Highlights of the 2007 Nellis AFB "Aviation Nation" Airshow

This year was the 60th anniversary of the United States Air Force as an independent branch of the military, and the Air Force's premier airshow, at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, put on an excellent display which drew the largest crowd for many years.   They started with a pair of replica world war one military aircraft, this S.E.5a fighter and a DH.4 light bomber in a post-war US Mail color scheme.   Both of these British designed aircraft were used during the war by American forces because of the lack of suitable American types.   The S.E.5, together with the Sopwith Camel, regained control of the skies from the Germans in the summer of 1917, and maintained air superiority until the end of the war.

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The Supermarine Spitfire was the fighter which enabled the British to survive the nazi onslaught at the start of world war two, before pushing the fight back to the German homeland.   This beautiful example is Bob DeFord's replica Mk IX, fitted with an American Allison engine.

And now to the genuine article, a little-known British naval fighter called the Fairey Firefly.   This is the only flying example in the world, owned by former US navy pilot Eddie Kurdziel.   You might think that its 2250 horsepower Griffon engine would make this a top performer, however its maximum speed was only 316mph (509 km/h), in part because of the extra load created by having a radio operator/navigator seated in the rear cockpit.   Nevertheless, the Firefly became the first British aircraft to fly over Tokyo, and the type flew for many years in the military services of different countries.

Ellsworth Getchell flies another British naval fighter of world war two, the Sea Fury, powered by a Bristol Centaurus radial engine delivering 2480 horsepower.   This engine, coupled with clean aerodynamic lines and a five-bladed propeller, allowed the Sea Fury to achieve up to 460 mph (740 km/h).   Armed with four 20mm cannons, a Royal Navy Sea Fury even managed to shoot down a MiG-15 jet fighter during the Korean war.

The Camarillo wing of the Commemorative Air Force displayed yet another naval fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero, scourge of the Pacific until more capable aircraft like the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair were introduced.   This particular aircraft is modelled after a Zero which was salvaged from Babo airfield in what is now Indonesia, however the only parts still in use from this original plane are the landing gear legs and the tail post.

With all of these foreign world war two aircraft on display, it's a real surprise that there were so few American fighters present.   The P-38 Lightning "23 Skidoo" flew in on Friday for static display, leaving this P-51D Mustang called "Ridgerunner" as the only representative of the excellent American fighter tradition of the war.

The selection of American fighters was thin, but this year's show included a good collection of American bombers, including two late model B-25J Mitchell bombers painted in similar schemes, "Heavenly Body" and "Executive Sweet", shown here taking off on Friday's media day.  You can see air-to-air photos from the tail gunner's position of this aircraft during last year's airshow.

As well as the Mitchells, the show also included this late-model B-17G Flying Fortress called "Liberty Belle" and an early model B-24A Liberator called "Ol' 927", which is more familiar on the American airshow circuit in its old role as "Diamond Lil", a transport variant of the Liberator.   This particular aircraft did indeed start its life as a bomber but was converted to a transport after a landing accident, so it's only appropriate that it should be converted back to B-24A status.

Early models of the Flying Fortress were very vulnerable to frontal attack, so a "chin" turret with two 50 caliber machine guns was added under the nose of the B-17G, in addition to the two nose guns which can be seen protruding in this photo.   This brought the total number of heavy machine guns up to thirteen, enabling these aircraft to fight their way through heavy opposition during daylight attacks against Germany.

About 18,500 Liberators were built compared to 12,700 Flying Fortresses; the B-24 was more modern, faster, had significantly greater range and carried a heavier bombload.   However the Flying Fortress captured the public imagination far more and crewmen also preferred the Flying Fortress, since it could survive more battle damage and was far easier to escape from if it did go down.

Each year the airshow organizers arrange the show thematically and chronologically according to the era of combat the aircraft served in.   This year there was a section of trainer aircraft as well as a Korean war segment, and this T-33 trainer would have fit well in either, since it is the trainer version of America's first jet fighter used in combat, the F-80 Shooting Star.

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In November of 1950 an F-80 became the victor of the first jet-on-jet combat, shooting down a MiG-15 in Korea.   However the straight-wing Shooting Star was at a severe disadvantage against the swept-wing MiGs, and they were soon retired in favor of the F-86 Sabre shown here taking off alongside a MiG-15.

This Sabre is owned by the Planes of Fame museum at Chino, and is piloted by Steve Hinton.   The Sabre was very evenly matched with the MiG-15, and the 10-to-1 kill ratio in favor of America is usually attributed to superior training of the pilots, a theme which would recur during the Vietnam war.

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Apart from various aerodynamic advantages, the MiG-15 was also much more heavily armed than the Sabre which, like the Shooting Star, was equipped with six 50 caliber machine guns.   In contrast, both the British and the Soviets had learned during the previous war that cannon fire was much more effective than machine guns, so MiG-15s were fitted with two 23mm cannon and a single 37mm cannon, which could literally blow apart a tank.

The show isn't all warbirds and military aircraft.   Sean Tucker was one of three top-rate aerobatic acts at the show, together with Ed Hamill and Red Bull pilot Kirby Chambliss.   Sean performed his signature act of cutting through three ribbons in a row, each 25 feet off the ground.   Flying at 220mph, he cuts the first one while in right knife-edge flight, the second in left knife-edge flight and the third while upside-down.

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Red Bull has been a major sponsor of airshow aircraft over the last ten years, both in Europe and the USA, sponsoring aerobatics, warbirds and even a high publicised pylon racing competition series in a variety of high-profile locations around the world.   One of Red Bull's most recent innovations is an aerobatic display by this German designed Bo-105 helicopter, which amazes crowds by doing climbs, rolls and loops which seem impossible.

Red Bull also sponsors Bill Reeseman and his MiG-17 fighter, which he puts through a full aerobatic routine.   The MiG-17 "Fresco" is the Soviet's successor to the MiG-15, equipped with the afterburner which Bill puts to good use during his display.   The Fresco flew even before the MiG-15 was introduced into Korea, but American pilots first encountered the MiG-17 in Vietnam.   They were shocked to see sophisticated mach 2 aircraft like the F-105 Thunderchief being shot down by this elderly sub-sonic fighter of a previous generation.

This airshow is one of the very few in America where you can see foreign military aircraft flying.  Last year it was the turn of the Belgian air force F-16 Fighting Falcon, and this year there was a display by a Royal Canadian Air Force F-18 Hornet, celebrating the 25th year of the Hornet's service in Canada.

Nellis air force base is home for the official US air force jet display team, the Thunderbirds, so it's guaranteed that they'll perform on each day of the show.   This year was very different, though, because they flew part way through the day, rather than in their usual slot at the end of the day, which probably confused quite a few spectators who are accustomed to bolting for the exits at the end of the Thunderbirds routine.

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As almost everyone knows, the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the "Huey", was one of the workhorses of the Vietnam war.

Designed as a medical evacuation helicopter, it soon proved itself doing cargo and troop transport, air assault, combat search and rescue, and electronic warfare.

This aircraft has been beautifully restored as a "hog", equipped with rocket pods, mini guns and door guns.   Helicopters like this would support the "slicks" used to insert troops into landing zones.

Early UH-1s had a single engine, but an upgraded two-engine version started flying in 1965, allowing greater carrying capacities and improved resilience to battle damage.   From 1967 the AH-1 Cobra entered service, a specialized two-man gunship based on the Huey, but with a very narrow fuselage to offer a smaller target, while providing greater lifting capacity for ordnance.

These A-1 Skyraiders were also invaluable during the Vietnam war.   Coming just too late for world war two, the single-engine one-man Skyraider's phenomenal armament load of up to 8,000 pounds equalled that of the Flying Fortress with four engines and a ten man crew.   In addition, the aircraft's excellent endurance allowed it to loiter while waiting to be called up by ground troops or air controllers.   It really made its name in the "Sandy" role doing combat search and rescue in conjunction with fast jets and "Jolly Green Giant" helicopters.   Skyraiders are even credited with shooting down two MiG-17 fighters over the course of the conflict.

The United States has converted many different trainer aircraft into ground attack types, including the T-6 "Texan" in its LT-6 Mosquito incarnation, the T-28 Trojan and this A-37 Dragonfly, which is based on the T-37 Tweet.   At the end of the war, 95 A-37s were captured and added to the communist Vietnamese air force, where they served for many years, fighting in Cambodia and against the Chinese.   You can see one of these captured A-37s at the Vietnamese air force museum in Hanoi, together with other American aircraft.  After retirement a few of these captured aircraft were bought by western collectors in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

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The AC-47 "Spooky" gunship was developed during the Vietnam war by mounting two or three miniguns which fired through the left side of the plane.   Controlled by the pilot, each minigun could fired 4000 rounds a minute as the plane orbited around a ground target.   Although very effective, nineteen of these aircraft were lost during the war.

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The highlight of this year's show for me was an exhibition by another icon of the Vietnam war, the B-52 Stratofortress, here appropriately enough seen taking off with the Stratosphere tower visible on the Las Vegas skyline.   The B-52 performance was such a treat because it's not common to see this aircraft flying at airshows, particularly a full sequence of takeoff, display and landing.

If judged by longevity, the Stratofortress is the most successful American military aircraft ever, with the possible exception of the C-130 Hercules transport.   First flown in 1952, the air force currently expects to keep the B-52 in service until 2040, an extraordinary feat for what was originally seen as an interim bomber design.   The project was almost cancelled several times during early development, but the airframe's size and flexibility has enabled the plane to be continually updated over the years as new technologies became available.   B-52s have now been flown for so long that several generations of the same family have crewed this same aircraft type.

The display at this year's show included simulated bomb runs with a "Wall of Fire" pyrotechnics display ably supplied by Chris Rainey and his team.   There was a larger than usual pyrotechnic field this year, with several smaller walls of fire and a mini atom bomb sequence during the B-29 commemoration, which was a recorded event played over the two jumbotrons, since there's currently no B-29 flying anywhere in the world.

The B-52 was the largest aircraft to fly during the airshow, but it wasn't the only piece of Heavy Metal at the show, nor even the largest.   This C-5 Galaxy, largest aircraft in the American military inventory, landed on arrivals day and taxied over for static display during the show.   The Galaxy is much larger than the Stratofortress; the Galaxy is 247 feet long, 65 feet high, with a 223 foot wingspan and 840,000 pound maximum takeoff weight, compared to the Stratofortress at 159 feet long, 41 feet high, with a 185 foot wingspan and 488,000 pound maximum takeoff weight.

Putting the Thunderbirds early in the programme led to significant delays in the display of modern era equipment, which was especially unfortunate since this show had the last public display by the F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter", which is due to be fully phased out in 2008.   The Nighthawk ended up flying so late that it was too dark for photographs, but at least it was possible to photograph some of the other modern types, including this unusual sunlit underside view of an A-10 Thunderbolt II, popularly called the "warthog" because of its ungainly appearance.

The Heritage Flight was just about the last display which could be photographed before the sun dipped behind the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas.

The "Aviation Nation" airshow is unique in several ways, including being the only place where you can see a demonstration of some of America's military drones, which are an increasingly important part of the air force inventory.  For the past two years the original MQ-1 Predator has displayed, but this year its big brother also flew.   Originally called the Predator-B, it is now officially designated the MQ-9 Reaper.   The general appearance is very similar to the Predator, but it is much larger, has an upturned tail instead of downturned and a three-bladed propeller instead of its predecessor's two-bladed one.   The Reaper has a 950 horsepower turboprop engine rather than the Predator's 119 horsepower piston engine, allowing it to fly at three times the speed and carry four Hellfire missiles or laser-guided bombs, compared to the Predator's two Hellfire missiles.

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See the "Aviation Nation" airshow of 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2009.