Highlights of the 2006 Nellis AFB "Aviation Nation" Airshow

The usual excellent selection of world war two "warbirds" flew at the 2006 Aviation Nation airshow held at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.   The lineup was a bit thin on bombers with only the Air Classics B-25 Mitchell "Executive Sweet" present, but as this formation shows, there was a good mix of American air force and navy types, including two P-51D Mustangs, the P-38 Lightning "Glacier Girl" being flown by Steve Hinton, as well as an F4U Corsair and F8F Bearcat.

As well as the main flying displays there was enough non-display flying to justify a separate page to cover them.   I wasn't around for arrivals of static aircraft, so I missed out on seeing an EA-6 Prowler, E-2C Hawkeye and B-52 Stratofortress in flight, however I was around for a few of the departures such as the Kfir fighter, an Israeli variation of the French Mirage fighter, and on Friday's media day there were flights by aircraft taking part in a Green Flag exercise, including armed A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, Belgian air force F-16 Fighting Falcons and a flight of F-22 Raptors.   On Saturday I also had an opportunity to take some air-to-air photos of some of the aircraft in the warbird formation you see here.

This formation was only part of the warbird contingent at the show, amongst the other American designed participants were this F6F Hellcat from Camarillo in California and an A-1 Skyraider.   Although they're both naval carrier aircraft, the Hellcat is a fighter which operated almost entirely during world war two, while the Skyraider is a ground attack aircraft which arrived just after the war, but had a long career including a great deal of service during the Vietnam war.

Somehow I wasn't able to get a decent photo of Glacier Girl, but here's a view of the P-51D Mustang called "Tempus Fugit", just after takeoff.

There was a lot of excitement in the aviation enthusiast community about this year's show, since it was to include a "British Heritage" formation with five aircraft, the naval Firefly and Sea Fury fighters you see here, as well as a Spitfire, the classic Hawker Hunter jet and the brand new Eurofighter Typhoon performing its American airshow debut.   About two weeks out the Typhoon was scratched, purportedly for mechanical reasons, and although there was supposed to be a Tornado as replacement, this was also a no-show.   Since the Hunter also ended up being unable to attend, this meant the Firefly, Sea Fury and Spitfire were the only British aircraft which displayed.

However, that's three more British aircraft than most American airshows had this year, and it was a rare opportunity, particularly considering the rarity of the three examples on display.   For instance, Eddie Kurdziel's Firefly is one of only two in the world in flyable condition.   It's a little known naval fighter which was operated by the UK, Canada and Australia.   It was the only modern purpose-built naval fighter of British design operated by the Royal Navy during the war and although it had a very powerful V-12 Griffon engine, it was nowhere near as fast as American fighters like the Hellcat and Corsair, largely due to the decision to carry a second crewman who acted as navigator.   However, testing at the American naval test center at Patuxent River showed that its maneuverability made it one of the few fighters able to successfully dogfight against the Hellcat.

The Firefly's four 20mm cannons gave the Firefly a punch which most American aircraft lacked, and it operated effectively against German aircraft in Scandinavia and Japanese aircraft in the Far East - the first British aircraft to fly over Tokyo during the war was a Firefly.   After the war the Firefly was used as a naval anti-submarine, anti-shipping and ground attack aircraft in Korea and Malaya until retired in the mid 1950s.   Here you can see it during a simulated strafing run set up by Chris Rainey and his merry band of pyrotechnic pranksters.

The Sea Fury wasn't about to miss out on the pyrotechnic mayhem, either!   The Sea Fury isn't very well known in the United States as a military aircraft, but because of its very high performance about ten of them have been used as racers.   However, the same speed that makes it a good racer also allowed it to operate as an effective fighter, in 1952 a Sea Fury serving in Korea became the first piston-engined aircraft to shoot down a MiG-15 jet fighter.

Although this aircraft was also being developed in an air force version, the war ended before they were operational and so only the naval version went into production.   However the performance generated by its 18 cylinder Centaurus radial engine made it an international success, with exports to Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Egypt, Iraq, Burma and Cuba.   The Cuban Sea Furies were used against the CIA sponsored anti-communist fighters during the Bay of Pigs battle.

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Ellsworth Getchell operates this one in Australian navy colours, though he's added some definitely non-regulation smoke generators to make it stand out during the aerobatic demonstrations he does during lulls in the warbird display.

The ugly duckling of the British Heritage display was this two-seat TR.9 Spitfire.   There are many two-seat warbird fighters on the airshow circuit, especially Mustangs, however most of these are modern conversions to allow a passenger to be taken aloft.   This Spitfire was built as a single-seat Mk IX fighter in 1945, but was converted after the war to a two-seat TR.9 trainer and used by the Irish Air Corps.

Another theme of the show was the Korean War airpower demonstration, featuring the F-86 Sabre operated by the Planes of Fame museum at Chino.   Here you can see it taking off at the start of the demonstration, which took place at the same time as the world war two aircraft displayed; the older aircraft did simulated pyrotechnic ground strikes, and as they went around for another wide circuit, the Korean era aircraft would do their display, keeping crowd interest high.

Steve Hinton, the chief pilot at Chino, says that the Sabre is his favorite aircraft of all of the different types that he gets to fly.   Although its armament of six 50 caliber machine guns is somewhat lightweight, its performance and excellent handling ensured that it would be the first really successful American jet fighter.

The Korean airpower demonstration consisted of the Sabre doing tail chases against its old foe, the Russian designed MiG-15 "Fagot" which came as a nasty shock when it first entered combat in Korea.   Although it had better armament and nearly the same performance as the F-86, the MiG-15 was at the wrong end of a roughly 10 to 1 kill ratio, due largely to superior training of the American pilots.

Several aerobatic aircraft strutted their stuff and provided some balance to the military equipment on display.

The ever-popular Sean Tucker flew his custom built Oracle Challenge in a wide variety of difficult maneuvers, both with and without smoke.

Craig Teft was the other aerobatic performer, showing off the various stomach churning moves he can do in his Pitts Special.

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There was a highly unusual aerobatic act at the show, a German designed Bo-105 helicopter, which because of its solid rotor hub system can perform some very unhelicopter-like moves such as barrel rolls and full loops!   The helicopter is sponsored by the Red Bull energy drink, which supports quite a few aircraft around the world, including Bill Reeseman's MiG-17 "Fresco" which flew at Aviation Nation, as well as a Grumman Albatross seaplane which was on static display.

The modern military displays were started off with an air force "Heritage Flight" with three generations of American fighters in formation.

A different three generation Heritage Flight was flown in the morning with a P-51, F-86, F-15 and F-16, which means that it would have been theoretically possible to have had a formation with four generations of fighter, if the P-51, F-86, F-15 and F-22 had been flown together.   The F-86, F-15 and F-16 did fly together, but again if the F-22 had been substituted for the F-16 then it would have been a formation with three generations of jet fighters.   There were quite possibly excellent technical or logistical reasons why these other formations weren't flown.

The navy also had the opportunity to do a "Legacy Flight" with the F6F Hellcat, A-1 Skyraider, Sea Fury and F-18F Super Hornet, an unusual mixture of fighters with a ground attack plane, as well as American and British designed aircraft flying together!

An F-18F also did a solo display, which I consider to be the most exciting of the American fighter demonstrations because of the range of maneuvers done in close proximity to the crowd.

The show organizers were unable to get a Typhoon or Tornado, but they did pull off a coup with a different foreign aircraft, this Belgian air force F-16 Fighting Falcon.   Several Belgian F-16s were at Nellis for a Green Flag exercise, but in America it's an extremely rare event to have a demonstration by a foreign aircraft.   As far as I know, the Belgians only did one other display in America, at the Edwards AFB show.

The Belgian and Dutch F-16 displays are widely regarded as the best in the world.   As well as using smoke generators and on some occasions flares, the Belgians and Dutch both do a very high power routine with lots of afterburner, all while staying close in to the crowd.

With a USAF F-16 demo at the same show, it was easy to compare the styles, with the American aircraft relying more on loud and fast passes in front of the crowd, which results in gaps in the display as the plane comes back to the crowdline.   It's still an exciting display, but not quite as crowd pleasing as the Europeans.

This was the last demonstration by the Viper West display pilot "Mojo", next year his replacement "Spicoli" takes over.

Talking about loud and fast, here's the F-15 Eagle demonstration ship hurtling off in the direction of the Las Vegas strip.

F-15 Eagle   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

On Friday's media day there was an unintended addition to the routine when the F-15's starboard engine experienced a burner blowout while doing a low altitude pass along the crowd line.   It was the first time I've seen this at a show, but there was little risk of an incident since the engine was still producing power during the extremely brief event.

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For many years the F-15 was America's premier fighter, but that position now belongs to this aircraft, the F-22 Raptor.   This is the world's first true stealth fighter, and it sports other advanced technology like thrust vectoring nozzles which provide it with unprecedented maneuverability for an American aircraft.   Indeed during the F-15 display many in the crowd weren't watching, instead looking backwards at the F-22 high up and far off in the distance as it performed feats previously only achieved by Russian aircraft such as late models of the MiG-29 "Fulcrum" and Su-27 "Flanker", displaying at shows like the biannual MAKS airshow near Moscow.   Unfortunately it's still too early to know whether American audiences will ever have an opportunity to see maneuvers like the "cobra", since the American military has become increasingly reluctant to do dramatic maneuvers in their aircraft.

This is just the beginning of the F-22's career, but it's sunset for another aircraft which carried the "stealth fighter" moniker, the F-117 Nighthawk.

The first operational stealth aircraft, the Nighthawk is theoretically capable of carrying air-to-air missiles and thus justifying its fighter designation; however, it's actually a ground attack aircraft, that's all its pilots train for, and the fighter designation is much more likely to have been a deliberate deception to cause confusion about an aircraft which was a classified secret for the first five years of its operational service.

The F-117 is already on the verge of retirement, even though most people can hardly believe that it's been around for 25 years.   It's a very expensive aircraft to operate, the fleet of 45 or 50 aircraft based at Holloman AFB in New Mexico cost about a quarter of the entire British military budget.   The F-22 has ground to air capability, so the intention is to use the Raptor in place of the Nighthawk in situations where low observability is needed.

The F-22 wasn't the only new face in the American military which was present at the show, there was also a very complete display by a CV-22 Osprey.   The CV-22 is the air force version of the Osprey, it has aerial refuelling and more radar capability than the marine corps' MV-22.   This was one of the first outings for the CV-22.   I saw an MV-22 at the 2006 Miramar airshow but the weather was horrible, and I devoted a day and several hundred miles of driving to seeing the CV-22 at the Edwards AFB media day, only to have it not fly.

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

The Osprey is an impressive aircraft.   Although it has had a drawn-out and chequered development history, its capabilities make it much more useful than the Vietnam era helicopters that it will replace.   It's able to carry twice the load at twice the speed to twice the distance, and it does all of this much more quietly than a regular helicopter.   There are definitely downwash problems when doing crew pickup during search and rescue missions and it's also problematic to fit it with defensive guns, but overall it's likely to be a big asset.

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

Is this the shape of airshows to come?   With so many aircraft like the F-117, F-14 and other types retiring, and only a few new manned aircraft like the F-22, V-22 and F-35 in the pipeline, it seems that unmanned aerial combat vehicles like this MQ-1 Predator might be the way of the future.   Armed as you can see with hellfire missiles, the Predator is used for reconnaisance and ground attack, but in the future it might be that aircraft such as this one will take over the role of air-to-air fighter, since the limiting factor in maneuverability for many modern aircraft is the human pilot, who can only handle so many Gs of force.   There has already been at least one air-to-air engagement between a Predator and an enemy fighter, in 2002 a Predator fired an air-to-air missile at an Iraqi MiG-25.   The missile missed the MiG, but a missile from the MiG destroyed the Predator.

As always the last display at any Aviation Nation airshow is the homecoming performance of the USAF "Thunderbirds" display team flying their carefully choreographed routines for the final time of the year.

See the Nellis airshow "extras":  air-to-air warbird photos, military jets loaded with ordnance, and unusual aircraft departing after the show!   You can also see military aircraft from the USA, UK and Australia participating in a Red Flag military exercise.   Or see the highlights of the "Aviation Nation" airshow in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.