Paul Dunn's 2010 blogGAR Entries

JUN 25 2010
Three Days on the Surface of the Sun

Phoenix is one of my favourite destinations, especially during the winter when the temperatures are pleasantly warm and the skies clear. Phoenix in summer is however an entirely different beast, with temperatures this June touching 45 C – far too hot for a pale Brit like me! Still, there’s plenty of aviation out there, so it is a case of slapping on the suncream and getting on with it – after all, the aircraft won’t photograph themselves!

Every time I visit Phoenix I try to spend a bit of time at Mesa Gateway Airport, formerly Williams AFB. With a great location for afternoon photography, friendly staff (and regulars) and some very interesting visitors, it really can’t be beaten as a place to spend a few hours hanging out. And it’s been a good destination for me over the last couple of years, always turning up something unusual.

This time around I ended up making three visits to Gateway, the first of which was on Wednesday. I arrived about lunchtime and I was very pleasantly surprised to see the latest Boeing product, the 747-8F, parked on the far side of the airfield. I had hopes that the aircraft would fly, but in the end it didn’t move for the whole day. In fact the day itself was fairly quiet, with only a brief period of excitement when an Allegiant flight declared an emergency and the fire trucks were scrambled. I’m pleased to report that the subsequent landing was uneventful and the fire trucks were able to stand down.

After a few hours of willing the 747-8F to move, I found out that the aircraft was in the area to take advantage(!) of the hot weather for heat soaking trials – basically involving sealing the aircraft up and letting it get extremely hot inside to test how the systems behave under such conditions. Sadly this does not include flight testing and I was told the aircraft was unlikely to fly before Friday.

I got bored after a while with nothing going on so I thought I'd check out Casa Grande Airport, but as there was little there of interest, I decided to head back towards Mesa. On the way back to the hotel I had a change of heart and decided to pay a quick return visit to Gateway. I arrived to find an empty ramp, but by now the evening light was lovely and I was able to shoot a couple of movements, including a very smart Legacy executive jet, apparently operated by the Intel company as a staff shuttle.

That was all well and good, but I was hoping for something more substantial and fortunately it arrived in the form of an HH-60 Pave Hawk from Davis-Monthan AFB. The Pave Hawk stopped in for fuel before departing to conduct a night time training exercise in the nearby mountains. It had been a very quiet and dull day, but all that waiting around was of course forgotten as soon as the Pave Hawk turned up!

Next day I decided to head down to Tucson, to visit the Pima Air Museum and AMARG – it had been two years since my last visit there. Pima is a fabulous museum, but given the heat it became something of an endurance test! By early afternoon it had clouded over and I was suffering from shutter fatigue, so I decided to head back to the Phoenix area.

By the time I got back to the outer suburbs of Phoenix, the low sunlight was getting lovely and with the memory of the Pave Hawk (rather than the hours of waiting around) still fresh, I once again decided to pay a visit to Gateway – just in case!

Reaching the airport, I saw something small and fast in the circuit – cashback! It turned out to be a “Beale Bandits” T-38 Talon, the aircraft used by U-2 pilots for continuation training and general duties. Although fairly regular visitors to Gateway, I still really like to see these aircraft. Even though they are not U-2s, they retain something of the mystique of that aircraft – perhaps guilt by association?!

With the T-38 parked and shut down, I headed to the shade to check my emails (did I mention Gateway has free wi-fi!), stupidly failing to notice the P-2 Neptune water bomber beginning its take off roll! Realising my mistake I grabbed the camera and ran back up the hill to try to get a shot. Helpfully I had not only left the camera set up for shooting indoors at Pima, but I had also left the lens cap on, so the resulting shots were not quite what I had in mind, or what could have been achieved if I had been a little more alert!

Still smarting, my pain was relieved slightly by the sight of a P-3 Orion fire fighter landing on the parallel runway. In my absence a wildfire had started in the Phoenix area and aerial fire fighting resources from further north had been diverted to Gateway to assist in putting the fire out. The P-3 did a fast turnaround to pick up “slurry” before conducting a very smart low departure. Along with the two larger water bombers, there were also a pair of smaller Air Tractors, also apparently committed to the fire fighting operation.

Both larger aircraft had apparently already made multiple trips that day, but it appears that I had arrived a little late as the fire was by now under control and sadly the Neptune never returned. The P-3 did however, and ended up night stopping. After waiting for it to get dark so I could shoot the T-38 under the lights, I decided to call it a night – another excellent couple of hours at Gateway!

The final day of my trip was Friday, traditionally the busiest day at the airport, when the FBO (Gateway Aviation Services) plays host to quite a few military jets, which often stay the whole weekend. I arrived at about 11am and I was surprised to see the 747-8 was taxying! A mad dash to the photo location ensued (observing all traffic regulations, obviously) to see the aircraft departing. I was struck by how quiet the new 747 is – much improved from the 747-2/3/400 and akin to the Airbus A380. It’s also very, very long indeed, although this is probably accentuated by the freighter version’s short hump.

The next arrival was a military lunch stopper. The cafe at Gateway is very good and seems to be a popular stopping off point for training aircraft on navigation exercises. One such aircraft was a very smart North American CT-39G Sabreliner. These aircraft are used by the US Navy to train Navigation Officers, in a similar capacity to the RAF’s venerable Dominie. It was a real pleasure to see this smartly turned out jet – a classic type, just like the Dominie itself.

The CT-39 departed after lunch and there followed another long period of nothing, punctuated only by the arrival of a Navy T-45 Goshawk trainer. I had one eye on the clock as it would soon be time for me to leave to fly home, and still the 747 hadn’t returned, a full four hours after leaving. With only about 30 minutes until my planned departure time, I finally spotted a large shape in the distance – unmistakably a 747, just not a 747-8, but something all together more lovely!

Much earlier in the day, a couple of the regulars had said that a 747SP operated by Pratt and Whitney was due to visit in the morning, but it never showed and we had assumed it was not going to visit. But, here it was, arriving in far better photographic conditions than we would have had had it turned up when it was supposed to.

After a missed approach, the aircraft joined the circuit, but before it came back for a touch and go, the shape of another 747 appeared on the approach, this time the returning 747-8. For a brief period then, there were two 747s in the circuit at Gateway – that’s double the number that visit the much busier Sky Harbor Airport on any given day!

As if to make light of the hours of nothing, a pair of USMC Harriers also appeared in the circuit, but my time had well and truly run out, and it was time for me to head off to prepare for my flight home!

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2010-07-27 - Matt Nebgen
Paul - It was a pleasure meeting you at Gateway Airport and I hope you enjoyed your stay. I hope the next time you visit we have a full ramp for you to photograph. I know this visit was prior to our meeting but I am glad you were here for our big visitor! Great pictures and article! Stop in and say hi the next time you are through.

2010-06-29 - Greg Bishop
Glad to see you survived the heat! Excellent info and photos; I'm amazed at the amount of activity rolled-up in this blog! You have become a true sun-chaser!

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