Highlights of the 2004 Nellis AFB "Aviation Nation" Airshow

One of the main attractions drawing me to the Nellis Air Force Base airshow in 2004 was an appearance by the newest addition to the US military inventory, the F-22 Raptor, which entered service just a few weeks before the show, at a cost of $258 million dollars each.   Although I'd heard that a squadron had been formed at Langley AFB in Virginia, I didn't realize that several of the birds were also stationed here at Las Vegas.   However, since Nellis is one of the main testing facilities, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised.

F-22 Raptor taking off with afterburner (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

In five years' time I'm sure we'll probably be sick of the sight of them, but at the moment the Raptor is a terrific novelty.   It was great seeing them in action, but the flybys were a very ordinary affair, almost entirely consisting of high flat passes, with only one banking turn while they were in the airshow area, which was away from the crowd and at a great distance from the flightline.   Fortunately, however, on the media day before the show I was at the Threat Training Facility in another part of the base, and managed to get this shot while standing on top of a Russian tank!   Although it's backlit and a soft, it'll have to do until I get something better!   [note: at the 2007 Point Mugu Airshow I did better]

F-22 Raptor (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The Raptor is the intended replacement for America's current top of the line air superiority fighter, the F-15 Eagle, shown here putting on a far more spritely display than its successor.   Look closely and you'll even see the white rectangular notes which military pilots carry in special fittings on their flight suits!   The "guy in back" during this flight is the demonstration pilot for next year, learning the ropes from this year's pilot.

F-15 Eagle

This F-14 Tomcat is the navy equivalent of the Eagle.   Although both started life as pure fighters, economic realities forced both the F-14 and the F-15 to take on a bomb dropping role in addition to their previous duties, resulting in the so-called "Bombcat" with bomb racks which you see here and the F-15 Strike Eagle.   Interestingly enough, the replacements for both planes are markedly inferior in speed - the F-15 can fly at mach 2.5 while the F-22 (depending on who you believe) can only do around mach 2; in the same way, the F-14 has a top speed of mach 2.35 and its successor the F-18 Super Hornet can only do mach 1.7.   The Raptor, however, is much more stealthy than the F-14, F-15 or F-18 and is also the only aircraft in any country's inventory which can fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburner, the so-called "super cruise" ability first demonstrated many years ago by the English Electric Lightning.

This Tomcat display was really something special, not just because the pilot threw the plane around in spectacular fashion, but because it was the last official public display of this aircraft type before it's retired from service.   Only seven squadrons still fly the Tomcats and the one that does displays is due to be disbanded soon; the remainder will all have transitioned to the F-18 before the end of 2006.   However, I have trouble believing that the navy would allow its last demonstration to be at an air force show, so I wouldn't be too surprised if there were just a few more curtain calls before the lights finally go out.   If this is the last show, then at least the mountains behind Nellis made it an especially interesting end for a fascinating aircraft!

F-14 Tomcat

And here's the last (ahem) "fighter" to put on a performance at the show.   Although the F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" has a fighter designation and its pilots belong to a fighter squadron, this aircraft is really a strike plane or tactical bomber.   It's theoretically capable of carrying sidewinder air-to-air missiles, but one of the pilots at the show told me that they don't even train for the fighter mission.   This was only the second time I've seen the Nighthawk take off, do a demonstration and land at the same airshow, so it was pretty interesting even though the pilot carried on the usual tradition of not banking towards the audience.  If you want to see a complete display similar to the one at Nellis, check out the F-117 demonstration at RIAT 2002.

F-117 Nighthawk landing with parachute

OK, back to reality now - here's a real fighter!   The schedule promised a dogfight between a British Supermarine Spitfire and a German Messerschmitt Bf109, which would have been reason enough to make the five hour one-way drive to Las Vegas, even without the Raptor and the Tomcat!   As it happens the Spitfire didn't appear, presumably because of mechanical problems, and the Messerschmitt turned out to be a Spanish HA-1112-M Hispano Buchon.   The Buchon is a modified version of the Bf109 built after the war and ironically enough was manufactured with the same Merlin engine which powered many Spitfires!   And if you think it's ironic that the Bf109 ended up with a Rolls Royce engine, then it's doubly ironic that it started life with one - when it was first developed in the 1930s it was fitted with a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine!   Spain got a manufacturing licence for the Bf109 in 1942 and built them with Spanish or (after 1951) French engines, but it wasn't until 1954 that the first Merlin powered Buchon was flown, and these remained in service until 1967.

If you want to see the differences between the Buchon and the German aircraft, check out this Bf109 with original Daimler engine which flew in New Zealand some years ago during the Warbirds over Wanaka event.  As you'll see, the original lacks the large curved oil cooler under the nose (which in my opinion ruins the lines of the aircraft), and the exhausts are much lower.   Still, since this is an authentic aircraft and even these are very rare, it was great to see it flying.   The pilot certainly did a good display, throwing it around only slightly less aggressively than the Eagle and the Tomcat.

Hispano Buchon

It really seemed as if the Buchon pilot upped the ante and made the two P-51D Mustangs performers put on a better than usual display, something more in line with the type of P-51 display seen at airshows in the UK.   Although "Six Shooter" flew equally nicely, I've posted this shot of "Val-Halla" because its red painted surfaces contrast so nicely with Sunday's clear blue skies.

P-51D Mustang 'Valhalla'

In the absence of the Spitfire, this Fairey Firefly did a somewhat half-hearted dogfight with the Buchon.   Its pilot, Captain Eddie Kurdziel does do an excellent display, and this aircraft is one of the most nicely restored aircraft I can think of, complete with the underwing rockets.   It's great to see it flying, and hopefully we'll see it for some time to come.

British world war two Fairey Firefly naval fighter

A single B-17 Flying Fortress was in attendance, but on Saturday its number four engine overheated and it had to declare an emergency and land with a propeller feathered.   The situation passed without further incident, but it was unable to fly on Sunday.

B-17 Flying Fortress

With the B-17 out of commission, one of the two B-25 Mitchells at the show had the honor of detonating the Wall of Fire.   Someone listening in to the air traffic controllers told us that the warbirds display had fallen into chaos, with no-one knowing who should be doing what and when.   Even the pyrotechnic guy got mixed up about when he should light the flames, and the B-25s had to go around for another pass.   However it was still a great display, the sight of both B-25s flying extremely low and then slightly higher in formation was well worth seeing.

B-25 Mitchell with the Wall of Fire   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Before the warbirds show the air force put on one of their Heritage Flights, with the two P-51s and the F-15 Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt II which had just completed their own solo performances.

F-15/A-10 Heritage Flight with two P-51Ds, 'Valhalla' and 'Six Shooter'

Helicopter displays at American airshows are less common than I'd like, and in fact this was the first time I'd seen the HH-60 Pave Hawk flying.   As with so many of the displays at this event, the pilot performed with more than the usual amount of gusto, throwing the craft forward, backward and around extremely well.   The Pave Hawk is a special operations version of the better known UH-60 Black Hawk.   The Pave Hawk has a winch for inserting and extracting troops, the large probe on the starboard side of the nose is used for mid-air refuelling, and you can also see a heavy machine gun on either side of the helicopter, behind the cockpit.

HH-60 Pave Hawk (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Since this is Nevada, the Reno Air Racers were invited along to put on a performance, which was interesting even for a dyed in the wool military enthusiast like myself.   There are several classes of racing aircraft, including unmodified aircraft like T-6 Texans (Harvards), jets and modified warbirds such as the one shown here, called "Precious Metal".   You might find it hard to believe, but this aircraft started life as a P-51 Mustang.   The tail and radiator scoop still look familiar, but the fuselage and cockpit have been substantially modified, and as you can see it has two contra-rotating three-bladed propellers, taken from a British Shackleton marine patrol aircraft.   There were several other slightly less modified P-51s flying, as well as "Rare Bear" which started life as an F8F Bearcat but is now almost totally unrecognizable!

'Precious Metal' Reno Air Racer

This very attractive T-38 Talon supersonic trainer flew with a T-33 Shooting Star and an L39 Albatros during the Air Racer demonstration.   This particular aircraft is owned by Ross Perot jr, son of the outspoken American presidential hopeful of some years ago.   It's painted up in the colors of the air force Thunderbirds jet display team, and indeed they did use this type of aircraft from 1974 to 1983.

Ross Perot jr's T-38 Talon in Thunderbirds color scheme   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The Thunderbirds eventually transitioned from the Talon to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and it was this aircraft which they used to great effect at the end of each day's show.   I like the Thunderbirds paint scheme very much because it contrasts nicely with blue skies, but usually I don't find their displays as exciting as the navy Blue Angels team; however, perhaps because Nellis is their home base and perhaps because this was their last show of the season, they put on a really first rate performance and I was totally hooked.  They used far more afterburner than I remember seeing previously, their formation flying was mostly impeccable apart from a few goof-ups during the practice on Friday, and the sneak pass which you see here set the whole crowd cheering and hollering!   As with all the other photos on this page which have a border around them, you can click on this one to open a new window with the same shot in computer wallpaper format.

Thunderbirds F-16 'sneak pass'  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)
See the highlights of the Nellis AFB "Aviation Nation" air show in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.