A trip to Phoenix in late March happily coincided with an open day at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. With arrivals for the open day scheduled to begin on Friday afternoon, I was still in search of something to do in the morning. Thanks to a tip off from my buddy Joe Copalman, he and I decided to set off on a road trip to Tucson, to catch a very rare aircraft which was scheduled to depart from Davis-Monthan AFB late morning.
After an early start from the Phoenix area, our first destination was Tucson International Airport. As well as being a busy civil airport in its own right, TIA is also home to the 162nd Fighter Wing of the Arizona ANG, a very busy unit which is responsible for training F-16 pilots for ANG units throughout the US. In addition, there is a RNLAF training unit, which has recently moved in from Springfield, Ohio, replacing the previous (and slightly more exotic) F-16E/Fs of the UAEAF.
Arriving at TIA, we met up with Kaspar and James, two other local photographers. The airport was busy, with plenty of F-16s departing in the pleasant morning light.
There were also a few nice civilian movements, especially the Ameriflight Beech 1900.
With plenty of F-16s in the air, we decided to move to the arrival end of the runway to shoot some of the recoveries. As it turned out though, we only had time for a couple of arrivals before it was time to head over to Davis-Monthan for the main reason for our trip.
NASA is the last remaining operator of the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy Turbine, the legendary outsize cargo transport aircraft which was produced by massively modifying surplus Boeing C-97 Stratofreighters. Originally built to carry parts of the Saturn V rocket which propelled the Apollo missions, the Guppy later found a niche with Airbus Industrie, which used a fleet of aircraft to bring subsections of its aircraft from throughout Europe for assembly at Toulouse. This role was later assumed by the Airbus A300-600ST Beluga, leaving the NASA example as the sole remaining aircraft in service.
The NASA aircraft is registered N941NA and was actually the last aircraft built. It was one of a pair of aircraft built in the early 1980s by UTA Industries in France, after Airbus purchased the rights to build the aircraft. NASA uses the aircraft to support projects such as the International Space Station, but currently the Guppy is being used to ferry T-38 Talons from storage at AMARG to an overhaul facility at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. The aircraft involved are ex-South Korean AF aircraft which will be issued to the F-22 units at Langley and Tyndall, for use as low cost aggressor aircraft.
During each flight, the Guppy can carry two T-38s inside its cavernous fuselage, and the aircraft has been a semi-regular visitor to DM over the last couple of months.
The Guppy departed on time, and made for a very impressive sight, bringing back fond memories for me of seeing Airbus operated aircraft flying into Manchester in the early-1990s. Whilst the light was not quite as favourable as I would have liked, the aircraft still looked great, with the highly polished fuselage providing interesting reflections of the desert scenery.
With the Guppy having departed, we moved around to the other end of the DM runway, hoping to catch some of the ANG F-16s which are currently operating from there as part of a ‘Snowbird’ deployment, but during the time we were there the only arrival of note was this rather smart US Customs and Border Protection UH-1.
Having had a great morning, Joe and I decided to make our way back to Mesa, to catch some of the arrivals for the Gateway Aviation Day. We arrived to find that a few of the aircraft had beaten us to it, but we were still able to catch some good stuff, particularly the Harriers and the UH-1Y and AH-1Z.
In addition, there were also a few transitory T-38s and an opportunity to catch the specially painted “Blue Man Group” MD-82 operated by Allegiant.
Finally, very late in the day, a gorgeous T-45 Goshawk arrived for a very quick “gas and go” on the way to El Centro. In this year celebrating the Centenary of US Naval Aviation, this was the first time I had seen one of the special ‘retro’ colour schemes applied – a most welcome sight.
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