Since the inaugural event in 1981, San Francisco Fleet Week has gained a reputation as being one of the best in the United States, not only for its naval participants but also for the air show held over the weekend of the event. With the hopes of good lighting and unique backdrops, Adam Duffield spent three days at San Francisco Fleet Week 2016 taking in the airshow and some of the events running alongside it.

San Francisco Fleet Week is certainly not all about the aircraft – as the name implies! Along with other such events around the country, it gives the public a chance to show their thanks and respect to those serving in the United States Navy (USN) and similar services, both in the United States and with its allies. As the second part of the name suggests, the whole event takes place over the course of a week, which culminates with an airshow over the weekend before Columbus Day.


A number of Naval assets are welcomed to the port of San Francisco and, during the week, are open for the public to tour for free. This really is a part of Fleet Week that shouldn’t be missed with all the crews taking part showing immense pride whilst guiding people around and answering the thousands of questions put forward. For 2016, the lineup of vessels included –

  • USS San Diego (LPD-22) – an amphibious transport dock and one of the most modern ships in the US inventory
  • USS Mobile Bay (CG-53) – a guided-missile cruiser that served a vital role as a command ship during the Operation Desert Storm
  • USCGC Mellon (WHEC-717) – operated by the US Coast Guard, this cutter spends the majority of its time patrolling the West Coast and Northern Pacific waters
  • HMCS Calgary (FFH 335) – the only foreign vessel present, this frigate is operated by the Royal Canadian Navy and based at CFB Esquimalt, Vancouver Island

The four ships also formed the center piece of Friday mornings ‘Parade of Ships’ which saw them led by a Fire Service vessel and also joined by a number of small pleasure craft in a flotilla that entered the bay underneath the impressive Golden Gate Bridge and on to their mooring spots.

Events aren’t just confined to the water and air though with a vast array of activities taking place throughout the week showcasing some of the various skills the crews possess. From silent drill parades to marching bands, K-9 unit demonstrations to rock bands, it was a chance for the serving men and women to interact in a different way and a chance to enjoy themselves.

By far the most well attended event though is the weekend airshow, with over a million visitors expected to line the shores to watch the displays. Officially running only on the Saturday and Sunday, Friday also sees a practice display take place with all but one act (The Patriots in their six L-39s) perform. In addition, for those present on the Thursday, the Blue Angels also performed a sighting flight followed by full rehearsal during the afternoon.

Opening proceedings on each day were the US Navy Parachute team – The Leap Frogs. Jumping from a C-130H operated by 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard, the team’s first pass saw two jumpers exit the back of the aircraft and unfurl the American flag whilst the national anthem played marking the official start of airshow proceedings. Returning for a second run, the remaining Leap Frogs exited the Hercules to perform their own display featuring excellent use of smoke and impressive canopy relative work that included a trio of the parachutists in formation – one of which was flying upside down! With all landing squarely on the drop zone set up on Marina Green, the Hercules returned for a single pass down the crowd line – a lovely chance to see an increasingly rare H model.

This year’s lineup featured not one, but two of the finest aerobatic displays to be seen anywhere – Michael Wiskus in the Lucas Oil Pitts S-1-11 and Sean D Tucker in his Oracle Challenger. Whilst the two red bi-planes may appear similar at a distance, the two are very much different up close with the S-1-11 being a larger and more powerful variant of the legendary Pitts S-1 whilst Sean’s Challenger III is a custom-built airframe designed for his display and style of flying. The two displays were equally matched during the weekend and, although both started with a vertical spiralling corkscrew – both reaching double figures on their way down – the remainder of the routines were approached very differently. While Wiskus opted for an aggressively low and fast display over the water to link his manoeuvres, Tucker kept the Oracle Challenger slightly higher which gave him a chance to show off the incredible handling capabilities normally only seen from smaller scale radio controlled aircraft. Both pilots showed incredible skill with the huge crowd being enthralled throughout the two displays.

With 2016 being the Centennial year for the US Coast Guard it was great to see the service well represented in the air complementing their naval presence. Over the weekend a number of displays were flown by a combination of three aircraft. Friday saw a pair of MH-65D Dolphin helicopters based out of San Francisco joined by the latest addition to the inventory, a HC-27J from nearby USCG Sacramento whilst the Saturday display saw just the rotary elements display followed by a single MH-65D joining the HC-27J on the Sunday. With a formation pass to open, the rotary assets returned to demonstrate a swimmer launch and recovery whilst in the hover. It may not have been the most dynamic display of the lineup but vital in demonstrating the role played by the crews on a daily basis with this being hammered home on the Saturday evening when a leisure boat returning to harbor capsized straight after the show sending 30 people in to the water which sparked a major recovery effort that included one of the MH-65Ds.

Attendees were treated to two excellent solo fast jet displays from current serving front line aircraft. The Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet demonstration returned to the US to finish its 2016 season at the hands of pilot Captain Ryan Kean with Fleet Week 2016 being the penultimate display. Known for their stunning display schemes, 2016’s aircraft pays homage to the role of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) during the Second World War in training new pilots before heading for battle. The display itself is similar in part to the European Hornet displays of the Swiss and Finnish and very well executed. One particular difference though was a fast pass over the crowd from behind before transitioning in to a vertical climb – a shock to those not expecting it as the Hornet snuck up from over the top of the city – but what an incredible sound! Not to be outdone however, the United States Air Force F-22 Raptor demonstration team took to the skies to show the incredible handling characteristics of the fifth-generation jet fighter. With the same routine that was seen in the skies over Fairford this summer the thrust vectoring antics pulled off never cease to amaze, especially during the flat spin. To close the performance, the Raptor joined up seamlessly with P-51D Mustang ‘Dolly’ in the hands of of Steve Hinton for a for a Heritage Flight flypast. Sticking together for a number of passes while the crowd watched on respectfully, the two aircraft side-by-side really showed off the incredible size difference. Unfortunately, on the Sunday the F-22 suffered some form of technical issue which sadly couldn’t be resolved resulting in it returning to base leaving Steve Hinton to perform a graceful routine of gentle aerobatics in the Mustang.

With their West Coast hub being located at the cities international airport, United Airlines are well known around the skies of San Francisco and regular participants at the Fleet Week show. For 2016, the airline provided a display from one of the largest and most distinctive passenger aircraft flying in modern times – the Boeing 747. Flying a full display that lasted well over ten-minutes the majestic jet flew multiple passes from different directions – the sight of the Jumbo Jet ‘top-siding’ around the bay at (comparatively) low-level is truly one to behold.

Taking up by far the majority of the four-hour display though were three very different jet teams. Continuing their North American tour, the Breitling Jet Team would no doubt have been a ‘first time’ for many watching and they certainly put on a show for the crowds including the rare chance to see flares being used as the team flew their final break. Another team using the L-39 as their aircraft of choice (for the Saturday and Sunday only) was that of Californian based Patriots Jet Team. Flying as a six-ship formation, the team open with patriotic red, white and blue smoke before splitting into smaller groups – the majority of the display alternating between a trio of two ships and a four ship with synchro pair formations whilst very little was performed with the full six aircraft. A very different display routine to any of their peers, it is interesting to see an alternate approach, albeit somewhat confusing on first watch if away from commentary!

Of course, no Fleet Week air show is complete without the US Navy’s own flight demonstration team – the Blue Angels. Basing out of nearby Oakland Airport for the duration of the event (as many of the flying displays did) it allowed the team to undertake a number of public relations activities during their down days along with a ‘meet and greet’ outside Pier 39 after the Saturday show. Closing the air display over the weekend, the six Hornets performed an exceptional show of precision – especially with the extreme proximity of their four ship during a number of formations. Watching the synchro pair perform crossovers in front of Alcatraz Island whilst the remaining aircraft return over the Golden Gate Bridge really is something – the ‘Bay’ really does give one of the most unique backdrops to an air display anywhere in the world.

San Francisco Fleet Week 2016 had something for everyone – fast jets, world-class display teams and mind blowing aerobatic being just some of what was on offer. With a rare chance to board active warships along with the other ground-based attractions, there is plenty of variety on offer. With perfect sunshine throughout the week and the show set against some distinctive backdrops, this one event has to be sampled at least once in your lifetime.

A few tips from a first timer….

Often at foreign airshows, it can be difficult to know where to go and what to expect, especially for first timers. For Fleet Week 2016, I spent quite a bit of time researching various viewing spots and looking for information as well as speaking to people who had been before but, even then, I felt under prepared when compared with doing similar for a UK show. This is even more the case with Fleet Week that spans such an expansive area with so many different options for viewing available. In case others are looking for similar information for future events, here are a few tips that I discovered during my time there –

  • Ship tours – These are a key part of Fleet Week and something that really shouldn’t be missed out. However, as can be expected with the volume of people attending, queues for the tours on Saturday and Sunday were sizable with wait times sitting at around two hours by mid-morning. This year, the USS San Diego arrived early and allowed tours on the Tuesday before the main event with little or no queues at all. In the same manner, ship tours on the Monday after the show saw similar short queues as well so it may be worth spending an extra day either side of the airshow to visit the ships with the minimal amount of waiting. Also, do take note of the ‘no backpacks’ rule – you will be turned away even with the smallest of bags as we witnessed on a number of occasions.
  • Parade of Ships – Watching the military ships enter the bay underneath the Golden Gate Bridge on the Friday is a sight to behold. With those vessels that had already arrived, they set sail out of the bay between 8 and 9am with the parade taking place between 10-12am and, whilst the stream of ships is constant, the return of the military assets doesn’t occur until later in that time period. For a great view and photo opportunity with Golden Gate Bridge in the background, the beach at Crissy Field is certainly a good option (and where the majority of the naval images above were taken).
  • Airshow viewing – As has been mentioned the viewing options for the airshow itself are many and varied. The display box extends from Marina Green on the west all the way to Pier 39 on the east giving a number of places to watch. If photography is your main goal, then the immediate issue is distance especially with solo displays where 520mm on a crop body still didn’t give full frame images. During my week there, I watched the show from three different locations – Marina Green itself where the main ground attractions are based, the Fort Mason piers and finally Pier 39. Whilst Marina Green is billed as the ‘center’ of the airshow attractions, it is certainly not center of the airshow itself and in fact sees some displays (including the Blue Angels and F-22 Raptor) fly directly over the crowd at this location during their turns. Pier 39 has a similar issue as well as being noticeably further away from the display line. By far the best location that I found were the piers at Fort Mason which get you closest to the action and a relatively unobstructed view of the show – with the various masts of pleasure boats being the exception! But, prime locations require an early start with many regulars getting there before 7am to get their favourite spots (my thanks to Pat and Les if they are reading this for letting me join them at the front on Saturday). The hill at Fort Mason is also a popular spot with photographers giving an elevated view looking straight across the bay towards Alcatraz however not one that I spent any time at during the airshow itself.
  • Bay Cruises – A number of companies such as Blue and Gold Ferries offer bay tours during the Blue Angels display and advertise as giving the best views of the show. With this in mind (and an option for a cruise that included food and drink) I spent the Sunday afternoon on one of these cruises to see what they were like for photography. In all honesty, the photographic options are limited and quite possibly worse than those from on shore during the Blue Angels display. The cruise takes you along the south side of the display box and out under the Golden Gate Bridge before returning to the north side of the display box for the Blue Angels display. Although a couple of great overhead passes rocked the boat, you then spend the majority of the show shooting in to the sun and twice as far away as you would have been from Fort Mason. Therefore, my suggestion would be that if you were intent on going purely for photography, I would give this a miss but, if you want to get a different view to just sit back and watch the show, this is one of the coolest locations to do so.

These are obviously only my findings and others may well think differently but hopefully they may be of use to those who are thinking of attending for their first time and struggling to find much information.