While USAF demos are flown by dedicated teams with specific aircraft, the Navy TACDEMOs are flown by a small group of fleet instructor pilots who are certified to perform the routine. They take jets from their Fleet Replacement Squadron (VFA-106 “Gladiators” at NAS Oceana in Virginia and VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” at NAS Lemoore in California), perform over the weekend, then return home for training during the week. Previously, VFA-125 “Rough Raiders” performed the F/A-18C demonstrations out of NAS Lemoore, but the unit was merged into VFA-122 in 2010 before converting to the Fleet Replacement Squadron for the new F-35C Lightning II in 2016.
This structure worked fine some years ago, but started to struggle as several factors came up in a short time span. The F/A-18Cs began to be phased out as the Navy replaced them with more Super Hornets. Budget cuts hindered maintenance efforts and jets spent more time on the ground despite high demand. Training is the absolute primary mission of the units and as aircraft wore down, their limited flight time was rightly directed to that mission. Airshow appearances shrunk and popular Legacy Flight performances, which pair one of the modern demonstration jets with one or more vintage Navy aircraft, became a thing of the past.
In 2018, fans were crushed to learn that only seven airshow appearances by VFA-106 – and none by VFA-122 – were approved. Legacy Flights did return, but were only performed by the demo crews at some of those few events. The Navy scheduling process has always been a bit confusing with schedules posted much later than other teams and many late additions, but this was still a shock and begged the question of what would happen in 2019 and beyond. Whispers at the time painted an extremely bleak picture and warned that demos might not even happen in 2019.
As we sit here in February of 2019, we have no further word on specific plans for TACDEMOs in 2019, but we are seeing signs that the Navy’s philosophy on airshow performances is changing. A couple shows, namely St. Louis and the Tacoma Freedom Fair, are advertising Legacy Flight performances where the modern jet will be an E/A-18G Growler instead of a Super Hornet from one of the traditional TACDEMO teams. Other shows are advertising Legacy Flight performances that include a T-45 Goshawk training jet, which has never had a regular airshow presence.
This represents a big shift which airshow fans should appreciate. By spreading the airshow appearances around to units outside of VFA-106 and VFA-122, it reduces the burden faced by any one unit and particularly the training units. It reduces the need for long transit flights by providing options for shows to pursue relatively local units, and it will likely increase the total number of shows that get a Navy performance. It also means greater variety for photographers to capture!
What does this mean for actual, full-up TACDEMOs though? Unfortunately, we’re still in the dark on that one and we may not find out for some time. It’s entirely possible that no full demonstrations will be flown in 2019, though a limited schedule seems more likely. A particularly observant member of our forums pointed out that there is a temporary flight restriction (TFR) posted for NAS Oceana this week, which usually indicates practice Super Hornet demonstrations. That is far from a confirmation that they will be performed in 2019, but it’s certainly not a bad sign!
An easy to overlook update from Air Combat Command has yielded some exciting developments with the Air Force’s single-ship demonstration and Heritage Flight programs!
The update in question is the publishing of the 2019 version of the Demo Team Support Manual; a long document which spells out all of the requirements that airshows must meet in order to host the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and A-10 Thunderbolt II demonstration teams during the season. These details are often mundane and invisible to spectators, like the number of required rental cars and mandated access to a 24/7 fitness center, but the manual does give a glimpse at the many factors that need to be carefully considered when planning an event. The 2019 version includes a couple of noteworthy mentions that will be very noticeable to spectators.
First, the Heritage Flight program is being expanded to include a Northrop F-5 fighter jet! The F-5 is an interesting addition because it was primarily exported to US allies and saw only limited USAF service. It will represent the Vietnam War era previously represented by USAF-operated F-4 Phantom IIs, which did not return to the Heritage Flight program after the 2013 sequestration year shut down all military demonstrations and left active service in 2016. This left the A-1 Skyraider as the only approved participant from that time period. F-5s did fly a couple thousand sorties in Vietnam, but certainly are not closely associated with the war.
The pilots in the program meet at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ every year for the Heritage Flight Conference, a weekend practice session to prepare for the upcoming airshow season. Civilian participation in the Heritage Flight is kept under tight control, and only a small group of specially approved pilots are allowed to fly in them, and only in certain aircraft types. Aside from the F-5, only P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings, P-40 Warhawks, P-47 Thunderbolts, F-86 Sabres, and A-1 Skyraiders are approved. There are several other privately owned fighter jets that could theoretically be included; an F-4 Phantom II flown by the Collings Foundation and a pair of F-100 Super Sabres are the most notable. Sadly, it seems likely that logistics and costs will prevent them from participating any time soon.
An interesting note is that while the F-5 is increasingly flown as a civilian warbird in the US, the US Navy and Marine Corps still actively use versions of the aircraft as aggressors during training and the T-38 Talon advanced trainer that was developed from the F-5 is a mainstay of the Air Force training fleet.
The other interesting takeaway from the support manual update is that pyrotechnics have been approved for use during the F-22 and F-35 demonstrations. The pyro is limited to a wall of fire on the high speed pass only, similar to the limitations already approved for the F-16 demo. The A-10 demo continues to be approved for additional pyro as it includes simulated strafing and bombing attacks in its routine. Most shows do not elect to use pyro with the demos, but it’s great that it will be more available in the future for those that do.
Bernacchi started by explaining why the transition is going forward in the first place. When the Blues began flying Hornets in the late ’80s, significant engineering work was done to modify the jet for airshows. This work applied to the A and B model Hornets. More recently, similar work was done to prepare some older C and D model Hornets for shows as well. These modifications include things like the smoke system and the ability to fly inverted for longer than a stock jet. Although the team has continued to fly these older jets, they are aging and relatively few usable airframes remain eligible for the already approved modifications. In response, the Blues were forced to look at either pursuing younger Legacy Hornets or transitioning to Super Hornets.
Their findings are very interesting. Bernacchi says that even though the Legacy Hornets are now retired from active Navy service – the final operational flight was February 1st – the vast majority of the youngest airframes are earmarked for service with the Marine Corps and Navy Reserves. A middle group of airframes from production lots 13 and 14 were available to the team, but had enough differences from the team’s current aircraft that they required a similar engineering effort for airshow modifications. Surprisingly, the end conclusion was that it would cost roughly the same amount to transition to anything newer than the team’s existing jets, whether moving to newer Legacy Hornets or Super Hornets! The final decision to go to Super Hornets was made this past December.
Here’s a video showing Legacy Hornets and Super Hornets flying side by side:
Bernacchi is also quick to point out that this project will take a backseat to maintaining and upgrading the frontline force, so it may slip due to potential budget cuts or other difficulties. The team can continue performing in their current jets for some time if it does get pushed back, but he was careful to emphasize that the new jets are not combat-ready models and they are not coming from any combat units.
What will the show look like after the transition? Bernacchi and former Blue Angel solo pilot Cdr. Frank “Walleye” Weisser spent time at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland analyzing the aircraft’s capabilities and fit for the team. His verdict after flying maneuvers in a simulator and in real life is that it will work well for the team, but it will require some adjustments. One maneuver – which Bernacchi did not name – is likely to be modified or dropped, but he feels some others will look better than they do now.
One proposal is for the diamond and solos to each drop one maneuver in order to streamline the show and improve the flow during the routine. This would shorten the show slightly, but even just three minutes per flight spread over ten performances (including practices) a week adds up to dozens of hours of airframe time saved each year. Bernacchi says that in addition to vetting the aircraft systems for potential failures, they spent a great deal of time looking into other factors of aircraft fatigue like how certain maneuvers and rejoins are flown. Although he did not go into specifics, he said they came up with a plan to substantially reduce the fatigue impact on the airframes, which will extend their lives with the team.
As our 13th year of airshow coverage comes to a close, we’re taking a look back at another awesome season of aviation and airshows!
Our onboard videos have long been highlights, as they take viewers to all sorts of special places. Whether on the wing of a small aerobatic aircraft, or in the cockpit of a supersonic fighter jet, onboard videos put you in the heart of the action. Here are ten of our favorite onboard videos from 2018!
The US Navy Blue Angels Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before
This footage, released by the DOD, comes from a camera attached to the nose of Blue Angel #1. Watch as the rest of the famous formation team holds position through several maneuvers like the diamond roll and vertical break!
The Pacific Air Forces F-16 Demonstration Team is not that well known in the US, as they are based at Misawa AB in Japan and primarily perform at international events. However, in 2018 they visited Elmendorf AFB in Alaska and borrowed a spectacularly-painted arctic aggressor F-16 for their performances.
We were also fortunate enough to work with the USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II Demonstration Team this year at the Battle Creek Airshow. Strap into the cockpit for the full aerobatic performance and a Heritage Flight with a P-51 Mustang. We have more camera angles to share in the near future as well!
Ferrari vs. MiG-17 Race
Greg Howell, pilot of the Red Stripe MiG-17, sent us this footage of him racing the Precision Exotics Ferrari F430 at the 2018 Cannon AFB Air Show, Space and Tech Fest at Cannon AFB, NM. Watch as Greg swoops in down low right next to the speeding car – who will win the race?
Canadian Snowbirds Tank Cam
The Snowbirds were kind enough to share this tank cam footage with us after their performance at the NAS Oceana Airshow. Tank cam is a special camera housing mounted on the belly on Snowbird #1, providing spectacular views of the formation behind him! It’ll give you a new appreciation for the skill required to keep nine aircraft in formation during these loops and rolls.
Gamebird GB1 Aerobatics
Watching Philipp Steinbach fly the GameBird GB1 from the ground is impressive – the way this new aerobatic design snaps through maneuvers looks a lot more like an RC aircraft than any full size airplane should – but it is even more impressive to see it from this camera on the wingtip. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the crisp starts and stops!
F-18 Hornet Low Level Training and Star Wars Canyon Run
This footage, courtesy of Gotyacovered Photography, comes not from an airshow performance, but from real low level training. Join this F-18 pilot as he races over the trees, climbing and diving to follow the hills at high speed. Watch to the end to see a run through the famous Jedi Transition in Star Wars Canyon!
Low and Slow Over Oshkosh
Finally, enjoy some low and slow flying with a few trips around the ultralight runway traffic pattern at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. This twin-engine AirCam is gigantic compared to some of the other aircraft on display, but it easily drops into the grass strip for some short-field landings. The joy of flying at its most basic!
Remember to subscribe to our Youtube channel for even more onboard videos – we’re adding more all the time!
Here is the 2019 airshow schedule for the Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds! Will you see them in 2019? Let us know! Post in the AirshowStuff Forums or on the AirshowStuff Facebook page and make sure you share pictures after the show!
2019 Canadian Forces Snowbirds Airshow Appearance Schedule
May 18-19: Barksdale Defenders of Liberty Airshow – Barksdale AFB, LA
May 22: TBA
May 25-26: Westmoreland County Airshow – Latrobe, PA
May 29: Carolina Air and Auto Center Open House – Winston Salem, NC
June 1-2: Saint Hubert Air Show – Longueuil, QC
June 8-9: Spectacle Aerien de Val-d’Or – Val D’Or, QC
June 12: Armed Forces Day – North Bay, ON
June 15-16: Ocean City Air Show – Ocean City, MD
June 19: Miramichi Air Show – Miramichi, NB
June 22-23: Bagotville Air Show – Bagotville, QC
June 26: TBA
June 29-30: Barrie Air Show – Barrie, ON
July 1: Canada Day – Parliament Hill, Ottawa, ON (Flyover Only)
July 4: Minot, ND
July 6-7: Saskatchewan Air Show – Moose Jaw, SK
July 20: Boundary Bay Airshow – Delta, BC
July 24: Fort St. John International Air Show – Fort St. John, BC
July 27-28: Wings Over Springbank, Springbank, AB
July 31: Thunder in the Peace Air Show – Peace River, AB
August 3-4: Quensel Skyfest – Quensel, BC
August 7: Pentiction Peach Festival – Pentiction, BC
August 9-11: Abbotsford International Airshow – Abbotsford, BC
August 14: TBA
August 17-18: Edmonton Airshow – Edmonton, AB
August 24-25: Spectacle Aerien de Riviere-du-Loup – Riviere-du-Loup, QC
August 28: Community Charity Airshow – Brantford, ON
August 31-September 2: Canadian International Airshow – Toronto, ON
September 7-8: Aero Gatineau-Ottawa – Gatineau, QC
September 11: Niagara-on-the-Lake – Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
September 13-15: Airshow London – London, ON
September 18: TBA
September 21-22: Peterborough Air Show – Peterborough, ON
September 28-29: Wings Over Wine Country – Santa Rosa, CA
October 5-6: The Great Pacific Airshow – Huntington Beach, CA
October 12-13: Atlanta Airshow – Atlanta Motor Speedway, Atlanta, GA
October 19-20: Wings Over Houston – Houston, TX
When former President George H. W. Bush is buried this week, the US Navy Blue Angels will be with him. On his socks.
The 41st President was well known for his love of colorful socks, often using them to make a statement or support a cause. Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath shared this image on Twitter of the final pair of socks, which feature the iconic Blue Angel delta formation, with smoke on, against a blue sky. Also featured are the Wings of Gold that signify a naval aviator.
The 41st President will be carried to his final rest wearing socks that pay tribute to his lifetime of service, starting as an 18 year-old naval aviator in war. That legacy is now being carried, in part, by the brave, selfless men and women aboard @CVN77_GHWB. #Remembering41pic.twitter.com/OabtK756fO
It’s entirely fitting that Bush will represent the Navy in his grave. After all, he flew 58 combat missions in TBM Avenger torpedo bombers for the US Navy in World War II. He was shot down during an attack mission in 1944 and rescued by a submarine. The final Nimitz-class aircraft carrier to enter Navy service, CVN-77, is named for him.
Aviation continued to play a part in Bush’s life until the very end. The code-word used by family and friends to privately share news of his death was “CAVU”, an aviation acronym for ‘ceiling and visibility unlimited’ that signifies weather that presents no restrictions on flying.
Bush’s legacy as a naval aviator will live on; at least two civilian-owned TBM Avengers bear his name as part of their paint schemes.
I have always been a fan of the Canadian Snowbirds. When I was just getting into airshows, their spectacular bursts were unlike anything I had seen before. As I became more familiar with the industry, their large formation rolls where they pull over the top while pointing right at the crowd stuck out as even more unique. And when I eventually earned my pilot’s certificate and spent some time at formation clinics, I found myself astonished by the difficulty of their many different nine-plane formations.
To this day, the Snowbirds are my absolute favorite airshow performance to watch, and one of the very few that I make sure to see at least once a year. One could say I feel a special connection to the team; they feature prominently in my most powerful airshow memories, and just hearing some of the songs they’ve flown to will bring goosebumps to my arms in an instant.
All of this is to say: when Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer Lt. Michèle Tremblay contacted AirshowStuff last month to talk about a media ride, it was more than just a cool opportunity. The catch was that I would have to get from Michigan to the Oregon International Airshow in Hillsboro, Oregon. Thankfully, the logistics were straight forward and less than two weeks later, I was descending past Mt. Hood on my way into Portland.
I actually beat the team to Hillsboro, and watched the #10 and #11 jets – the advance party – arrive in the Thursday afternoon sun. We got my quick medical check out of the way before the main group of nine jets arrived. The team’s support hauler, a specially-outfitted semi-trailer truck, was already in place. The truck brings all sorts of equipment for the team, including tools, spare parts, bicycles, a Gator four wheeler, and space for luggage that doesn’t fit into the relatively small CT-114 Tutor aircraft.
I knew that the team had performed on the East Coast (Virginia Beach, VA) the weekend before, and we heard how the Canadian Army driver had driven the truck all the way from there to the team’s home base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan for a short three hour stop to reload before finishing the cross country journey. I was thankful for my airline ticket just thinking about it.
The rest of the team arrived with a nine ship flyby, and after a quick debriefing I was told to report the next morning for ejection seat training(!) and other preparations.
The big day arrived, and the four media riders went straight into learning the complex steps required to strap in, and the even more complex steps required to eject or evacuate on the ground. We grabbed flight suits, and were fitted for helmets, oxygen masks, life preservers, and parachutes by the helpful (and patient) technicians.
Once we were all set, we went straight to the briefing room to meet the rest of the team and go over the details of the flight. As a dedicated media opportunity, the team was forgoing their typical Friday practice and instead planned a transit flight just for us. We would take off and head north, then turn west and follow the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, OR. After a flyby there, we would turn south and fly along the coast before turning inland and returning to Hillsboro. Upon arriving back at the airfield the team would perform a site survey to familiarize themselves with the showline and then land.
Unfortunately, the FAA rep at the show incorrectly but adamantly stated that aerobatics could not be performed with passengers. The team grumbled but accepted it. The rest of the briefing covered the weather (clear skies, unlimited visibility), air traffic control, divert airports, and other such details that well-prepared pilots pay attention to. I would be flying with Snowbird #4, Maj. Stephen “Pup” Melanson in the First Line Astern position, right behind the “Boss”.
Outside, we were introduced to the aircraft technicians who would be helping us strap in. Cameras were readied, and soon it was time to mount up. All of our prepared gear was waiting for us, and my awesome (and again, patient) tech Cpl. Brandon Harvey made sure to catch all of the steps I missed. In my defense, when you’re covered in straps and handles that turn on oxygen or deploy a parachute, you tend to double check what you’re pulling!
Pup joined me in the small side-by-side cockpit, and talked me through the startup procedure once all of the pilots had checked in. The jets lined up on the runway in three groups of three, with #6 and #7 on our wings as the middle group. Pup explained the sequence as we rolled down the runway together and all nine aircraft worked to form up on our northbound leg.
The scenery was breathtaking. In the clear afternoon air, we could easily see Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Rainier in the distance while haze filled the valleys below us. The team went through a couple of formation changes as Pup explained the spacing and alignments. Although we didn’t really move around ourselves, the #4 position gave me a great view of the other aircraft moving around on both sides of us. The changes were far more sudden and crisp than other formation flights I’ve been on, but at the same time controlled and smooth. I wouldn’t expect any different from some of the world’s best!
With smoke on, we gave a big sweeping flyover to the citizens of Longview, WA as we turned west. Each aircraft dropped into trail as we descended toward the river, which for the Snowbirds means a follow-the-leader line of nine jets, each with the freedom to maneuver as needed. Pup, knowing I fly, handed me the controls and let me slalom behind the pack ahead of us as we wound down the river. The controls were responsive but not touchy. I felt right at home and I can understand why the aging jet is still perfect for formation displays. The coolest part of the entire flight was when I pulled us into a turn and blasted right through the smoke trail of #3, bobbling slightly as we crossed his wake.
Sadly, my part only lasted a few minutes before we were called to rejoin – a maneuver that included a few violent whips and the hardest G of the flight, probably around 4 or 5. That was the tame version, Pup explained to me; the rejoins during the scripted show are even quicker and tighter.
Back in formation, we did two flybys over Astoria, including a low pass down the runway there before proceeding south along the coast. This was another dose of beautiful scenery, with big bluffs and rocky islands as far down the shoreline as the eye could see. Boss put us into a big 360 degree turn right over Tillamook Rock so that the pilots on each side of the formation could take in the view while also staring at his jet.
We continued a little further south, with a couple more formation changes thrown in. The ocean fell behind us as we climbed up over the hills of the Tillamook State Forest – a bad place to eject, Pup pointed out to me. The team dropped back into trail, and descended into Hillsboro as a line of white dots against the evergreens. The site survey was a quick four passes over the airport, then Pup whipped us back into formation again for a final Big Diamond flyby. The team separated into three groups of three again, and set down smoothly on the runway. Our techs marshaled us into position, perfectly spaced and lined up. My Snowbirds flight had come to an end.
I’m forever grateful to the team for the opportunity to join them and I give special thanks again to Lt. Michèle Tremblay, Maj. Stephen Melanson, and Cpl. Brandon Harvey for their help. If you missed it above, make sure you check out the video of my Snowbird flight!
– Ryan Sundheimer
The Snowbirds have wrapped up their 2018 season, but I highly encourage you to make plans for one of their shows once the 2019 schedule is released in early December. You will be able to find that right here on the AirshowStuff blog, or in our forums.
In an historic moment, the US Navy Blue Angels, US Air Force Thunderbirds, and Canadian Forces Snowbirds joined together in a massive formation yesterday near Lake Erie. The three teams have crossed paths and flown jointly before, but this is believed to be the first and only time that all 21(!) display aircraft have shared the skies together.
The flight was only possible because all three teams are performing relatively close to each other this Labor Day weekend. The Snowbirds and Thunderbirds are in Toronto, ON for the Canadian International Air Show while the Blue Angels are in Cleveland, OH for the Cleveland National Air Show.
Photographer Glenn Watson captured the joint flight from the rear of the formation and all three teams shared these same photos on their social media pages. Hopefully more photos come out from another angle!
The race will be broadcast on FOX at 2:30 PM Eastern time on Sunday, February 18th. Fans near Daytona Beach will likely see the jets flying around earlier in the weekend as well, as they practice (9-10am on Saturday) and take VIPs for media flights.
Keep your eyes to the sky (or more likely, your TV screen) before the kickoff of Super Bowl LII on February 4th – there will be a special US Air Force Heritage Flight flyover for the national anthem! The formation will feature the World War II-era P-51 Mustang “Sierra Sue II” leading two A-10 Warthogs and an F-16 Fighting Falcon.
It’s interesting that any flyover is planned, because the game is being played inside the fully enclosed U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN. Nevertheless, there will hopefully be sufficient coverage for everyone outside of the stadium to enjoy the flight. The game, between the Patriots and the Eagles, is scheduled to start at 6:30 pm eastern time and will be broadcast on NBC.
Sierra Sue II is a combat veteran P-51 that is owned by the Wings of the North museum, located just outside of Minneapolis in Eden Prairie. Heritage Flight-approved pilot Steve Hinton will be at the controls during the flyover.