San Francisco has a long history with the US Navy. While many of the local naval facilities have now closed down, the city still celebrates Fleet Week every year. Rob Edgcumbe went along for GAR to see the centrepiece of the event, the air show held over the bay. Additional images from Mike Shreeve.
The airshow for Fleet Week is held over three days at the end of Fleet Week itself. The Friday show incorporates a parade of warships prior to the airshow, while the weekend is focused on the flying. These are the days that attract the largest crowds. However, choosing a day is a gamble. San Francisco is famous for its erratic weather. The bay can develop thick fog with ease and cloud cover can be a regular feature of the city.
This year was no exception with a clear day on Friday, Saturday starting out with fog and cloud that cleared out before the flying started and Sunday saw fog near the bridge but not in the display box. Thankfully, therefore, the weather was not poor enough to stop the flying on any of the days, unlike 2014 when some of the flying was curtailed by a very low overcast.
The warship parade included US Navy warships, a Coast Guard ship and a guest warship from Canada. The ships start out in the open sea and come in through the Golden Gate under the bridge, led by a fireboat from the city. They pass the crowds in front of Alcatraz Island before heading around to tie up at their piers. The ships are then available for the public to visit for the remainder of the weekend.
With the ships gone, the flying commenced. The show was opened by the US Navy’s Leapfrog parachute display team. Jumping from the Blue Angels’ Fat Albert C-130 on the Friday and from an Air National Guard C-130 over the weekend, the team formed up into a number of formations once they were under canopies. These include their trademark diamond four stack as well as a pair linking legs and spiralling towards the ground, splitting just in time for landing. Their landing zone was near Crissy Field, where the majority of the spectators were gathered.
Speed was increased with the arrival of ‘Ace Maker II’. Flown by Greg “Wired” Colyer, this is his second T-33 aircraft. With displays being flown on both coasts, Colyer has decided to add a second jet and keep one on each coast. This avoids the cost and time of ferrying them across country and allows him to display at more locations each year. The T-33 is not a large aircraft and the size of the bay and the location of the display axis a little offshore means that the routine feels a little distant. This is a bit of a theme for Fleet Week. There is a corridor close to the shore that is available for boat traffic to continue to move, which keeps the displays a bit further away. Also, the display centre seems to be placed a long way from the main spectator area, which can be a bit frustrating. Colyer’s display was up to his usual standard, though. The distance issue is not his to control.
The Red Stars team brought their CJ-6 four-ship formation for a sequence of passes across the bay. The team is quite local to San Francisco and are regulars at local aviation events. Three piston aerobatic displays were also part of the programme. Matt Chapman put together a good routine with his Extra. Previously, Chapman has flown a CAP and the change to the Extra seems to have opened a number of new opportunities up for him. This has resulted in a more dynamic routine and, while the distance was even more of an issue for the smaller piston types, he put on a flowing and energetic display with some of the limits of the Extra’s controllability demonstrated.
Mike Wiskus brought his significantly upgraded Pitts. While his display does make a lot of use of the manoeuvrability of the aircraft and the power from the big engine he has fitted, a lot of his routine focuses on very low flying over the water. From the shore, the boats provide a good idea of how low he operates. Meanwhile, you can compare Wiskus with Sean Tucker’s display in his Oracle Challenger. Tucker has a well-rehearsed routine the combines a lot of power with controllability in extreme attitudes. Both flew well but were still hampered by the distance from the crowd.
In between these displays, a more unusual participant was provided by one of the sponsors of the event, United Airlines. San Francisco is a major base for United and they have been a regular feature of the show, bringing an airliner to fly a number of passes through the air show box. This year they brought a Boeing 757 to fly the display. While it might not have the agility of other displays, the novelty of an airliner making passes in different configurations and pulling up in to some steep climbs is a fun addition.
The Patriots jet team fly their L-39 Albatros jets through a great routine. Unfortunately, they did not perform on all days and they were missed on the day that they did not fly. Whether this was due to scheduling issues or a technical problem was not identified at the time.
The finale on all days is a performance by the Blue Angels. The team was operating from Oakland International Airport which meant that some aspects of the show, including the ground performance, were not seen by the spectators. Personally, I think this is a benefit since the ground portion takes a long time and does not add a great deal. The flying is what everyone wants to see and that is what Fleet Week gets.
As usual, the sequence started out with the USMC C-130, Fat Albert, carrying out its display. The background of the bay with Alcatraz behind the majority of the sequence provided a great location for the Hercules crew to carry out their display. Some nice low flying over the water combined with the usual steep climbs and tight turns makes for a fun solo. What everyone is really waiting for, though, is the arrival of the six F/A-18 Hornets.
The mix of jets in the display varies a lot. The aircraft available to the team are some of the oldest jets in the fleet and serviceability can sometimes be a struggle. Some swift swaps of airframe are not unknown. Friday’s display included the twin-seat jet marked as Number 7, although this may have been an opportunity to get some back seat time for new team members.
The team flew a good routine. Some looseness in the formation showed up a couple of times but on the whole, they demonstrated the tight flying that is the hallmark of Blue Angels displays. The four-ship and the echelon formation involve some of the closest proximity you are likely to see from a display team. Meanwhile, the pair put on a good selection of crossing and formation passes. The mirror formation was not as tight and this might be a function of the choice of display centre and the distance from the shore. One of the favourites for the pair is the sneak passes. Taking the jet low over the water at high transonic speeds looks great. The bay can often have a high level of relative humidity resulting in some good vapour clouds on the sneak jet, but the Friday must have been dry and the jet stayed clear of vapour. However, the background does provide some good photographic opportunities to see the shockwaves forming around the airframe.
The climax of the display is a sequence involving all six aircraft in some vertical splits, formation merges at display centre and then a break taking place over Alcatraz prior to the formation joining up one last time to run along the shore and return to Oakland. The tightness of the display was good and the crowds seemed to respond well to the performance.
While the military displays have resumed post-sequestration, the number of fast jet displays is still limited and events don’t have access to much variety. Instead, they have focused on getting other displays to fill the gap. Fleet Week seems to have done a reasonable job of this and continues to draw big crowds to its picturesque location.