Highlights of the 2004 Vandenburg Airshow

The Vandenburg Airshow is held at Vandenburg Air Force Base, an hour or so north of Los Angeles on the California coast.   Unfortunately, this is another one of those "mystery" shows whose organizers don't see any need to tell people what aircraft are expected.   Perhaps partly for that reason, it wasn't very crowded so there was plenty of space to set up anywhere you wanted.   The sky was beautiful, but the light was horrible, with the sun in your face throughout the display.   There's space for the aircraft to bank around the crowd area both on the left and the right, but most performers didn't do this tightly enough to allow many good banking shots.

There were good individual displays of modern military aircraft by an A-10 Thunderbolt II, an F-16 Fighting Falcon and this F/A-18C Hornet but they were a little too far from the crowdline for good photography.

The F/A-18C is distinguishable from the F/A-18A by the two little bumps behind the canopy, which contain some electronics.

F/A-18 Hornet climbing

As well as its solo display, the Hornet also performed one of the US Navy's Tailhook Legacy Flights with this F8F Bearcat.   I didn't get any shots of the legacy flight worth writing home about, but a few from the Bearcat's individual display came out OK.   This particular aircraft was built in 1948 or 1949, depending on who you believe, and currently belongs to the American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum based in Texas.   It's the youngest Bearcat which is still flying, out of a total production of about 1200.   Although Bearcats were just too late for world war two, American-supplied aircraft were used by the French in Indo-China before American combat troops got involved.

F8F Bearcat world war two navy fighter

The Navy does its Tailhook Legacy Flight and the Air Force does its Heritage Flight, which took the form at this show of a display by the F-16 and A-10 which had previously done individual displays, flying in formation with a pair of P-51D Mustangs.   Again, I didn't get any decent banking shots of this display, and the wind which started picking up soon after the displays began prevented the aircraft from flying very tightly together.

US Air Force 'Heritage Flight' with an A-10 Thunderbolt II (warthog), F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper) and two P-51D Mustangs

One of the highlights for me was this P-40 Warhawk, one of about 20 still flying, which did a brief simulated dogfight with a Japanese Zero fighter - not the Chino Air Museum Zero with the original Japanese Sakae engine, but an original Zero airframe with an American Pratt and Whitney radial.  You can just guess who won the dogfight (hint for those who aren't sure - the American plane always wins).   The base commander's blurb in the airshow programme talked about how the P-40 "controlled the skies over China", but as I remember my history they actually employed hit-and-run tactics against the nimble Zeroes, and avoided getting into dogfights with them.   The Warhawk was the first American fighter able to exceed 300 miles per hour, and it ended up as the third most numerous American-designed fighter built during the war, serving most famously with the Flying Tigers, who were American volunteers fighting the Japanese in China before America and Japan were officially at war.   However, as already mentioned, the aircraft's performance wasn't as good in several aspects as the enemy aircraft it faced, and it's not considered one of the first-rate aircraft of the war.

P-40 Warhawk world war two fighter

This Russian world war two Yak 9u fighter was another pleasant sight.   Unfortunately, I believe that it's not a restored aircraft, but a replica recently built in Russia.   It's also been modified to have two seats, and this one has a slightly ugly looking but probably very functional, canopy.   To please the crowd smoke generators have been added underneath the wingtips, but he did a good display both with and without smoke, so I shouldn't complain too much!

Russian Yak 9u world war two fighter

Most people can't get too excited by training planes, but I thought this display was probably the single best thing I saw at the show.   On the bottom is a world war two T-6 Texan (or more accurately an SNJ, since it's in US Marines colors) and on top is the most recent training plane to enter the American inventory, known here as a T-6A Texan II, in honor of its earlier namesake.   The Texan II isn't actually an American aircraft, it was designed by the Swiss company Pilatus, which calls it the PC-9.   I saw one of these fly in the Royal International Air Tattoo in the UK in 2002, which was one of its first outings.   In the USA the Beech company, which is now part of Raytheon, claims credit for the Texan II, it's quite a trend in America for foreign aircraft to be fielded as if they were produced by a local company, perhaps to decrease the ever-present risk in America of politicians objecting to the planes on the dubious grounds of patriotism.

modern T-6A Texan II and world war two T-6 Texan training planes in formation

Anyone who has been to more than one California airshow this year has probably seen the three ship Patriot team in their L39 Albatros jets.   The Patriots are a civilian team who do a very good act, including tricks such as tail slides which none of the military jet teams do, but the black paint is not ideal photographically.   I was surprised to see the water vapor on the L39's wings, since there was a very cool wind and humidity was low - though of course Vandenburg is right by the ocean.   The Albatros was designed and built in the Czech Republic by Aero Vodochody as a jet trainer for communist air forces, and they're a very attractive looking aircraft which have become highly sought after by civilian warbirds enthusiasts.   In America Boeing claims credit for them, which at least saves people from having to mangle the pronounciation of the real manufacturer's name!

Patriot jet team L39 jet trainer
UH-1 Huey with water bucket for fire fighting

There were 4 or 5 different types of helicopter on static display at this year's show, and two UH-1 "Hueys" did displays, one winching people from the ground while still in flight, and this one with a water bucket.

If you want to see a Huey and water bucket in action during a real fire, then visit my Bound Brook Flood Helicopters page, which will open in a new window.

As is so often the case, much of the best stuff was only on static display, with one of those big old USAF E-3 Sentry AWACS planes with a 30 foot diameter rotating radar dome on top, a world war two C-46 Commando cargo plane, a B-17 Flying Fortress and various other goodies, including this strike version of the Tornado from the German Air Force.   You can see various interesting bits and pieces on this aircraft, with some type of missile on the wing, a pair of HARMs (high speed anti-radiation missiles) under the fuselage to destroy enemy radar stations, the retractable in-flight refuelling nozzle extending from the top of the engine air intake, and the 27mm Mauser cannon at the bottom of the fuselage, below the tip of the refuelling nozzle.

German Air Force Tornado bomber
Tornado cockpit

It's not well known in America, but the German Air Force has a large number of people stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, it's very convenient for them because there's so much empty space out there for them to do their combat training.   The two German pilots at the show are both instructors, they weren't at Holloman during the recent PhanCon event, instead they were at Tyndall.   They were allowing people to sit in the cockpit, something I don't recall being allowed in American fighter aircraft!   Unfortunately foreign aircraft like this Tornado don't get much opportunity to fly at American events, one of the very few exceptions being the Holloman airshow.

As you can see, there's no "glass cockpit" here, just lots of analog dials and switches!   Of course this is the pilot's cockpit, the navigator's cockpit behind him has a few screens, but nothing like a more modern military aircraft.   The yellow and black loop at the front of the seat is the handle to activate the ejection seat, presumably they had that deactivated at the show.   I'm not sure what the triangular looking thing on top of the seat is, perhaps the pilot's Lederunterhosen?

This is an MC-130P "Combat Shadow" Hercules, which is used for clandestine operations, which usually carried out at night.   Although this is an air force plane, it has the large pods under the wings to allow "probe and drogue" refuelling of other aircraft - which in this case usually means helicopters.   The nose, however, has nothing to do with refuelling, it's more of a testimony to the versatility of this type of aircraft, which entered its fiftieth year of service this year (a fifty year old Hercules, the oldest one still flying, did a firefighting water drop at the Prescott Air Fair a month or so before the Vandenburg airshow).   This huge nose contains some type of powerful radar, and the black thing underneath isn't a nose goblin, it's probably a FLIR (forward-looking infrared) unit or something similar.   Perhaps most interesting, though, are the four projections at the front of the nose.   These are the remnants of "Fulton" air recovery equipment, which was used for a short period to rescue downed airman.   Two metal rods, about 10 feet or more in length, were attached to the nose by those projections.   In normal flight they were folded back along each side of the nose, but to perform a rescue they were moved forward to form a large "V" shape.   The airman would use a helium bottle in his inflatable raft to inflate a balloon attached to a 450 foot (135 meter) long nylon rope, the other end of which was attached to a harness he wore.   The Hercules would then fly at 150 miles an hour (240 km/h), hook the line between the rods and wrench the airman into the air.   Crew members stationed at the open rear ramp would then snag the line and winch the crew member on board.   It must have been one heck of a wild ride!   You can read more about the Fulton system on this C-130 variants page, under the MC-130E/H section.

KC-130 aerial refuelling tanker

This F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter" was also on static display, with its engine outlets covered in black tape - a very belated decision by the Air Force that it wants to keep these outlets secret, especially considering how many tens of thousands of photographs of them people have already taken!   There were also a couple of guards on duty around the aircraft, but not fielding machine guns as they have done at other shows.   The four rods sticking out of the front of the Nighthawk aren't guns, they're pitot tubes and other equipment.   You can see how strong the wind was from the way the ribbons are waving around!   This particular aircraft is the oldest Nighthawk in existence, in fact it was originally a YF-117 test aircraft, but was later brought into operational status when budgets were cut and the number of aircraft to be built was reduced.   Two F-117s have been lost that we know of, one that disintegrated during an airshow in Maryland in 1997 and one that was shot down over Serbia in 1999.   There are only 54 of these aircraft now, 36 of which are on active duty, and they're all stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

F-117 Nighthawk 'stealth fighter'
missile tracking cameras

Vandenburg is not a good place to go if you suffer from compulsive camera and lens envy, because some of the guys there were packing pretty impressive rigs!   This is one of the systems they use to track and record the missile launches which are the bread and butter of Vandenburg's day-to-day operations.

As you can see from the guy's jacket, the strong wind made it pretty cold, I was dumb enough to leave my jacket in the car so I just had a thin polycotton shirt on, luckily it didn't become intolerable.   More of a problem was that I left all of my spare batteries at home and the one that was in the camera showed up mostly empty when I first switched it on.   So I could barely do any chimping and in the end I had to switch over to the 1Ds and stick a teleconverter onto the 100-400mm lens, which reduced me to one functional auto-focus point.   With the batteries on that getting run down I had to make this a one day show, which at least allowed me to get home and pretend to have a rest - at least until the next two airshows, the Jackie Cochran airshow next week and the Nellis show in two weeks!