The 2012 North American air show season began in earnest on Saturday,
March 10 in the sunny Imperial Valley of Southern California. NAF
El Centro, the winter home of the United States Navy Flight Demonstration
Squadron, the Blue Angels, held its annual air show, marking the end
of the Blue Angels' training and the beginning of their show season.
The show is small and intimate, drawing a crowd of around 35,000
and providing up-close and personal access to the performers and
On Friday evening the base opened its doors to host an entertainment and food
festival featuring food from local restaurants, live music, and an impressive
Back for his third year in a row as airshow announcer was Jon "Huggy" Huggins. A U-2 and T-38 Instructor Pilot at Beale AFB, Lt Col Huggins just returned in January from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he flew 109 combat missions in the MC-12 Liberty. But he’s no stranger to the airshow circuit and his commentary for acts both civilian and military was descriptive, informative and entertaining. Truly a job well done.
The gates opened promptly at 0800. Parking and security screening were both very
efficiently conducted by base personnel. There is a very long and open flightline
available for setting up chairs and staking out a spot to view the day's flying.
There was then plenty of time to view the static aircraft. Pride of place just
inside the entrance gate was a colorful MV-22 Osprey and CH-53E Super Stallion.
An AH-1W Super Cobra rounded out the list of Marine aircraft. The Air Force sent
one of their oldest, the B-52H, from Barksdale AFB, and newest, the unmanned
MQ-1B Predator, along with its shipping box, from Creech AFB. The Navy was, of
course, well represented. The ubiquitous Hornet was there from the colorful C
model of the “Mighty Shrikes” (VFA-94), through the E & F models
from VFA-122, to two EA-18G Growlers from VAQ-129. Two beautifully painted Goshawks
and a T-34C Mentor were there to demonstrate the important role of trainers.
An aggressor F-5 from NAS Fallon looked great in its grey "lizard" camouflage,
and one of only three S-3 Vikings left in the fleet showed up from NAS Point
Mugu. A red-tailed Seahawk from NAS North Island completed the lineup of colorful
Navy aircraft. Warbirds ranged the gamut from trainers (T-28 Trojan, T-34 Mentor,
SNJ & L-29 Delfin), to transports (C-53D Skytrooper & C-45 Expeditor)
to fighter (Mustang and Spitfire). A brightly painted HU-16 Albatross was also
present, although in the markings of its current civilian employer.
The flying began right on time at 1000, with the takeoff of the
C-2 Greyhound carrying the Leap Frogs for their opening jump. Veteran
Bill Cornick then took to the skies for an amazing aerobatic demonstration
in his Pitts S-2C "Big Bad Green". He was followed by Spencer
Suderman with a thrilling demonstration in his red and black Meteor
Pitts. The next aerobatic demo featured a highly polished RV-8, flown
by Joe "Rifle" Shetterley. Although this was his first
civilian demo, airshow fans will recall that Capt Shetterley was
the A-10 West demo pilot the past two years. It was good to see him
back in the air and his flight was the perfect segue into the next
performance, the Super Hornet tactical demonstration. It was time
to put in the earplugs and get ready for some noise as the F/A-18E
from VFA-122, NAS Lemoore, taxied out. It was an awesome display
of power and control as the Super Hornet tore up the sky. After the
demo jet landed, another one took off along with an F8F Bearcat from
the Commemorative Air Force for the Navy Tailhook Legacy Flight.
This flight pairs an active duty aircraft with a warbird in tight
formation as they make several fly-bys, culminating in a pass from
behind over the crowd. A Search and Rescue (SAR) mission was then
simulated by the "Longhorns" from NAS Fallon flying a hi-vis
MH-60S Seahawk. New to the demo this year was two rescuers being
lowered simultaneously, something not possible with last year's Foxtrot
model of the Seahawk. Then it was time for the Leap Frogs' full parachute
demonstration. Jumping once again from the C-2, the Navy parachutists
performed a number of amazing acrobatic maneuvers including joining
up in twos and threes and hurtling face-first to the ground, separating
seemingly at the last moment and landing directly on target. Bill
Cornick and Spencer Suderman then engaged in their Acro-racing performance,
where the two race head-to-head to complete a series of aerobatic
maneuvers faster than the other. This demonstration was pioneered
by them several years ago here at El Centro and is now spreading
throughout the air show community as an exciting new addition to the
airshow repertoire. A short break allowed people to visit the many
vendor stalls, get a bite to eat or enjoy a refreshing beer.
The second half of the show started off with an aerobatic demonstration
from Tim Weber, debuting his new airshow plane, the bright blue and
gold GEICO MXS, featuring the gecko on its tail. Although just barely
finished in time to appear at the airshow, Tim flew it as if it had
been his long-time mount, but clearly enjoying the increased performance
over last year's Extra 300. Torrey Ward then flew the final civilian
aerobatic demonstration in his Glasair III. The Blue Angels' usual
C-130 support aircraft is undergoing maintenance, so the all-Marine
crew of "Fat Albert" flew a borrowed Hercules nicknamed "Ernie".
Their spirited demonstration clearly exhibited the amazing capabilities
of the 50+ year-old aircraft design. Then it was time for the main
event: the Blue Angels in their first appearance of the 2012 season.
The pilots march out in formation as they are being introduced, breaking
off to board their aircraft as their name is called out. The system
checks reveal a problem with the #5 jet, bringing the support crews
back out to attempt a repair. Even replacing an electronics unit
in the cockpit fails to resolve the issue, so lead solo LT C.J. Simonsen
is quickly shuttled to the waiting replacement aircraft as the diamond
takes off. Despite the excellent maintenance, the F/A-18A model is
showing its age. Finally all six aircraft are in the air, performing
their routines with precision honed by 120 training flights during
the past several months. The lighting is perfect to photograph the
blue and gold Hornets as they fly through the beautifully clear and
cloudless skies over the Imperial Valley. Following a short debrief
after the flight, the pilots made their way over to the flightline
to sign autographs and answer questions from the crowds of fans.
Then it was time to head for the parking lot, stopping off to take
a few more photos of the aircraft on static display. The traffic
moves quickly and soon NAF El Centro recedes in the rear-view mirror.
The perfect start to the 2012 Air Show season.
Leap Frogs Parachute Demonstration Team
C-2 Greyhound Jump Plane
F-18E Tactical Demo
Legacy Flight: F-18E & F8F Bearcat
MH-60 Seahawk SAR Demonstration
Bill Cornick Pitts S-2C
Spencer Suderman Meteor Pitts
Tim Weber MXS
Joe "Rifle" Shetterley RV-8
Torrey Ward Glasair III