2015 Event Review

San Francisco Fleet Week Air Show, October 9-11, 2015
Location: San Francisco Bay, California
Admission: FREE
Parking: Free on-site, with shuttles to the flightline
Value: Very Good
Rating out of 10:8.5
 
USS Somerset (LPD-25) amphibious transport dock

San Francisco's Fleet Week was started in 1981 by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and in the 35 years since has grown to become the largest and most significant event of its kind in the nation. Fleet Week celebrates the rich naval tradition in the Bay Area, honors the nation's service members, and facilitates annual disaster preparedness training between the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and local first responders. It includes a parade of ships which enter the Bay by sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and concludes with the Air Show.

Friday was technically a practice day, but because the Parade of Ships takes place then, many spectators chose to attend. And since Karl the Fog is always a threat, locals know to take advantage of any opportunity to see the show. The formal flying was opened by the US Navy Parachute Demonstration Team jumping from a Missouri Air Guard C-130 (they had jumped from Fat Albert on Friday). The "Leap Frogs" performed their usual high-energy display, starting with Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Trevor Thompson flying in an enormous US Flag. Others soon followed, forming into their trademark multiple-canopy formations, one double-stack trailing a long candy-cane of smoke. The last pair locked legs and hurtled straight towards the ground, separating and flaring at what seemed the last possible instant, before landing at Marina Green.

US Coast Guard helicopters are a common sight in the Bay Area, constantly in the air training or engaging in rescue operations. A crew from Air Station San Francisco put on a very nice demonstration of their Search and Rescue capabilities. A bright orange MH-65 Dolphin entered the show box and dropped a wetsuit into the water. It then left, circled back, slowed to a hover and descended to within 20 feet of the simulated swimmer in distress. Petty Officer 3rd Class Dave Munns jumped from the helicopter and after securing the victim ignited a Mark-124 smoke and illumination signal to guide the chopper back to his position. A collar was lowered and soon the rescue swimmer and victim were being hoisted into the helicopter. The crew waved to the crowd as they flew low over the Bay on their return to base.

Then it was time for some jet noise. Greg Colyer, recently retired from his job as an air traffic controller at Oakland's International Airport, put on his usual impressive aerial demonstration in his T-33 "Ace Maker II." On Saturday, the fog had started to creep back in at this time, covering the tops of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and extending towards Alcatraz Island. "Wired" did a great job of skirting the fog and keeping within the aerobatic box and although I've seen him lower to the deck at other shows he did make several low and slow passes in front of the crowd.
One drawback to the Fleet Week airshow is the fact that the aerial performances take place so far out over the Bay. Part of the reason is the navigable lane just north of the San Francisco shoreline which is kept open for ships to transit. Another downside is the fact that many sailboats choose to anchor in this area, making viewing and photography of low-flying aircraft difficult (but not impossible).

Matt Chapman brought us back to prop-speed, but didn't lower the excitement, in his new, custom-designed Embry-Riddle Extra 330LX aircraft. His new two-seater is stressed to +/- 10g and has a roll rate of 420 degrees per second, and it seemed that Matt was pushing the envelope as he put on a very high-energy show. Next up were the locally-based RedStar Pilots Association CJ-6 Team, flying their four Nanchang trainers in a combination of formations. Michael Wiskus then took us back into the aerobatic arena with his bright red Lucas Oil Pitts S-1-11b biplane. Many in the audience mistook him for Sean D. Tucker, not only from the appearance of his aircraft but also by the quality of his flying. Michael has been a powerhouse this season, putting on a very aggressive and highly energetic show. He opened with a dozen snap rolls on a vertical downline, pulling out just over the waves and proceeded with a series of maneuvers that elicited repeated "oohs" and "aaahs" from the crowd during the rest of his routine, most of which was spent low over the water or inverted.

Based in nearby Byron, the Patriots normally don't rehearse during Friday's practice session. But they roared in on the weekend with the all the precision you would expect from a team that includes two former Thunderbirds, a former Blue Angel solo pilot and a former Snowbirds Outer Left Wing pilot. The six black L-39s are fitted with synchronized smoke systems that beautifully integrate red, white and blue smoke into their maneuvers. There's never a dull moment during their tightly choreographed routine. However Saturday's show included a unique performance as right before the final six-ship break Dean "Wilbur" Wright proposed to his girlfriend by asking "Will you be my wingman for the rest of my life? Say yes or no before I break!"

United Airlines has been a long-time sponsor and regularly flies one of their passenger jets in the show: this year they flew a 737 with the "march of dimes" livery on Saturday and a 757 on Sunday. With three international airports in the area and hundreds of takeoffs and landings every day, you wouldn't think the masses of spectators would be very impressed to see a wide-body passenger plane perform. The pilots, however, really put on a great show, banking sharply, climbing steeply and flying low and slow with flaps and gear extended during the dirty pass.
Sean D Tucker has been a regular Fleet Week performer and once again amazed the crowd with his Oracle Challenger III biplane. Despite the distance from the crowd, his small red biplane stood out brightly in the clear blue skies and his smoke system allowed spectators to follow his maneuvers, although some of the subtleties and difficulties may not have been fully appreciated. One such maneuver is the flat turn, which involves turning the airplane without banking its wing. Not only does Sean perform this well, he performs it while inverted! Other, more spectacular maneuvers include the Centrifuge, Double Hammerhead, Alley Oop, Forward Flip and the Harrier Pass. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he figures out a way to include his unique Triple Ribbon Cut over the water someday.
The Blue Angels are the highlight of the show and the excitement increased as their show time approached. Because they staged out of Oakland International Airport there was no pre- or post-flight ground show, but the Blue Angels did make an appearance at Pier 39 on Saturday evening, signing autographs and answering questions from their many fans. Unfortunately "Fat Albert" did not fly on Saturday, but the Blue Angels put on their high show under bright blue skies. A marine-layer fog bank stayed well outside the Golden Gate, but there was enough moisture in the air to form impressive clouds of vapor around the aircraft as they pulled g's. During the Double Farvel the jets had vapor both on their top and bottom sides. They were in fine form, flying in extremely tight formations and their timing was spot-on: all six jets re-joined at the same instant during their loop break cross.

The airbox is located over San Francisco Bay, just north of the city's waterfront. As such, there is no ground portion of the airshow, and no aircraft on static display. Marina Green does, however, have the usual food booths, vendors and kid zones, as well as pavilions with chairs, shade and catered food for those willing to pay for the comfort and convenience. This year featured a Humanitarian Village display which demonstrated the capabilities of the US Military and Civil organizations in responding to a disaster. There were four different theme camps: Mass Care and Shelter, Power and Utilities, Community Response & Rescue, and Environmental Management & Decontamination. Pretty much any place in the area provides a beautiful venue from which to watch the show: from Fisherman's Wharf, past Crissy Field, to standing on the Golden Gate Bridge itself, the sun is behind you, making photography a joy. From Angel Island, Alcatraz or out on the water aboard the Jeremiah O'Brien you have beautiful views of the city skyline as a backdrop. There are no bad seats!

Oh, in case you were wondering, she said "yes."
Performers included:

USN Blue Angels
US Coast Guard MH-65D Dolphin, Search And Rescue Demonstration
US Navy Leap Frogs Parachute Team
The Patriots Jet TeamThe Patriots Jet Team, L-39 (x6)
United Airlines Boeing 737 (Saturday), 757 (Friday, Sunday)
Michael Wiskus, Lucas Oil Pitts S-1 Aerobatics
Sean D. Tucker, Oracle Challenger III Aerobatics
Matt Chapman, Embry-Riddle Extra 330 Aerobatics
Greg “Wired” Colyer, T-33 Shooting Star “Ace Maker II” Aerobatics
RedStar Pilots Association Formation CJ-6 Team

Parade of Ships (8 open for tours):

SFFD Fireboat Guardian
USS Somerset*
USS Cape St. George*
USS Stockdale*
USCGC Boutwell*
USS Coronado*
HMCS Calgary* of the Royal Canadian Navy
ACRE MV John Dillard

 

Report and photography unless noted by Norman A. Graf for The Aviation Magazine

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