Highlights of the 2004 El Centro Airshow

As with many American airshows, this one began with skydivers jumping out of a plane while a woman sang The Star Spangled Banner over the public address system.   In the case of this year's El Centro airshow, the skydivers were the Navy Seal team called the "Leap Frogs", who jumped out of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules.

The tradition is for the singer to finish just as they reach the ground, but of course it's often tricky to get the timing just right and often the singer has to perform the vocal equivalent of back-flips and other gymnastics to make it happen.   This year she would have run out of air a minute or so before touchdown and died of asphyxiation, so the flag had to land unaccompanied.   It's also traditional for a group of people, often young cadets, to be on hand to grab the flag before it hits the ground and gets dishonored, but as you can imagine this is also very difficult and often the flag gets dirty.

Leap Frogs skydivers with American flag

One of the first aircraft flying at this year's show was this C-121 Constellation, painted in the colors of the United States Air Force Military Air Transport Service.   The Constellation entered military service near the end of world war two as the C-69, and was later used both for carrying cargo and for transporting passengers - both General MacArthur and President Eisenhower had Constellations permanently assigned for their use, and both can still be seen - MacArthur's plane "Bataan" is at the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Valle, Arizona, and Eisenhower's "Columbine III" is at the United States Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio.

C-121 Constellation

Another 82 Constellations were converted during the Cold War to operate as radar warning pickets outside the borders of the United States and pick up the first signs of an attack by Soviet nuclear bombers.  I worked with an engineer in California called Steve Bodden who had maintained these outlandish looking aircraft, which had large humps under the belly and above the top to house the radar systems.   He worked on one nicknamed "triple nickel" which is also preserved at the USAF Museum at Dayton.

C-121 Constellation

The history of this type of aircraft is fascinating, but what draws me and many other afficianados to this aircraft are its sheer good looks.   This has to be the most elegant looking piston-powered transport aircraft ever built.   The nose, curved back and triple tail (originally proposed because a single tail aircraft wouldn't have fit into hangars with low roofs) give the Constellation a very distinctive and attractive appearance.

click here to download a wallpaper sized image of this C-121 Constellation

There aren't too many people who would rate this F-117 Nighthawk as one of the world's most attractive aircraft.   Interesting, yes and certainly distinctive, but the sharp angular shape of the plane was definitely selected for function rather than aesthetics.   Despite the fact that I've seen F-117s flying at many different airshows, a definitive photo of the plane still eludes me, though the large sequence of photos I took at the Royal International Air Tattoo in England during 2002 come closest.

F-117 Nighthawk

This shot of an F4U Corsair definitely doesn't rate as one of the better photos I've taken of this type of plane.   At El Centro the Corsair was flying quite far from the crowd, and the ninety degree temperatures caused too much haze to get sharp shots at that distance.

F-4U Corsair

Although it was also flying too far away, I got slightly better shots of this P-51 Mustang called "Six Shooter", which belongs to Chuck Hall and is based nearby at Ramona, California.   It was originally built in 1944 and then in 1967 it was restored in Florida, with a second seat added behind the pilot, and then donated by the American government to the Bolivian Air Force.

P-51 Mustang

El Centro is a naval air station, but this Air Force F-16 Flying Falcon wasn't going to let those blue-water boys have all of the fun!   Here the pilot gives us an interesting and not-very-common view of the top of his aircraft.

F-16 Fighting Falcon

Put together in one of the United States Air Force's so-called "heritage flights", the two planes demonstrate that the sum of the whole when they fly together is greater than the sum of the parts when they fly separately.   Together with the display by the Constellation, this would have to be my favorite part of the show.

click here to download a wallpaper sized image of this F-16 and P-51 'Heritage Flight'

El Centro is the winter training base of the navy Blue Angels jet display team, with an interesting display of various historic Blue Angels aircraft at the main gate - an F-11 Tiger, A-4 Skyhawk, F-4 Phantom II and their current steed, the F-18 Hornet.   Along with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels are the world's premier military jet display team.  Whenever either of these teams flies at an airshow, they come at the end, as a grand finale to wow the crowds before they go home, and end the show with a bang.   In the case of the Blue Angels, the display always starts with a performance by "Fat Albert", the support aircraft which transports ground personnel and equipment from one show to another.   Fat Albert has tricks of its own to impress the audience, such as the rocket-assisted takeoff which it does at the start of its act.   Although even experienced people often call this a JATO, or jet-assisted takeoff, it is in fact more properly called a RATO.

'Fat Albert' C-130 Hercules rocket-assisted takeoff

JATO or RATO, those 8 rocket bottles give a real boost to this C-130 Hercules, even if the burn does last only 10 or 20 seconds.   RATO was originally developed to help early, low-powered jet aircraft and heavily loaded transports to take off from short airfields, or in the case of some fighters, from a stationary platform.

'Fat Albert' C-130 Hercules rocket-assisted takeoff

The Blue Angels themselves always begin their performance with a great show of formality and precision marching.   It's all deeply, deeply impressive, unless the person watching is over ten years old.   If you're over ten and you still think it's impressive, then you'd better get professional psychiatric help!

Blues Angels pilots marching beside planes

The flying display they put on, however, definitely is impressive, even if you don't know anything much about flying or military aviation.   In fact, I'd say that both knowledgeable and unknowledgeable viewers would come away impressed, even if they were impressed by different aspects of the performance.

Blue Angel F-18 Hornet doing a steep takeoff

The crowd, for instance, always loves the head-on passes when two of the planes fly straight towards each other only a few feet above the ground.

Blue Angels head-on pass

Experts would realize that the planes actually have greater separation than it seems, but the public always gasps and cries every time they do this dangerous looking maneuver.

Blue Angels head-on pass