Each autumn, San Francisco celebrates its naval heritage and the current naval operations of the US Navy and its allies. Fleet Week culminates in a large air show held over the bay. Rob Edgcumbe went along for GAR to see what the 2016 version of Fleet Week had on offer.
Fleet Week is about a lot more than just an air show. It is a Week of naval related events in the city of San Francisco. While the US Navy doesn’t have the large presence it used to have in San Francisco Bay, there is still a strong connection with the area. The Week includes a parade of ships in which some naval vessels enter the bay under the Golden Gate Bridge led by a fire boat from the San Francisco Fire Department. Once tied up alongside, a number of the ships are open to the public to tour. As with previous years, a couple of the ships were from the US Navy, one was from the US Coast Guard and another was from the Canadian Navy.
The big crowds gather for the air show. With the displays taking place over the bay, there are a variety of locations along the shoreline from which people can watch depending on how close they want to get to the action. Huge numbers come into the city for the show and traffic across the Bay Bridge gets very heavy as everyone floods into town.
While Fleet Week has a clear nautical theme, the air display includes a wide variety of performers. One constant is the headline performance by the Blue Angels. The rest of the acts covered a wide spectrum. Canada was represented in the ships but also sent an aerial performer. The Hornet demo was making its second appearance in California in just over a week having been a feature of the California Capital Airshow in Sacramento the previous weekend. It has also been at the Wings Over the Wine Country Show before that so is beginning to be a regular sight in California!
Normally displays over the bay can be guaranteed to produce a decent amount of vapour as a result of the humid bay air. This year, though, high temperatures were a feature and there was not much vapour to be seen. The good weather certainly showed off the special scheme on the Canadian Hornet to good effect. The colours are designed to represent the commonwealth training programme that was undertaken in Canada during the war to provide pilots for the air forces of the commonwealth and allies.
The Breitling Jet Team has continued its presence in North America. Their stylishly painted L-39s looked excellent against the backdrop of the bay and Alcatraz during their part of the show. The L-39 is not the fastest jet and so it provides a great platform for keeping a display focused in front of the crowd. The use of the seven jets to split things up and keep something happening at all times is the benefit of a larger team and Breitling took advantage of this well. They even spiced things up nicely with a bunch of flares during some vertical manoeuvres which got a great response from the crowd.
Show openings often start with a parachute display bringing a flag in to the show. This was no exception but, having seen jumps by teams a lot in the past, you might think that they would not innovate much. The Leapfrogs were jumping in for this show and they managed to throw a couple of moves in that I hadn’t seen before. Stacking a couple of jumpers is not new but having one of them inverted was a new one for me. Meanwhile, the traditional flag arrival is below one of the jumpers. Having two people on the spreader of the flag, one at each end, and then flying it through some turns was a nice change. A couple of times they did seem to be heading in slightly different directions from each other but the flag doesn’t stretch much so they couldn’t go far!
A couple of piston aerobatic displays were included in the show. Mike Wiskus put on his usual polished routine. He favours the low passes and displaying over the water adds something to the impact of his performance. Meanwhile, Sean D Tucker displayed his Oracle Challenger. Since Oracle is a Bay Area based company, this is like a home show for the team. Both displays are slightly handicapped by the display line being well out in the bay given the small size of the aircraft but the energy of the displays compensates well and the crowd appeared to enjoy both performers.
Aside from the C-130 from which the Leapfrogs jumped, the main contribution from the USAF was the F-22 Raptor. The Raptor can be an excellent display aircraft so it was with some disappointment that I watched this performance. Let’s not make this sound like the display was poor. However, I feel that the routine this year is not one that delivers for the crowd. The Raptor combines thrust vectoring with advanced flight control systems to allow the aircraft to carry out some very unusual manoeuvres. Unfortunately, this has become the focus of the display.
The F-22 is not the first display to fall into this trap. Since it has unique abilities, it is understandable that the display should show some of this off. However, while some fellow pilots or engineers may be impressed by a sequence of rotations and flips, many people look for a fast jet display to include lots of speed, noise and hard turning. A balance needs to be struck. Having recently watched the USAF F-16 display, that took an aircraft that is fundamentally a 40 year old design yet the passes, fast rolls and max rate turns all meant for an enjoyable show. The F-22 display, in contract, was far too focused on the clever stuff at the expense of the basics. I do appreciate the unusual capabilities but I was bored near the end. There was a fast pass in there but it was after the Heritage Flight section with the P-51 that the F-22 let rip with a fast run in and my immediate thought was “finally!” It isn’t a bad display but it isn’t a good one either.
When you are looking for an unusual air show performer, a wide body jet airliner will be right up there. They do make occasional appearances but Fleet Week seems to have become a regular for the appearance of an airliner. United has a large hub in San Francisco and has been the provider of a contribution for many recent shows. This year it was the turn of the 747-400. The bay provides plenty of space to manoeuvre a jet of this size but it still looks unusual to see one turning around the surrounding hills and coming in from the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is sufficiently large that it appears closer than it is so the planes often look closer than they are. Even so, a 747 approaching from that direction is a cool sight to see. The crew certainly seemed to be enjoying flying the jet in a way that they will rarely get to do.
The Parade of Ships was not the only appearance by the Coast Guard. With an MH-65 Dolphin unit based at San Francisco (recently increased to cover the removal of the LAX based unit), previous years have included a search and rescue demonstration over the water. This year, things were ramped up a bit and to great effect. A three ship formation came in over the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the recently added HC-27J Spartans led the formation with an MH-65 on each wing, one in the retro colour scheme. After an initial pass from the formation, the helicopters broke off to carry out the rescue demo while the Spartan flew additional orbits.
The Dolphins took up positions at opposite ends of the display line and dropped into the hover. Each then dropped a rescue swimmer into the water where they let off a smoke canister. The helicopter then closed back in and lowered the rescue hoist to pick up the swimmer. The crews did a good job of synchronising this demo. They then formed up together again and made a formation pass over Alcatraz and circuit of the bay before heading back out of the Golden Gate. I don’t know whether this will be a regular feature or was to highlight their recent changes in equipment and deployment but it was certainly a big step up from previous years.
The main event for many of the spectators was the appearance of the Blue Angels. Fat Albert is currently in maintenance so there was no display by the C-130 crew. Instead, the display was focused on the six Hornets. They made their usual solid performance. Performing over water seems to make things look a little better for some reason. Certainly, the sneak pass over the bay and past Alcatraz is a high point. The final run of the team in from behind Alcatraz is also popular. Meanwhile, the Golden Gate Bridge is the backdrop to other formations so the whole thing is very photogenic. The crowd certainly seemed happy.
The show took place over three days with the performers (and conditions) varying a little from day to day. However, the result was a fun show for the many thousands of people who made their way to the bay to witness a great (and free) show. Roll on 2017!