Glenn Beasley reports from NAS Oceana's annual airshow, held over 7-9 September
The hordes of European enthusiasts heading for the warm shores of Virginia Beach were slightly less than in previous years, as the mighty F-14 no longer resides at the large NAS Oceana 'Master Jet Base'. Those who did make the journey witnessed a fine show, with two contrasting days of weather - sadly, some witnessed the tragic accident that claimed the life of 'Geico Skytyper' pilot Jan Wildbergh on the Friday. The decision to continue with the weekend's events was very much born from the hearts of the pilots, Dale Snodgrass commenting on local television that the sky was "where the pilots feel safest, it's what they do and to not have flown would have felt the wrong thing to do."
NAS Oceana lies approximately sixteen miles east of the city of Norfolk, within the city limits of Virginia Beach. The base sprawls over 6,000 acres of land and hosts over 10,000 military personnel and their families - having visited the base on two previous occasions, I know how busy the pattern can be. On this particular visit some of the circuit bashing, particularly at night, was quite something else. How the locals cope with such levels of noise is difficult to comprehend, but with carrier landings to perfect, practice is the name of the game. Six miles of runways give ample room for getting it wrong. To give some perspective, there were a quarter of million take-offs and landings at the base last year.
Friday's events should not be allowed to cast too great a shadow over what was another fine offering from the team at Oceana - the Navy's might was once again at the forefront of the show, whilst the odd comment regarding the markings of once-famous Tomcat squadrons not looking quite right on the Super Hornets was heard, at least we still have the colour of these CAG aircraft to enjoy.
Friday's night show was held under clear skies and a number of the weekend's performers displayed in the ever-fading light. The Navy Blue Angels' 'Fat Albert' JATO was as impressive as ever, your author thankful of the extra light offered by an earlier launch than during previous visits! A VFA-106 Super Hornet launched as the light faded further towards the black and lit the base with a number of fuel-sapping burner passes. Kent Shockley's 'Shockwave Jet Thrust' provided some much needed warmth as he paraded along the crowdline.
Friday night had given a mouth-watering taste of what was to be the undoubted highlight of the weekend, the display by Paul 'Max' Moga in the F-22A Raptor. According to Major Moga, "The manoeuvres look absolutely crazy, but I'm always in complete control of the aircraft." Truly a cut above the rest, he superbly demonstrated how manoeuvrable the jet is in a small amount of airspace. The 'power loop', where the aircraft virtually loops around its own axis, is truly amazing and it didn't seem there was a moment when the airframe wasn't extracting the moisture out of the humid Oceana skies. The demo is a good one, seemingly not yet a 'role demonstration' like the F-16 or F-15E, but this obviously gives the pilot much greater freedom to truly show off the capabilities of the aircraft.
The Raptor formed a very tightly-flown Heritage Flight with the F-86, P-51 and F-15E. The quality of this formation is evident to see, obviously a benefit of having a number of 'qualified' Heritage Flight pilots especially ready for such displays. The quality of the two warbirds in the flight cannot be disputed either, Dale Snodgrass in P-51D 'Excalibur' and Ed Shipley in the F-86 coming together to fly a quite immaculate pairs routine over the airshow weekend. Separated passes were flown very low along the crowdline, giving the opportunity for some very nice topside angles.
The 'Fleet Flypast' and 'Navy Air Power' demonstration are always an Oceana highlight. Led by the CAG aircraft of VFA-31 'Tomcatters', the formation comprised aircraft from VFA-131 'Wildcats', VFA-103 'Jolly Rogers', VFA-106 'Gladiators' and VFA-211 'Red Rippers', totalling eight Super Hornets and two 'Legacy' Hornets. Once the formation had split, pairs of aircraft made numerous passes, often resulting in the pyrotechnics setting the airfield alight! It was fair to say this part of the show was where the F-14 was truly missed; the Hornets simply don't have the presence of the mighty Cat. Unfortunately Sunday's demonstration was cancelled, the weather being slightly unkind in the surrounding skies of the base, although still good enough for the hardy British enthusiasts in the audience!
There were some true goodies to be had in the static display for any European visitors, the highlight being definitely the NP-3D from NAS Patuxent River, whilst it was good to see a VFC-12 'Fighting Omars' F/A-18C in the static in its exotic blue camo scheme. There were pairs of Apaches and EA-6B Prowlers, and also a welcome pair of T-38C Talons, plus a striking black T-38A. The range of aircraft on offer certainly was varied and came from the entire spectrum of the US forces.
Closing the show each day were the Blue Angels in their immaculate F/A-18As. The pomp and ceremony of the pre-flight routine does not always go down well with all, but no-one can argue with their formation flying. Having also witnessed the Thunderbirds display this year, there is very little to choose between the teams, the Blues back to their best following their own tragic accident earlier in the year. As with the Red Arrows in the UK, they present a powerful marketing tool for young Americans to join the Navy.
the Tomcats no longer prowl the shores of this part of the east coast
of America, Oceana remains a tempting visit for any enthusiast. The show
has a very relaxed feel to it and combines the old and the new together
to good effect. Why not give it a try next year and combine with a stay
on the beach front? There's bound to be a Hornet or two aboutů.