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A Capital Airshow

Mike Shreeve looks back at Sacramento's 2007 airshow on the eve of the 2008 event

Sacramento in Northern California is the State Capital of California, and therefore the centre of the State's government (where 'The Governator', Arnold Schwarzenegger, has his office). As such it is a popular destination by air, and has several airports - as well as the main Sacramento International airport located to the North of the city, there is Sacramento Mather to the East, formerly Mather Air Force Base. First established in 1918 as a training base, it continued in this role, training navigators for the USAF, until closure in 1993. In addition, Mather was an active SAC base from 1958 to 1989, housing a wing consisting of a squadron of B-52s and a squadron of KC-135s to provide aerial refuelling support. After closure in 1993, Mather AFB re-opened as Sacramento Mather Airport in 1995, providing a logistics hub for the area, with Federal Express, DHL and UPS all maintaining a presence here.

Stars & stripes

In 2006, the first airshow since closure as an active military base, billed as the 'California Capital Airshow', took place featuring the Blue Angels and was a great success, although the number of spectators took the organisers by surprise and caused significant traffic problems on the roads around the airport. In 2007 the airshow took place over 9-10 June and featured the Air Force's Thunderbirds as the headlining team - in addition, since neither of the two remaining local Air Force bases were scheduled to have an open house in 2007 (Travis having last held one in 2005, and Beale in 2006), both bases used the event to showcase their aircraft and based units.

This was a major airshow by any standards, and managed to attract display items that even much larger shows, such as Nellis, were unable to provide during 2007 - for example, a pair of Lockheed U-2s (one in the static and one flying) and flypasts from a B-2A ('Spirit of Florida') from the 509th BW at Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

From nearby Travis AFB, examples of all three types operated there (KC-10 Extender, C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III - the latter also appearing in the flying display) were present. Beale provided a static T-38 from the based 9th RW (plus a pair on the flightline, which flew in the display), KC-135s in the static and flying displays, plus the aforementioned pair of U-2s.

Military demo teams were present in force - from the US Navy, the F/A-18C demo team from VFA-125 at NAS Lemoore, CA flew a fairly sedate routine in comparison with the F/A-18F demo seen at several other California shows during the year. Interestingly, the solo jet had 'Navy' titles on one side of the rear fuselage and 'Marines' on the other. The USAF provided a pair of 4th FW F-15E Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson in North Carolina, the solo being flown by Major Al 'Jewel' Kennedy and Captain Jack 'Woody' Stallworth, who were seen performing the same routine, along with 'Heritage Flight' flypasts, at Duxford's Flying Legends and at RIAT during July. Chuck Hall in his P-51D Mustang 'Six Shooter' formated on the F-15E at the end of its display for some 'Heritage Flight' passes - this was to be one of Hall's last 'Heritage Flight' demos, as (along with retired Generals Reg Urschler and Bill Anders) he was 'retired' as an accredited 'Heritage Flight' pilot at the end of the 2007 season on account of his age.

F-22A features

However, along with the Thunderbirds, the undoubted star of the flying display was one of the first full demonstrations flown by Major Paul 'Max' Moga, the 2007 Demo pilot for the F-22A Raptor. An F-22 instructor pilot with the 1st FW at Langley AFB, Virginia, 'Max' began the 2007 season with a reduced routine. After gaining command approval for the full 2007 routine shortly before the Sacramento show, this was one of the first public performances to hint at the full potential of the F-22A. Signature manoeuvres, aided by the Raptor's advanced flight control system and vectored thrust from the pair of F-119 engines, include a very small-radius 'power loop', the so-called 'pedal turns', flat turns performed while the aircraft descends in a completely flat attitude, and a tailslide. Unlike the modified 'airshow special' Sukhois seen at shows such as Farnborough and Paris performing similar manoeuvres in the 1990s, what makes this all the more impressive is that these Raptors are squadron jets taken straight from front-line service for the weekend's display. It just goes to show what technology can achieve given an almost unlimited budget - production Raptors are reputed to cost some $180m apiece. Having been lucky enough to see the Raptor perform at a number of airshows during 2007, it still retains that 'wow' factor, and is one of the most impressive demonstrations that I've ever witnessed. It is also extremely noisy, produces a vast amount of heat haze and (on a damp day) vapour, and generally lives up to every small boy's image of what a jet fighter should look and sound like!

On static display, in keeping with the former training role that Mather played whilst still an active Air Force Base, were examples of the T-37 'Tweet' and its replacement, the T-6A Texan II, plus a T-1A Jayhawk and a Navy T-45A Goshawk. A selection of locally based vintage types, mainly trainers, including a PT-17 Stearman and Vultee BT-13 based at nearby Vacaville, a pair of very nice T-28s, and a T-6, were also on display. Bob Button's Reno unlimited gold class contending race-modified Mustang 'Voodoo', in a very distinctive paint scheme, was also in the static park along with Dr Kent Carlomango's Petaluma-based R-2000 powered Yak C11 'Blayak Moose'. Helicopters included a pair of US Marine Corps AH-1W Cobras from MCAS Camp Pendleton in Southern California, and the Army provided examples of the CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Blackhawk, UH-1H Huey and OH-58 Kiowa, as well as a UH-60 recovery and medevac demonstration in the flying display. Several local law-enforcement agencies also provided helicopters for the static park.

The Dyess, Texas based 7th Bomb Wing sent one of their B-1Bs, and other operational types were represented by a stretched CC-130J from the California-based Channel Islands Air National Guard (146th AW) and a California ANG F-16C from the 144th FW at Fresno (with an unusual inscription chalked in the centre of its engine!). There was also an example of the combat-tested MQ-1 Predator UAV in the static park. The US Coast Guard displayed an HC-130H Hercules from the former McClellan AFB, across town in Northern Sacramento. The Marines sent an F-5E from their Aggressor squadron, VMFAT-401, at MCAS Yuma, Arizona.

As well as the military performers, a selection of top-ranked civilian performers displayed at Sacramento. These included Julie Clark, flying a graceful aerobatic routine with red, white and blue smoke in her immaculate Beech T-34A Mentor 'Free Spirit' in pseudo-'Air Force One' livery, Gene Soucy in his much-modified Grumman AgCat 'Showcat' (performing both a solo aerobatic routine and a wing-walking act with Teresa Stokes). Former World Aerobatic Champion Nikolay Timofeev was also present, flying an excellent aerobatic routine in a Sukhoi Su-26M. Greg Poe flew an ethanol-powered Edge 540, and Roger Buis (an ex-US Army helicopter pilot from Florida with over 16,000 hours flying time) flew one of his last routines in his Thunderbirds-based liveried Schweizer 300 'Otto the Showcopter' before announcing his retirement from airshow flying at the end of the 2007 season. Roger and 'Otto' provided a unique comedy routine, including playing with a giant yo-yo, blowing up bubble-gum and finishing with a banner-tow saluting America's veterans. Of course no airshow is complete without a display from the ubiquitous Pitts Special, and Sacramento was no exception, featuring Jim Varden in his S-2C.

The logistics companies using Mather provided examples of their freighter aircraft for display, with DHL providing a pair of very colourful Boeing 767s (operated by Airborne Express), UPS an Airbus A300 and a Boeing 757, and Federal Express an Airbus A310.

The show concluded each day with the Thunderbirds performing their usual tight formation flypasts and aerobatics. A very different routine from the usual European display team (with its multiple formation changes taking place in front of the crowd), it does nevertheless make up in noise and spectacle what it loses in the tight choreography of a European team. The Thunderbirds later performed on the same RIAT stage as Europe's best in July, and this coming June will be seen at Quebec City's show along with the Blue Angels, Snowbirds, Red Arrows and Patrouille de France.

After the usual ground performance and lengthy holds for pre-flight checks, the Thunderbirds launched into their aerial routine. This year, for the first time, two women pilots were in the team, with Major Samantha Weeks (a former F-15C pilot at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska) flying in the number 6 (opposition solo) slot along with former Lakenheath F-15 pilot Major Nicole Malachowski, flying as Thunderbird 3 in her second (and final) year with the team.

Shortly after commencing Saturday's routine at Sacramento, Major Weeks reported suffering a birdstrike. The team immediately put their display on hold, and another team member joined up with Major Weeks' jet to inspect the damage. They then went though a pre-planned checklist, and Major Weeks made a downwind landing soon afterwards. In the meantime, the remainder of the team went into a slow orbit in lose formation at medium level above the field in order to conserve fuel. All the while, the commentator, in a departure from the normal, closely scripted commentary that accompanies the Thunderbirds demonstrations, was keeping the crowd informed of events. After landing, Major Weeks taxied to the threshold of the active departure runway, where the two spare jets had been pre-positioned prior to the display. She then pre-flighted one of them, took off and rejoined the team, who then re-commenced the display with a total gap of some thirty minutes. All-in-all, a very impressive reaction to a technical issue that could easily have curtailed the demonstration.

So the show was a resounding success, with a full day's flying programme, good weather, large crowds and many of the traffic problems of 2006 being much improved. The 2008 show will be held over the weekend of 15-16 March, featuring the Blue Angels as headlining act. If 2007 was anything to go by, it is well worth the trip if you're in the area.

My thanks go to Gina Swankie, Communication and Media Officer at Sacramento County Airport System, for providing ramp access on the Friday practice day, where many of the photos accompanying this article were taken.


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