Oceana 'In Pursuit Of Liberty' Airshow 2004
As the retirement date for the F-14 approaches, many enthusiasts made the journey to attend this year's airshow over the weekend of 24-26 September - Chris Muir was one of them.
Nestled in the Virginia countryside between the cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk is 'Fighter Country', known locally as Naval Air Station Oceana - Apollo Soucek Field. Oceana is one of the US Navy's Master jet bases, and is home to the all the remaining F-14 Tomcats and the F-18 Hornets of the Atlantic Fleet. At present there are eight squadrons of Tomcats and eleven squadrons of Hornets based there, though at any one time many of these will be deployed on a carrier - even so, that is over two hundred based fighters...
The airshow at Oceana is split into several parts over the weekend - on the Friday there is an evening show, a normal airshow on the Saturday and Sunday, and on the Saturday night there is a 'beach blast' on Virginia Beach.
Greeting visitors on the ramp was a wide variety of static exhibits, ranging from a C-5 from the USAF Reserve, airliners from Delta and Fed Ex, all the major aircraft types from the US Navy, a smattering of USAF jets and a number of private warbirds. The main focus for many was the eastern end of the ramp, which contained the fast jet display aircraft and over twenty examples of the F-14. Sadly, the Blue Angels, who had been due to attend were not available due to the damage caused to their home base by the recent Hurricane 'Ivan'.
The Friday evening show is as its name implies, and commences with a number of the military flying display acts going up as the night darkens. Once it was really dark, the action could move up a gear - with flares or fireworks strapped to their aircraft several performers (Gene Soucy in his Showcat, Bill Reesman in his MiG-17, and Dan Buchanon in his microlite!!) blasted around the skies. Further highlights were the high-speed runs of 'Shockwave' (a truck powered by three afterburning jet engines - only in America!!) and the USN 'Leap Frogs' and US Army 'Black Daggers' parachute teams, as well as a F-14 performing a number of passes whilst in full burner. The finale was a flypast from the Tomcat, and the detonation of enough pyrotechnics for it so seem as if the world had ended....!!
The following morning brought the main airshow. The first few displays were from civilian acts, such as Sean Tucker (mad aerobatics), Michael Goulian (more mad aeros!), the 'Skytypers' with their six SNJ Texans and a solo L-39 Albatros. The main military action commenced with the departure of seven Tomcats and five Hornets for the tactical role demo. While they formed up there was a display from an E-2C Hawkeye, which was surprisingly energetic for what seems such a large aircraft. Following the Hawkeye there was a farewell flyby from the based SAR UH-3H Sea King, which is being retired this year. To commence the tactical demonstration (or tac-demo) there was a flyby from a formation of six Tomcats, followed by four of the Hornets. Then, a very high speed pass from a solo F-14 (very close to the speed of sound!) - a bonus for the location of Oceana is the close proximity of the Atlantic Ocean, so plenty of vapour formed on the displaying aircraft. What then followed was a series of simulated bomb runs from the fighters, accompanied by the magnificent pyrotechnic display which made the north side of the base disappear in a cloud of smoke! To finish, the various formations performed high-speed run and breaks into the circuit, before landing and taxying back past the crowd to the fighter ramp.
The focus then shifted to solo displays, with appearances from the T-6A, the East Coast A-10 Demo team, the RCAF CF-18 (flown by 'Super Dave' - believe me you do get to know the nicknames of the pilots!!), the solo USN F-18C and the East Coast F-15 Demo team (flown by 'Slam'). Then the first of the historic flights, with the A-10, a P-51 and a F-86 joining the F-15 for the USAF Heritage Flight flypast. After several runs, they broke formation to land, whilst the F-86 put on a great demo at VERY low level. The F-86 is flown by retired navy pilot Dale 'Snort' Snodgrass, who is the high-time F-14 pilot, and he certainly seems at home in the aircraft.
Back to the solos, with the Super Hornet (interestingly an example painted in the colours of VFA-103 'Jolly Rogers', who have yet to transition from the Tomcat) flown by 'Meat' and 'Grace', putting on a very aggressive demo, something to look forward to more frequently in future years. Onto the crowd favourite, with 'Opie' and 'Roll' taxying out in the demo F-14 from VF-101 'Grim Reapers'. After much waving to the crowd, they blasted off to perform a wonderful display to remind us why we are going to miss this aircraft so much. My highlight was a radio conversation with the show commentator, where they described their next manoeuvre as "coming past with all we've got" before appearing in a high-speed pass with the topside of the aircraft presented to the crowd - why can't we have more of these in Europe? As the display drew to its close, the F-18 and F4-U Corsair departed before appearing in formation with the F-14 to form the USN Legacy Flight. After a couple of passes it was all over, the last aircraft landed and returned to the ramp and a silence formed over the base.
After all that, one last event for us. From the balcony of our hotel room in Virginia Beach we had the pleasure of watching the 'beach blast', which involves the Navy Seal and Army Special Forces parachute teams dropping onto the beach from a C-130 (yep - at night!) bedecked with flares and illuminated suits. Finally, another appearance by a F-14 as it expended all its fuel in a series of burner runs along the beach before it disappeared to run in from the base in full burner, over the beach and pulled up into a climb which continued as far as we could see.
All in all, very entertaining and a worthwhile trip to the US. A different type of airshow to those we get in the UK, but very entertaining and memorable. Make a visit next year before all the F-14s are retired, just about everyone I know plans to...