunners were trained at Nellis during World War Two. Since then the base has been in continuous use almost with a focus of training for air warfare. Today the base is designated as the United States Air Force Air Warfare Centre and provides advanced combat training for composite strike forces, working with all of the services of the United States military as well as allied air arms from around the world, who attend the famous exercises at Nellis such as Red Flag, Green Flag or Mission Employment.
Arrivals to the show took place predominantly on the Thursday, a day which also saw the end of the annual Green Flag exercise – making the base traffic very busy and rewarding for the photographers assembled outside the base. Arrivals for the static display included heavies from the US Air Force such as a KC-10A Extender and C-5M Super Galaxy from Travis AFB California, as well as the sole example of the TC-135S based at Offutt AFB Nebraska used to provide training for the RC-135S Cobra Ball mission. The T-38 Talon provided by the Air Force was an example from Beale AFB used by 9th Reconnaissance Wing to maintain pilot proficiency for U-2 crews. A highlight for many people was the perennial favourite B-1B Lancer which came from 28th Bomb Squadron, 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess AFB. This aircraft was open for guided tours of the crew section and a large queue to gain access was present throughout the two days of the show. Items provided by the US Navy for the static park were an EA-18G Growler from VAQ-138 ‘Yellow Jackets’ based at NAS Whidbey Island and a F-5E Tiger II aggressor from VFC-13 ‘Saints’ at nearby NAS Fallon; definitely a case of quality over quantity.
US Army contributions to the static line up consisted of the ever popular CH-47F Chinook and AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters. Additionally the US Army sent an elusive. These are modified De Havilland Canada DHC-7 airframes that are in civilian style markings and usually keep a very low profile, indeed, to quote one of the pilots at the show “we don’t do many airshows”. The final US military air arm represented in the static was the US Coast Guard who sent a HH-65 Dolphin search and rescue helicopter. The sole foreign military item at the show came from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, with one of their F-35A Lightning II on static display. This example was one of the aircraft currently based at Edwards AFB with the RNLAF detachment (323rd Test and Evaluation Squadron) there conducting pre-service testing. This F-35A was one of two which made the first European airshow appearance by the type, at the Luchtmachtdagen event in June.
One of the major sponsors of this year’s Aviation Nation show was the private sector military contractor Draken International, who operate the largest fleet of privately owned military aircraft in the world. For the static display Draken provided examples of their Aeromacchi MB.339, Aero L-159E ALCA and A-4N Skyhawk aircraft – all of which are utilised to provide the military with Red Air threats for training purposes. Other civilian aircraft to grace the static section of the show included a Grumman Albatross – one of the previous mounts of the 66th Rescue Squadron during the 1950s at RAF Manston, who are now flying HH-60G Pave Hawks at Nellis – together with several static warbirds such as a P-38 Lightning, Spitfire MK.XIV and an F4U Corsair. Notable cancellations from the show were a B-17 (which was unfortunate given the types history at Nellis), US Navy E-6 Mercury and E-2C Hawkeye aircraft which were all due to be on static display. Perhaps most sadly missed were the NASA contingent of the rarely seen ER-2 High Altitude Science Platform (due for the flying display) and an Aero Spacelines Super Guppy (due for static display), both of which were very unfortunately unavailable for the show.
On both days the flying display started with the US Air Force Academy “Wings of Blue” parachute display team, dropping in from a C-17A Globemaster III. The last member of the team to land unfurled a very large American flag to coincide with the national anthem being played. The Aviation Nation flying display then moved on to two solo aerobatic acts, Vicky Benzing in her bright red Boeing Stearman and Chuck Coleman who flew a very tight and precise display in his Extra 300L. Following these acts was a formation aerobatic team, the West Coast Ravens. Aerobatic teams flying RV aircraft aren’t for everyone, but the Ravens are surely different in that they fly no less than 24 of the aircraft in formation at the start of their display later splitting into two formations of barely more manageable groups of 16 and 8. The Ravens are a group of pilots from the Western American states, many of whom built the aircraft that they fly.
The first military aircraft flying display at Aviation Nation 2016 soon followed in the form of the C-17A Globemaster III demo team from the 535th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor. The display consisted of a series of graceful passes showing off the imposing bulk of the aircraft, some of the flight being very picturesque as the large aircraft turned in front of the mountains. On Sunday the C-17A demo began with a short field take off, starting from more than half way down the 10,000 ft. runway which was impressive and suitably noisy.
Next it was time for the Nellis Heritage Parade which was split into three themed sections, World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The parade started with World War Two types such as the ubiquitous T-6 Texan which was the first USAAF type flown at Nellis in 1941, P-40 Warhawk and a B-25 Mitchell ’Photo Fanny’. Also in this segment were two quite rare types in the form of a P-63 King Cobra and a PB4Y-2 Privateer; the latter being a highly modified B-24 Liberator with a single vertical tail and large observation windows which was used by the US Navy as a submarine hunter – much as the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon are today. Following the World War Two segment came the Korean War section, which started with a pair of T-28 Trojans, a P-51D Mustang ‘Dolly’, an F-86 Sabre ‘Jolley Roger’ and the T-33 Shooting Star ‘Ace Maker’. The Korean section of the parade were chased around by a Mig-15 UTI in the really eye catching red and silver colour scheme of the 1950s Soviet aerobatic team The red Falcons.
The last item in the heritage parade was without doubt the highlight of the 2016 Aviation Nation show for enthusiasts, the final airshow appearance of a QF-4 Phantom. A pair of QF-4s arrived from the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron at Tyndall AFB, both displaying the classic shark mouth markings. One was placed in the static display while the other gave a blistering performance, full of power and presence at the end of the heritage parade. After a noisy, smokey take off the Phantom performed a series of fast and loud passes, two of which gave the crowd fantastic topside views and one pass was conducted with the landing gear and flaps down but the engines spooled up with full reheat lit from crowd centre onwards. The Phantom then landed using a braking parachute and taxyed the full length of the crowd line with the canopies open and the parachute still attached.
The QF-4s entered service in 1997 when they replaced the QF-106. During this time suitable candidate F-4 Phantoms were recovered from storage at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona and converted to be capable of unmanned flight by BAE Systems. Over 230 aircraft were converted during the programme and assigned to the 82nd ATRS where they have contributed to the test programmes for the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air to air missiles. Missile systems produced in the United States have to be tested for lethality against full-scale targets by an act of law before full production begins and so the ongoing unmanned aerial target programme is essential to the development of these systems. The two examples which attended the Nellis Open House were two of the last few remaining QF-4s which will either be destroyed or grounded by the end of the year and replaced by the next generation of full-scale aerial targets, the QF-16.
Following the Phantom was Gregory W Colyer in his T-33 Shooting Star ‘Ace Maker’ back for his solo display after flying earlier as part of the Korean War segment of the heritage parade. This was a very accomplished routine combining very low passes along the runway with high performance manoeuvres using every inch of sky. At the end of the sequence ‘Ace Maker’ was joined by the Jet Car ‘Smoke ‘n’ Thunder’ which resembles a top fuel dragster style of vehicle combined with a Westinghouse J34 turbojet (formerly fitted to a T-2 Buckeye) for smoky, flaming power. ‘Smoke ‘n’ Thunder’ lined up on the runway and was joined low overhead by ‘Ace Maker’ with precision timing to start the race. ‘Ace Maker’ inevitably won this race which was framed by several explosions behind the pair which added to the spectacle.
The next items on the Aviation Nation show schedule were the exceptional Air to Air and Air to Ground demos. The Air to Air demo started with a pair of F-16C Vipers from the 64th Aggressor Squadron based at Nellis making their presence felt on the airfield which causes two F-15C Eagles from the 57th Wing to scramble taking on the bandits in simulated air to air combat. After the F-15 pair successfully saw off the aggressors, the air to air segment was brought to a close.
The Air to Ground demo followed immediately afterwards, starting with a group of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) taking to the airfield in two lightweight tactical all-terrain vehicles (LTATV). These JTACs called in air strikes simulating a special forces contact with insurgents, using a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles and a pair of A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft also from the 57th Wing. After the initial ground attack runs, two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters enter the fray to insert and extract personnel using fast roping and winching operations. Both of these displays were fast-paced, dramatic and made good use of flares dropped over the more remote parts of the field. Both the Air to Air and Air to Ground demos effectively demonstrated the air power which is resident at the base as well as the highly realistic training environment which is provided by the 57th Wing for use by the USAF, air arms from NATO and other partner nations.
The next act in the Aviation Nation flying display comprised an OV-10 Bronco, a converted DC-10 airliner and a few thousand gallons of water. The display was provided by the civilian operator 10 Tanker Air who operates 3 of the wide bodied jets converted to carry 12,000 gallons of water and/or fire retardant in a belly mounted tank which can be released in 8 seconds over wildfires. Large scale wildfires are a particular issue in nearby California which regularly suffers from devastating fires requiring the response of these large air tankers, so it was fitting to see this impressive capability demonstrated at this show. The display started with a pass from the OV-10 Bronco, which was wearing 70s style US Marine Corps markings. Broncos are often used to mark trails for the larger aircraft to follow during firefighting operations. Then came the DC-10 which dropped half of its load on each day of water with a pink dye over the eastern side of the airfield making a very photogenic sight.
The penultimate section of the show was firmly focused on fast jets and comprised the US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet TAC (Tactical) demo, the F-22 Raptor solo display and the Heritage flight of F-86, F-35 and F-22 aircraft. The Super Hornet demo was provided by VFA-122 ‘The Flying Eagles’ based at NAS LeMoore who used a F/A-18E single seater on the Saturday and a F/A-18F dual seat aircraft on the Sunday. Their display was similar to the Super Hornet display provided by Boeing often seen in the UK, making full use of the manoeuvrability of the type. Where the display differed was in the lower altitudes and higher speeds used in some of the passes and the carrier style approach and touch and go towards the end of the display.
The Super Hornet was followed by the take off of the F-86 and F-35 which went off to hold until their slot following the F-22 solo display. The F-22 Raptor then performed a high performance take off straight into a series of astonishing manoeuvres which are the hallmark of the F-22 solo displays. Back this year was the Hoover Pitch which commemorates the passing of the elite airshow performer and aviation legend Bob Hoover. This manoeuvre sees the Raptor perform a series of knife-edge passes linked by aileron rolls which are reminiscent of Bob Hoover’s famed Shrike Aero Commander displays. The F-22 certainly made good use of the scenery in its display turning in front of the amazing landscape and at one point appearing to skim the top of one of the mountain peaks. For the finale, the F-22 joined up with the other two heritage flight aircraft and the three performed a series of passes together, culminating in a pass from behind the crowd and a nice break over crowd centre. Before landing the three aircraft performed some missed approaches with the F-35 performing some high performance manoeuvres, that have been rarely seen at airshows thus far by this relatively new type (currently the F-35 is only displaying as part of the Heritage Team and has yet to be authorised to perform a true solo display).
The final display of Aviation Nation was from the US Air Force aerial demonstration team The Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds display starts with a 30 minute ground show which takes place at show centre where the Thunderbirds are lined up throughout the display. The routine which includes the pre-flight checks and start-up of the aircraft can seem a little laborious for those used to European teams who are waiting at the end of the runway when the previous display lands, but as always they are well worth the wait. The 6 ship display is precise, well timed and makes full use of the performance of their Block 52 F-16 C and D model jets.
For the public, Aviation Nation offers one of the great airshow experiences with an amazing variety of ground and aerial displays, coupled with access to the latest military aviation technology and high levels of interaction with the personnel. The food on site is worth a mention, less expensive than many will be used used to at airshows in the UK, and (as expected) really excellent burgers which were a personal highlight. Access to the show is via buses from the car parks at the Las Vegas Speedway where the security checks are also conducted. These arrangements are efficient and easy, and saw no significant issues with queuing on either day.
For photographers the Aviation Nation show is fantastic. It is true that the positioning of the sun is somewhat problematic, especially earlier in the day but this is more than made up for by the quality of the light later in the short late autumn day and the opportunity to photograph display acts on the taxi to and from the runway, right in front of the crowdline. The only real issue for photographers is the lack of wind to clear smoke which by the end of an act such as the Thunderbirds can leave a thick haze over the airfield.
Overall the experience of Aviation Nation is outstanding; a show with unique aircraft, truly spectacular displays and a stunning backdrop. It is a very high quality airshow in every way which is much enhanced by having such a strong home team performance at one of the most exciting fighter bases in the world.