2012 Articles

OCT 31 2012
Airshows >> USA: MCAS Miramar Airshow 2012 - Review

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is the largest Marines Corps airbase on the West Coast of the United States. Although most famous as the former home to the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat squadrons and the ‘Top Gun’ school, the Navy moved out in the late 1990s, to be replaced by a variety of Marine squadrons, bringing tactical aircraft and helicopters. Today the airfield is the headquarters of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW), the aviation component of I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), which is in turn headquartered at Camp Pendleton, just to the north of Miramar.

The aviation assets of the 3rd MAW are divided into four Marine Aircraft Groups (MAGs), with Miramar being home to two of these; MAG-11, which operates mainly tactical aircraft and MAG-16, which is wholly equipped with rotary types in the assault support role.

Every October, the base opens its gates to the public and hosts its annual airshow. Not only is this the largest such event on the west coast, it also has the honour of being the largest military show in the US. Year on year, the event attracts huge crowds, to watch a range of displays from small aerobatic types up to the latest military hardware and display teams. The show itself takes place over the course of three days, with the Saturday being the busiest day and featuring an extended flying display taking place at sunset and into the hours of darkness.

This year the event had the theme of Marines in Space, celebrating the contribution of USMC aviators to NASA’s space programme over the last 50 years. Many legendary astronauts began their flying careers as Marine pilots. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth was a former Marine fighter pilot who saw action during WWII and the Korean War before becoming a test pilot and eventually being selected as one of the first seven astronauts chosen for the Mercury project.

Similarly, Walter Cunningham and Fred W. Haise Jr, who flew on Apollo 7 and 13 respectively, served as fighter pilots in the Marines before joining the Apollo project. These pioneers have been joined by other names who journeyed into space on Skylab or Space Shuttle missions.

USMC and US Navy assets featured heavily in the static display area, with examples of all of the locally based types on display. From Miramar came several F/A-18 Hornets, CH-53E Super Stallions and MV-22B Ospreys. A total of four Ospreys were displayed to the public; considerable thought seemed to have gone into how the aircraft were to be displayed. Each of the four had its nacelles and prop-rotors in a different position (vertical, intermediate, horizontal and horizontal with folded blades), to represent the different configurations possible.

In addition, the other elements of the 3rd MAW were represented by UH-1Y, AH-1Z and CH-46 helicopters from MAG-39 at Camp Pendleton and an AV-8B Harrier II from MAG-13 at Yuma. The Harrier came from VMA-513 ‘Nightmares’ and carried special markings, which included a tribute to Lt Col C.K. “Otis” Raible, the CO of VMA-211, recently killed in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan.

The US Navy sent a pair of MH-60 helicopters from nearby NAS North Island, including a recently delivered MH-60R from HSM-77 ‘Saberhawks’. There was also a selection of naval trainer types, and a pair of F/A-18F Super Hornets, hailing from VFA-122 and VX-31 and both carrying CAG markings. At the opposite end of the size spectrum was an E-6 Mercury TACAMO aircraft.

The USAF provided a selection of heavy types, featuring a pair of B-52s, a B-1B, KC-135 and C-17. There was even some international participation in the form of a pair of Tornados from the Luftwaffe training school at Holloman AFB.

The Flying Leatherneck Museum is based at Miramar and charts the history of Marine Corps aviation with an extensive and impressive collection of aircraft. Each year, a selection is moved onto the flightline for the airshow; this year the museum aircraft included a selection of immaculately restored A-4 Skyhawks, and an RF-4 Phantom.

The flying display this year got off to an early start, with flying commencing at 0900. The morning session consisted mainly of civilian aerobatic acts and warbirds, with Sean Tucker’s enthusiastic display of competition aerobatics in his “Oracle Challenger” being an early highlight. Other, similarly mind blowing aerobatic displays were performed by Michael Wiskus and Kirby Chambliss. Chambliss is a former Red Bull Air Race champion, and still performs under the Red Bull banner. He was joined on the flying programme by the Red Bull Skydive Team and Chuck Aaron in the Red Bull Helo display. This participation from the “Red Bull Air Force” was appropriate on the same weekend as Felix Baumgartner made his world record skydive, which was also sponsored by the Austrian manufacturer of energy drinks.

The Naval Trainers Parade featured a succession of preserved training aircraft from throughout the history of Naval Aviation. These included such well-known types as the Stearman, T-6 Texan, T-28 Trojan and T-34 Mentor. Most impressive was a smart T-33 Shooting Star; although the aircraft in the flypast carried a USAF paint scheme (and was actually a CT-133 Silver Star), the T-33 was used by both the Navy and Marine Corps and also formed the basis for the T2V SeaStar carrier capable trainer.

Appropriately enough, this selection of past naval trainers was followed by a display from the latest trainer to be delivered to the US Navy, the T-6 Texan II. The T-6A/B is now replacing the T-34 as the primary US Navy (and therefore Marine Corps) trainer, having already replaced the USAF’s T-37 fleet. The aircraft is manufactured by Beechcraft, with the company providing a demonstrator aircraft and test pilot for the flying display.

One of the standout acts amongst the civilian performers appearing during the morning session was The Patriots jet display team. Flying six L-39 Albatros trainers, and featuring former members of the Thunderbirds, Blue Angels and Snowbirds, the team put on a surprisingly dynamic and entertaining display, managing to keep plenty of action going on in front of the crowd at all times.

By late morning, the pace of the action started to change, as large numbers of Marine Corps aircraft started up and taxied out in anticipation of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) demo. This display is performed every year, and is probably the highlight of the show for most visitors, taking place just after the official opening ceremony and playing of the national anthem.

With the formalities out of the way, the airfield becomes the venue for a demonstration of virtually the full spectrum of USMC capabilities. The concept of the MAGTF lies at the centre of USMC doctrine. Whilst it can vary in size, a MAGTF will always consist of four elements – a Command Element, a Ground Combat Element, an Aviation Combat Element and a Combat Service Support Element. Miramar’s MAGTF demo included ground and air forces and showcases the capabilities of the USMC in operating as a self contained fighting force.

The demo included the full range of assets available to the 3rd MAW, along with ground forces, including tanks, amphibious vehicles and troops. It started with a simulated naval bombardment, followed by a flypast from a pair of KC-130J Hercules tankers. The KC-130s are able to refuel both CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet tactical aircraft, and both these missions were represented in the flypast.

The fast jets then returned for a series of simulated attack profiles, including bombing and strafing runs, with appropriate pyrotechnics simulating the effects of the weapons used. Particularly impressive were the pop-up strafing runs performed by the Hornets.

With the air attacks over, the helicopters moved in, bringing in troops and light vehicles. Rotary assets taking part included the latest versions of the UH-1 and AH-1, the UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper. As the latest incarnations of a pair of aircraft which have become Marine Corps legends, these advanced helicopters have much to live up to, and they certainly impressed with performance and presence. Noticeably different is the newer helicopters’ sound, with the Huey’s distinctive “whup-whup” being replaced by a more menacing growl, akin to the AH-64 Apache.

The UH-1s performed the first troop insertions, with Marines exiting the helicopters via ropes before heavier assault support turned up in the form of a trio of CH-46 Sea Knights and a pair of CH-53s. It was particularly pleasing to see the Sea Knights taking part in the demo; the venerable “Phrog” is fast disappearing from Marine Corps service, and the only examples within the 3rd MAW currently reside with MAG-39 at Camp Pendleton. Despite its age and looming retirement, the CH-46 squadrons remain very active and still deploy as part of the regular Marine Expeditionary Unit cycle.

The aircraft which is replacing the CH-46 is the revolutionary MV-22B Osprey. A pair of aircraft from VMM-165 ‘Black Knights’ took part in the demo, impressing with a high speed arrival and break before transitioning into helicopter mode for an assault landing and troop insertion. The Osprey has now entered service in large numbers with the 3rd MAW, with five squadrons currently operating the aircraft within MAG-16 at Miramar. The aircraft is fast developing into a superb asset for the Marine Corps, and is certainly impressive and popular with the public.

With the ground battle in full swing, tanks and other armoured vehicles joined the fight, with a HMMWV vehicle being delivered by a CH-53 as an underslung load. Shortly afterwards, with the battle won, the Marines began to withdraw; the withdrawal included an impressive lift of four Marines who were strapped to a line under one of the UH-1s. The final act was a pass from one of the Harriers which resulted in a large explosion and drew rapturous applause from the assembled crowd.

As usual, the MAGTF demo was superbly received by all visitors to the airshow. In general, the American public has a very positive attitude towards all their armed services, but the Marine Corps is definitely seen as something special. The bond between the public and “their” Marines was evident throughout the show, but particularly so after the MAGTF demo.

The demo is always a highlight of any Miramar show, and it invariably takes something a bit special to follow it. Fortunately that something was available in the form of the USAF’s F-22A Raptor demo. The Raptor is the only official USAF demo to be offered this year, and certainly doesn’t disappoint, with a display that showcases the aircraft’s unrivalled manoeuvrability and unique capabilities. After the fast paced and noisy display, the Raptor joined up with a P-51 Mustang for the Heritage Flight demo; this has become a regular occurrence whenever the Raptor displays, but is no less impressive for it, and certainly continues to have a good deal of impact with the crowd.

Not to be outdone, the Raptor demo was followed later in the day by the US Navy’s F/A-18E Super Hornet display. Whilst lacking some of the Raptor’s more advanced features, the Super Hornet is still a very impressive machine and was ably demonstrated by Lt Jeff “Lou” Findlay from VFA-122 at NAS Leemore. Although not the most humid of days in the San Diego area, Lt Findlay still managed to pull plenty of vapour from the air, even producing the Hornet’s famous shock-cone briefly during a fast pass.

The crowd was then treated to a two solo displays of Marine Corps machines with unique capabilities. The Harrier is always a crowd pleaser, and Lt Col Samuel Smith (CO of VMA-513 ‘Nightmares’) displayed the aircraft very well, with a performance which included most of the Harrier’s trademark manoeuvres, including a vertical landing and take-off followed by an impressive Farley climb.

Similarly, the MV-22B Osprey display combined elements of a fixed wing and a helicopter display. Again, this display was well received by the crowd and showcased the aircraft’s capabilities very well. The Osprey is starting to come into its own now it has entered service in greater numbers, and its statistics are certainly very impressive, offering substantial improvements in performance and load carrying ability over the CH-46 which it has replaced.

Final item in the daylight flying display was the US Navy’s demonstration team, the Blue Angels. The Blue Angels were preceded by the traditional demo from the team’s support aircraft, the specially painted C-130 nicknamed Fat Albert. Fat Albert provides an entertaining and slightly humorous start to the Blues performance, and it was particularly relevant at Miramar; the crew of the C-130 are Marines, drawn from the Marine Corps own KC-130 units.

The Blue Angels themselves gave their standard tight and impressive performance. As usual I was struck by the length of the display; at over 40 minutes it is a feat of physical endurance and concentration which is every bit as impressive as the flying skills on display.

The Blue Angels’ performance marked the end of the daytime flying display, and there was now a pause before the twilight display took place. As previously mentioned, this only takes place on the Saturday, and almost certainly accounts in part for the larger crowd present on that day. Some of the display features items previously seen during the main display, but there are a few night-only performers too, several of whom fly modified aircraft featuring fireworks and other pyrotechnics.

After the third appearance of the day from Sean Tucker, there was a repeat of the earlier AV-8B Harrier display, which took place in the last rays of the setting sun, providing sublime conditions for the opening topside pass.

One of the highlights of the twilight section of the display was an appearance by Dan Buchanan, a paraplegic pilot who flies a microlight display which features fireworks and additional lights. Nightfall brings an altogether different atmosphere to the airfield, which seems quieter and more tranquil. This tranquillity was to be shattered by two final noisy display acts, the first of which was an apocalyptic appearance by the fire-breathing, robotic dinosaur ‘Robosaurus’, which was accompanied by a scary synthesised voice and even scarier heavy metal sound track!

Much more impressive was a series of afterburner flypasts by one of Miramar’s F/A-18 Hornets. The airshow concluded with an impressive fireworks display before a final eyebrow singeing wall of fire, the heat from which could be felt even at the back of the static display area!

This year’s MCAS Miramar Airshow was undoubtedly a great success. With the weekend over 500,000 enthusiastic visitors, the show certainly lived up to its billing as the largest military show in the US. The strong bond between the public and the Marine Corps was constantly in evidence, but never more so than straight after the MAGTF demo – surely the highlight of the show, especially with Miramar being the only place in the area where the public can see such a spectacle.

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