Highlights of the 2006 Edwards AFB "Aviation Nation" Airshow

The Edwards air force base airshow is held in the high desert an hour or so north-east of Los Angeles.   Several times in the last few years they haven't been able to have a show, and the 2006 event will probably be the last one for a while.   Edwards might be a bit far away for most members of the public living in Los Angeles, but it will always be a mecca for aviation enthusiasts.   This shot shows the spectator area on the north side of the base, you can see the air force Thunderbirds jet team parked behind the tail of the NASA 747 used to transport the space shuttle, and directly west of the Thunderbirds the army Golden Knights parachute team is taxying out in their twin-engine Fokker drop ship.

As you've already seen, Edwards puts on one of the best displays of static aircraft that you'll find at any airshow.   As well as several unique NASA aircraft, there are also the test aircraft based here, and a large number of other types brought in from elsewhere, including quite a few helicopters.

As with all northern hemisphere shows, the north side of the airfield is a poor place to photograph from, because all of the aircraft end up severely backlit.   The public affairs office at Edwards goes to quite a bit of effort to provide opportunities for certified media photographers to shoot from the south side of the main runway, which is a very long way away from the spectator area.   Unfortunately, since the 2006 show included the Thunderbirds, the display box was significantly larger than usual, and we ended up several hundred feet away from the runway.   I'd come prepared, buying a stepladder the day before to get my view point above the desert bushes, but the heat distortion from being so far away still had a big impact on the quality of the photos, as you can see in this shot of a KC-135 Stratotanker, which is the air force's main aerial refuelling platform.

Continuing the "heavy metal" theme, here's a B-52 Superfortress, after more than 50 years still the mainstay of the American bomber fleet.

The B-1 Lancer was the B-52's intended replacement, but had a politically troubled development which almost led to it not being put into production.   Originally designed as a high-altitude strategic nuclear bomber, advances in Soviet missile technology and other factors resulted in the mission being modified to low-level penetration and delivery of nuclear weapons.   With the end of the cold war this requirement disappeared, and nowadays the Lancer is used in the same conventional bombing role as the B-52, though it's certainly a much more attractive looking aircraft!

The C-17 Globemaster III is one of the air force's most recent acquisitions.   As a transport plane it's certainly less sexy than a fighter or a bomber, but it provides important capabilities not provided by the recently retired C-141 Starlifter, or the venerable C-130 Hercules and C-5 Galaxy.   The display at Edwards included a very cool cargo drop, done right in front of the crowd.

There are always some civilian warbirds at Edwards, last year the Tora, Tora, Tora team did its Pearl Harbor re-enactment but this year the displays were noticeably thinner, with long gaps between acts.   In 2006 Eddie Kurdziel's British-designed Fairey Firefly naval fighter flew during the show, this time it was the turn of Eddie's friend Ellsworth Getchell with his Sea Fury, another British-designed naval fighter.

Looks like this guy got the best seat in the house!   Chuck Hall taxies out in his P-51D Mustang, which he flew in a Heritage Flight with some modern air force aircraft, you can see a photo of this further down the page.

A world war two B-25 Mitchell bomber flew again this year, in the form of "Photo Fanny".

Last year an F-86 Sabre and a MiG-15 "Fagot" flew a tail chase, this year there was no F-86 but the Red Bull MiG-17 "Fresco" piloted by Bill Reeseman put on a full aerobatic performance, complete with smoke generators.

NASA displayed several aircraft, including this ER-2 (Earth Resources 2), which was derived from the CIA's U-2 spy plane.   In this shot you can see the sensor windows under the nose and in the wing-mounted "superpods" which allow the plane to photograph the planet's surface from a height of 70,000 feet.  The planes fly so high that pilots must wear a spacesuit, and they start breathing pure oxygen about an hour before takeoff to eliminate nitrogen from their bloodstream, and so lessen the risk of the bends in the event of cabin depressurization.   The plane is notoriously difficult to fly, about 40 of the 85 or so U-2s that were built have crashed, four being shot down, one over Russia, one over Cuba and two over mainland China.   At altitude there's less than a five knot difference between stalling speed and breaking the sound barrier and so destroying the aircraft.   Even landing is tricky, since the plane wants to float in the ground effect, so a chase vehicle guides it down and is on hand to fit the "pogo" wheels under its wings so it can taxi back to the hangar.

One of Edward's attractive T-38 Talon chase planes taking off with the control tower behind.

And here's the view of the hot ramp and main runway from the tower, with that very same T-38 parked at the front of the lineup together with the ER-2.

Edwards puts on a pretty good display of modern aircraft, and it was gratifying to see this F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" banking around as we photographers stood in the desert.   Although I've seen the Nighthawk flying on many occasions, these are the best photos I've ever taken of the type, since it's normally not permitted to bank at shows, presumably to avoid the political fallout if an accident were to occur.   However with its retirement coming in just a year or two, more leeway is being given to the pilots to show off their stuff.   Edwards is normally the only place where you can expect to see a B-2 Spirit "stealth bomber" banking, too, but it stayed on static display this year.  However don't worry, because I've set up a whole page about the 2005 Edwards airshow B-2 Spirit display for you to enjoy.

F-117 Nighthawk   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here's an air force type which wasn't at the 2005 show, an A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the "warthog".   The A-10 did a very good simulated ground attack mission, complete with pyrotechnics.

The very newest aircraft in the inventory, an F-22 Raptor.   This successor to the still very capable F-15 Eagle is by far the most advanced fighter in the world today, combining stealth technology and powerful sensors with an ability to supercruise at faster than the speed of sound without using afterburners.   It's the world's first true stealth fighter, a title which should never have been applied to the F-117 Nighthawk ground attack aircraft, in spite of its fighter designation.

Current displays of the F-22 demonstrate only a small fraction of its extraordinary performance and maneuverability.   It's not clear whether airshow spectators will see these feats anytime soon, but at least we're getting more than the high, flat passes that were all that we saw in the first year or two of appearances, and which some of us feared might be the only thing we'd ever see!

Edwards is almost entirely an air force and NASA show, but they were kind enough to invite the navy to put on a demonstration of the F-18C Hornet.

This air force F-15E Strike Eagle also strutted its stuff, though the fuel venting out of its bottom wing probably wasn't part of the plan!   The F-15E is a two-seat strike variant of the single-seat F-15C Eagle, which was optimized for pure air-to-air combat.

The Dutch air force repeated the F-16 demonstration it did in 2005, again using a borrowed USAF F-16 but with their own "smokewinders" - this shot was one of the few where they weren't on.   Again the Dutch showed why they have a reputation as the best F-16 display pilots in the world, doing a high-energy routine with lots of smoke and afterburner while staying in front of the crowd the entire time.

Here's that air force Heritage Flight I mentioned earlier.  It's an interesting formation, the P-51D Mustang and the F-22 Raptor represent different generations of pure fighter, while the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-15E Strike Eagle are both strike aircraft, though of course the F-15E is also a very potent air-to-air fighter in its own right.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

The mass flyby is always one of the highlights of the show at Edwards.   Fewer aircraft were involved than last year, but it was still a spectacle which other American airshows can't match.   Here the cargo types fly together.

Last year was the turn of the B-2 and B-52 to fly together representing USAF bombers, but this year it was the B-1B Lancer and the B-52 Stratofortress.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

This medley was very similar to the one put into the air last year, except that in 2005 the Nighthawk was a YF-117 with an American flag painted underneath; that aircraft was retired immediately after the show, so a plain vanilla (or perhaps that should be "licorice") Nighthawk flew this year.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

As I said, the mass flyby is usual the highlight of the show, but this year the climax of the show was the Thunderbirds display.   I won't bore you with photos of all the spectacular maneuvers they do, but here is a shot from the control tower of the "sneak pass" from an angle you don't normally see, side-on and with the world-famous Roger's dry lake bed beneath.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format