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Las Vegas flyers

A Nation's Aviation in One

Jim Baker soaked up the sights and sounds of 'Aviation Nation' 2007, held at Nellis Air Force Base over 10-11 November. Pictures by the author, Alistair Maclean and Steve Owen

Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada; a place that has forty million visitors every year, and last November that number was increased by the additional draw to Nellis Air Force Base for 'Aviation Nation', a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the formation of the independent United States Air Force. It was 18 September 1947 when Harry Truman signed the document that freed the Air Force from the clutches of the Army.

A short forty-minute drive from the world-famous Las Vegas 'strip' takes you to the entrance of Nellis AFB and it's immediately obvious who the world-famous tenants are with four white F-16s presented on stands outside the main gate.Within the airfield this theme continues with the Thunderbirds' hangar painted in a red white and blue scheme to complement its jets.

Aviation heaven, where Fairford meets Duxford, so to speak - what immediately struck was a show of great magnitude, staged with US military assets, the Canadians in support, privately-owned warbirds and jets, yet minimal support from foreign air arms.

The static and flying park covered such a vast area, it was difficult to know where to start, but many were immediately drawn to a pair of Phantoms on the flightline. They were F-4Es that had been hauled out of the desert at Davis Monthan and refurbished to QF-4 standard, the airframes having three hundred flying hours still left on them. Part of Detachment Nr 1 from the 82nd Air Target Reserve Squadron, their flying role was to be part of the air combat heritage flight in concert with an A-10, F-22A and P-51D later in the day. With their conversion already undertaken to target drones, their eventual fate was highlighted with the badge below the cockpit in the outline of a Phantom in the crosshairs, so their final service to the USAF will be their destruction - but to see them refurbished in gloss camouflage paint, looking factory fresh, you could imagine a liberal application of Turtle Wax having just been applied!

The way that the airfield was laid out meant that the vast majority of aircraft were parked between the crowdline and the runway, and not normally available for access for static viewing in the sense that we would understand in the UK, but serving a purpose of part-static and flying exhibits. There were a number of fast jet exhibits parked in the traditional way, including the following: an F-16 from the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB; a T-38 Talon, representing the 'Boxing Bears' from the 80th Flying Training Wing at Shepherd Wing Air Force Base, Texas; local stars included an F-15C from the 57th Wing as well as A-10s from the 422nd TES.

Sitting to the rear of the crowdline were a number of sun shelters, housing some interesting aircraft, although photography was extremely difficult as they were all parked in the shade. These were an F-16 Aggressor from the 57th ATG, as well as an F-16 from the United Arab Emirates, marked in the colours of 162nd Fighter Wing International Military Training Establishment. Perhaps the most impressive of all these however, certainly the best lit given the circumstances, was an F-15C in an Aggressor camouflage scheme, representing the Nellis-based 65th Aggressor Squadron.

The theme of the '21st Century Air Force' was represented with a number of state-of-the-art aircraft parked in the static area, the centre-piece being the Global Hawk from Beale AFB, flanked by the Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Although the Global Hawk didn't take part in the flying display, the other two types did put in an appearance during the afternoon, flown by the 432nd Wing, located at Creech AFB a few miles north of Nellis. It was recently announced that 39 Squadron had been reformed with the UK's acquisition of the MQ-9 Reaper, with the purchase of the first two aircraft already having been concluded and a third one on the books - they too will fly from Creech. In its USAF form, its primary function is an unmanned hunter-killer weapon, being quite large in UAV terms with a twenty-metre wing span, a range of approximately 3,200 nautical miles and a ceiling of 50,000 feet. Its armament is a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU 12 Paveway II and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and at over fifty million dollars falls into the categories of one of the most expensive radio-controlled aircraft ever produced!

The schedule of events for the airshow was all-embracing and followed through in chronological order from the First World War through to the Second, then Korea, Vietnam and finally up-to-date with the twenty-first century air force.

For the early part of the show the sun was directly into the face of the photographer and the shots little more than silhouettes - later though, the desert-pink mountains directly facing the photographer ('Sunrise mountain', very aptly named too) provided the bonus as a stunning backdrop to the flying shots, the colour being so vivid anything in pink desert camouflage would have fitted right in - a Jaguar or Buccaneer, circa 1991, would have been perfect!

Winding back the clock, we get back to the Second World War era with a Spitfire, P-51, Zero, P-40, B-25, B-17, and the star of the show for many, a B-24 Liberator. Thanks to Gary Austin and the crew of the Confederate Air Force, I was invited for a look around this marvellous old aeroplane.

Making your way down the narrow confines to the rear fuselage of the aircraft, the sections and stringers that make up the component parts that support the light aluminium shell are all too obvious as the skeletal construction is laid bare. The floor section is made up of light corrugated metal and at the end of the long, lonely walk to 'Tail End Charlie's' position there is a sling that he sits in, so the term 'arse-in-a-sling' takes on a completely new meaning, now in its original context.

Exposed, lonely, at risk and removed from the rest of the crew, they are fully reliant upon your expertise as an air gunner. And like everyone else onboard, protected only by a flimsy aluminium skin. It is a tribute to everybody associated with this aeroplane refurbished from its days as a freighter back to its original authentic appearance, as it would have been in the hands of those young men going to war.

Parked alongside was B-17G 'Liberty Belle' - the two 'heavies' later flew in concert with Second World War types, notably the Spitfire, Mitsubishi AM6 Zero and P-51D Mustang. We were also privileged to hear the noise of four Wright R2600 radial engines in the flypast of the B-25 Mitchell pair in commemoration of the famous raid on Tokyo masterminded by Lt Colonel Jimmy Doolittle on 18 April 1942.

The Korean War started with a re-enactment of the classic MiG-15 and F-86A dogfight - the Sabre was flown by Steve Hinton, who people will remember made the unsuccessful attempt to fly P-38 'Glacier Girl' to the UK last summer in commemoration of Operation 'Bolero'. Other Korean classics included a Hawker Sea Fury in Australian Navy marks and a particularly wonderful sight to see again, a Fairy Firefly in Fleet Air Arm markings. I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing the fatal crash at Duxford in 2003 that marked the end of the last flying example in the UK. To see one alive and well in the US is a great achievement to all those concerned.

Unfortunately the QF-4s took no part in the section of the show dedicated to the Vietnam era, although there was still a wide variety of aircraft to do it justice. We were asked to imagine our pink mountain backdrop to be the heavily-covered jungle environment of South East Asia to witness Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR).

This section of the show commenced with the 'Red Bull' Mig-17 demonstration, a truly impressive part of the flying display. Mostly flown on full afterburner and with wing-smoke generators to accentuate the flying characteristics of the Soviet bloc jet, very quickly the display turned into a pair of Mig-17s as N217JG, a resident of the 'Red Star Squadron', made an appearance. While the paint schemes of these jets might lack the authenticity of the period, there could be no doubt of the impressive flying skills as the vibrant colour schemes were set against gin-clear blue skies.

As the bad guys retreated, strike aircraft took to the skies in the shape of two A-1E Skyraiders, complete with dummy ordnance - they immediately set up their attack profile and the first explosions appeared. These strikes were supported by an OA-37 Dragonfly in hot pursuit and two T-28 Nomads, the armed counter-insurgence and extensively modified version of the original Trojan trainer. The whole attack scenario was choreographed with extensive and continuous explosions right down the crowd line, with AC-47 Gunship 'Spooky' flying lazy circles at medium altitude, laying down imaginary ground fire between the strikes. Extraction was accomplished by a pair of US Army UH-1 Hueys.

An hour earlier, the USAF's 'big stick', in the shape of a B-52H from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale, had departed to prepare the 'final assault', a medium-altitude bombing run, resulting in a huge display of pyros.

The only 'foreign' content of the flying display was from Canada - the CF-188 Hornet team provided a thirteen-minute display, flown by pilot Captain Yanick 'Crank' Gregoire from 410 Squadron, Cold Lake, flying an aircraft specially marked to celebrate twenty-five years of the Hornet in Canadian service. As is customary with the Hornet display, it squeezed the air to produce those distinctive streams of vapour around the cockpit, in spite of the arid desert air. Originally booked to attend Fairford in 2007, it cancelled due to a shortage of tanker assets, so it was good to catch up with this dramatic jet at last.

As you would expect, the Thunderbirds flew a superb display in front of their home crowd, the whole spectacle being enhanced by the gin-clear blue skies and the desert light, and that fantastic background of Sunrise Mountain. Major Nicole Malachowski, number 3, was leaving the team after this particular show - prior to joining the team she served as an F-15E instructor pilot with the 494th Fighter Squadron at Lakenheath where she was flight commander and has logged nearly 2,000 flying hours. Maybe she'll convert to the F-22A, the other star of the flying display we reviewed a short while ago.

The final appearance, both static and flying, was an F-117A from the 49th FW, based at Holloman AFB. With the type now being withdrawn from service and put into dry storage it seemed that Nellis could be the last time the black triangular would be displayed. Since it first came on the scene officially, with that famous photograph from the Pentagon of the 'Wobblin Goblin', clearly Henry Ford had a big influence on the colour selection - always black!


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