Highlights of the 2004 Prescott Air Fair

After an absence of 15 years, a one-day airshow in Prescott, Arizona was organized by local enthusiasts.   Perhaps reflecting a certain rustiness of organizational skills, they omitted to tell anyone what aircraft would be flying, apart from a few aerobatic planes and the rarely-seen high performance Cold War F-104 Starfighter jet.   Armed with this lack of knowledge, I made the nearly 600 mile (960 kilometer) round trip from southern California in the hope of seeing this one aircraft, but it was not to be - the Starfighter wasn't able to come because of mechanical problems.   However, one of the many unannounced aircraft quickly filled the Starfighter's shoes, a British-built Hawker Sea Fury in Royal Australian Navy colors.

Sea Fury landing (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

The Sea Fury first flew in February of 1945 and entered service in 1948 as the Fleet Air Arm's last piston-powered fighter.   Although it was soon outclassed by jets, the British continued to use it as their primary single-seat naval fighter until 1953, and it was exported to countries as diverse as Australia, Canada, Holland, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Burma and Cuba.   Here you see it in a US Navy "Tailhook Legacy Flight" with a rather more modern carrier fighter, an American F/A-18E Super Hornet (click the following links to open new windows with photos of the Super Hornet at the Dayton airshow and the Point Mugu airshow).

Sea Fury and F/A-18E Super Hornet

British aircraft aren't too common at American airshows, so it was a real treat to also see this Spitfire flying.   Unfortunately, it's a replica rather than the real thing, but it sure looks like an authentic Mk IX.   The engine isn't the classic Merlin or Griffon, instead it's an American Allison engine of the type that powered the P-40 Warhawk, and the propeller is from a DC-3 Dakota!

Spitfire landing

It might not be authentic, but it certainly looks pretty up in the air with the Sea Fury.   You can click on this photo, or any other photo on this website with a border, to open a new window with the photo in computer wallpaper format.

authentic Sea Fury and replica Spitfire flying in formation (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here's what I mean when I say that the Sea Fury became the star of the show - they put it in formation with nearly everything it could be put in formation with!   The aircraft at the bottom is an American T-28 Trojan, which was originally an Air Force trainer but later entered service with the Navy fitted with machine guns, rockets, bombs and napalm.   It fought like this during the "secret war" in Laos, which was a tragic side show to the main event in Vietnam.

Spitfire, Sea Fury and T-28 Trojan in formation

T-28 Trojans are just one of the military training aircraft which civilian warbird enthusiasts have been buying and flying in recent years.   The T-6 Texans shown here were the primary trainers during world war two, and continued in this role until replaced by the Trojan.

Technically, only the top one of these aircraft is a T-6 Texan; the middle one is in British colors, so it's more accurately called a "Harvard", and the bottom one is in US Navy colors, so it's an "SNJ".

T-6 Texans

Not all of the trainers are American made - foreign models like these Chinese Nanchangs CJ-6As are often cheaper to run and keep in operation, since American aircraft tend to be more sophisticated with more parts to break down and become obsolete.   Although very similar in appearance to the Russian Yak 52, the CJ-6A is almost entirely a Chinese design, although both it and the Yak 52 can trace their lineage back to the Yak 18.   The CJ-6A might look pedestrian, but it's capable of performing military style maneuvers and aerobatics between 6.5Gs and -3Gs.   One with a three-bladed propeller did aerobatics at Prescott, and other modifications are sometimes made to the plane, too - you can see that the more distant plane has a rounded canopy, which is a concession to the greater average height of Americans, and it also allows better all-round vision.  Personally, I prefer the appearance of the original canopy, but then I don't have to fly these things!

Nanchangs taking off

OK, here's the ultimate in trainers used by civilians - a pair of Czechoslovakian L-39 Albatros jets.   The Albatros was the standard jet trainer for the Soviets, and some were even fitted with rockets and bombs on pylons like the ones you can see under the wings of the top plane.   Although it's obviously expensive to keep a jet flying, there are over 200 of these planes flying in the United States and they're a common sight at airshows - one performer flies one called "Capitalist Pig", and there's even a civilian jet aerobatic team called the Patriots.

two L-39 Albatroses in formation

Here's a plane you won't be seeing in private hands anytime soon - a United States Marine Corp AV-8B Harrier, a significantly more powerful version of the original British designed Harrier.   The marines love its vertical takeoff and landing ability, which allows them to fly off their (relatively) small LHA or LHD amphibious assault ships, and from poorly prepared forward air bases in captured territory, as happened frequently in Iraq.   The British use both versions of the aircraft, and it's also used by the Spanish and Italian navies, none of whom can afford to operate the giant aircraft carriers which the US Navy maintains.

The plane you see here was flying after the show with three others,  it's not coming in completely vertically, instead it still has a small amount of forward speed on it, as the position of the jet exhaust nozzles indicate.   You can see the aerial refuelling probe above the jet intake, and one other funny little feature is the wind vane directly in front of the canopy, which is apparently very useful for the pilot when the plane is hovering!   The wind vane is a quirky little low-tech solution to a technical challenge, as are the wheels under the wings, which don't fully retract but just fold backwards into a recessed shroud.   Unusually for modern front-line fighter and attack aircraft, the Harrier is sub-sonic, but it proved itself to be very effective both in Iraq and when the British used it during the Falklands war.

AV-8B Harrier

Prescott is the current home town of this C-47 Dakota.   It wasn't technically a performer at the show, but they were offering rides for $20, so there were plenty of opportunities for photos throughout the day - or for photos of it landing and taking off, anyway, since they didn't do any flypasts while I was there.   The Dakota, or "gooney bird" as it was affectionately known during the second world war, is one of the most successful aircraft ever built.   Some of them are still being used commercially today, and it's earned a reputation as a solid aircraft which can be kept going with a minimum of maintenance.   Before being pressed into military service they were used extensively as airliners, as was another aircraft doing paid rides during the show, a Ford Trimotor, which is an even older bird which is said to "take off at 90 miles an hour, fly at 90 miles an hour and land at 90 miles an hour".

C-47 Dakota taking off

The printed flight schedule at this airshow quickly lost touch with what was happening in the air, so it became impossible to know what would or wouldn't be flying.   This C-130 was supposed to do a fire-fighting demonstration just before the show finished at 4 o'clock, but in the end it flew an hour late, when most of the crowd had already left.   Interestingly enough, this is said to be the oldest Hercules in the world which is still flying.   It was built in 1954, making it 50 years old this year, it originally flew with the USAF and then for a while with the South Vietnamese Air Force, but it now divides its time between Arizona and Spain.   In the 1960s this particular plane was damaged by a small tornado or wind storm of some type while it was parked at Dyess air force base in Texas.  Funnily enough, it's government registration currently says that its approved operations are "agriculture and pest control"; as one person said, they must have some big melon patches in Arizona to justify such a large crop duster!

The aerial firefighting industry in the United States has always used a wide variety of ex-military aircraft, but the industry is in turmoil right now because of a flurry of accidents which resulted in various band-aid pieces of legislation being rushed through by publicity conscious politicians.   The issue of safety standards came to the public's attention after a C-130A just like this one crashed while someone was videotaping it.   As the plane flew along at low altitude, the main spar broke and the wings simply folded up and left the rest of the plane to spiral into the ground.

C-130 firefighter dropping water  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)