Monsters of Airshow
Starring the Golden Knights, Blue Angels, Thunderbirds
Patrick Air Force Base, Florida • April 27, 2003
It really was a stellar lineup, on this perfect airshow day. Sunny weather, warm enough to justify all manner of beach attire but not so hot you feel like melting onto the tarmac. Visibility was as good as it gets in this seaside spot, and a stiff breeze was blowing in from the ocean, keeping temperatures and tempers under control.
About a hundred thousand people were projected to attend this event, and you can expect a lot more attention given to flight as we approach its so-called 100th anniversary. The Wright Brothers’ claim to first powered flight occurred in late 1903, and propheads all over the world (except New Zealand, which claim a powered flight that predates the Wrights) are celebrating like they only can — with lots of noise, speed and a bipolar enthusiasm for things that are very old (there’s a project to recreate the original Wright Flyer) or very futuristic (a contest for reusable space vehicles that’s set to launch before the anniversary).
Security at Patrick Air Force Base wasn’t lax, but neither was it the intrusive treatment I’d expect from being allowed to wander around a military base in these times. The entrance led through a hangar, which housed an interesting “trade show.” Organizations ranging from regional plastic model builders to military academies were represented along with some flight-related charities and ministries. The displays, nowhere near the tech you’ll see at industry conventions, were nonetheless serious and enthusiastic, and served to drive home the point that flight is often a way of life for many, inside and outside the Air Force.
Once through the dark of the hangar, it was somewhat startling to come out upon such a vast collection of high technology. Along the left and right sides stretched a wide variety of aircraft, from DEA Hueys to a pair of matched F-16s that brought to mind the Doublemint Twins. All were parked and generally available for people to fondle, or make use of as they saw fit. Most were “unarmed”, with only empty brackets along the wings and flanks, but there was a fully kitted-out A-10, and that was quite impressive. Putting your mug next to the gatling thimble of the nose gun was a popular photo opportunity.
Other displays on the tarmac included an F/A 18-A Hornet, a Boeing 707 for shuttling around Important People, utility planes such as a crop duster and a FedEx light cargo plane. An F-117 Nighthawk Stealth fighter was parked towards the back, visible but roped off from the general public; we missed its fly-by earlier in the day.
The most unsexy yet impressive airplane was a C-5 Galaxy cargoplane — a behemoth that clocks in at 420 tons fully loaded. It’s hard to grasp how much room is actually in there, and nearly impossible to think that this plane can be filled and moved from one place to another. It must take nerves of unobtanium to land one of these puppies, especially if it’s loaded with hundreds of tons of ammo, rockets and other military pyrotechnics.
Speaking of airplanes and their use to the taxpayers, there was an interesting phenomenon going on with the plane shade. The scarce patch provided by the stubby wing of an F-16 — barely enough for a lawn chair and a cooler — was the hot place to be young, loud and AT THE AIRSHOW! WOO! [high-fives]. Meanwhile, the Galaxy provided acres of shade, more than enough for the sizeable elderly population that sprawled beneath them.
But enough about the statics! Let’s talk sky-shredding, ear-roaring action. Oh, wait, I should mention the Golden Knights first. This was a team of parachuters that was dropping down as we were walking into the base. An interesting display, but difficult to comment on. You’d see a trail of pink smoke as the team plummeted, then it would split off into two, three or four individual threads, which would blossom bright yellow chutes like a popcorn kernel. Nobody was killed because their parachute didn’t open, so I suppose they did all right.
Once we got inside the show, the Blue Angels kicked off. A group of six F/A 18-A Hornets, the Blue Angels often fly in a cluster of four while the other two set up a razor-close flyby. These seem to be the two basic moves you’ll see in a demonstration involving high-speed jets. There’s formation flying, where a group of planes flies impossibly close together. And there’s fly-bys, where one plane will pass closely, or two or more planes zoom directly towards each other, only to avert disaster at the last microsecond. It sounds simplistic, but despite the limited vocabulary, the stunts were highly entertaining. A final trick of the Blue Angels involved them flying two planes in formation in a sort of hover-stall. I’ve never seen a jet fighter do that before; the planes were flying at a very high angle of attack and very low speeds. A fly-by, for sure, but a unique good look at what is usually a streak of blue and yellow.
Following the Blue Angels there were some prop-driven aerobatics. A solo plane (an “Extra 300 Competition,” according to the program) demonstrated some moves which were hard to believe were intentional — we’re talking tail-over-prop flips and wacko-out-of-control tumbles. There was a recovery each time, so there must be some method to that madness. I’ll bet the pilot wasn’t stuffing himself on chili dogs prior to this flight. Immediately after that, a squadron of four modern prop-driven planes (T-6 Texans) did some formation flying. It was like seeing someone speak the Blue Angels language, but with a lengthy Southern drawl. While the moves were generally the same, the speed was lower, and movements not as precise. It was the difference between ballet and gymnastics; there’s something far more expressive in the wobbly lines of a prop contrail than the laser-straight plumes coming from the jets.
There was one more demo before the Thunderbirds came on. An A-10 Warthog took to the air and flew some lazy low circles around the field. I hadn’t seen one in the air before, the airplane has a remarkable personality — deceptively ungainly, but very confident. It was soon escorted by a vintage P-51 Mustang, with the two flying some more loops around the field together. An interesting pairing; the Mustang is by far the sexier plane, but it shares a rugged heritage with the A-10, which is decidedly low-tech in comparison to more-sleek modern fighters.
The Thunderbirds took off in formation, first four then two. Their repertoire, while spoken in the same manner as the others, was noticeably different. Besides the fact that the Thunderbirds are different planes (F-16s, somewhat faster than the F/A-18s), the formations had their own motif, a six-planed wedge that repeated as a counterpoint to the Blue Angels’ four-planed diamond. In general, the Thunderbirds seemed more daring than the Blue Angels, attempting some fairly convoluted fly-bys with airplanes passing each other in a staggering array of configurations. Group formations also made good use of smoke trails — one of my favorite maneuvers involved the whole squadron rocketing up into the sky, splitting apart to form a vertical fan shape in the air.
This was indeed a unusual event, as the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels rarely perform together. As the official Blue Angels FAQ points out, “Current Department of Defense policy states the use of military aviation demonstration teams is for recruiting purposes. Each demonstration team showcases U.S. military aviation capabilities to the public separately to maximize efforts.” Let’s not forget that behind all the oooing-and-aahing over the bravery of these pilots and the precision of modern technology lie some pretty serious intentions.