Nellis' Golden Air Tattoo
25/26 April 1997: Andrew Bates was there.
As one airshow season ends, and another thankfully approaches, with keen enthusiasts planning their itinerary, it is quite probable that a fair number will start scanning the published dates for North America. With reasonably affordable TransAtlantic airfares available for anyone prepared to shop around, (surfing especially recommended), a trip across the Pond to take in a show or two is now a much more viable proposition. Alternatively, with so many other sights and attractions to choose from, why not combine aviation with tourism to create a holiday to keep the other half happy. Any trip to an American show is likely to reward the enthusiast with some real gems, not usually seen outside the States. For example, whilst familiar aircraft, such as B1B and F/A18C, are always a welcome sight, its amazing how the camera goes into overdrive when confronted with perhaps a T45 Goshawk or T38 Talon in the Smurf Jet blue camouflage. With this in mind, and to whet the appetite for anyone planning such a trip, if we turn the clock back three years, the USAF 50th Anniversary show at Nellis was a prime example of American showmanship at its best.
Billed as the Golden Air Tattoo, to celebrate 50 years of USAF, the combined efforts of both military and civilian operators provided an almost unique gathering of Air Force types, spanning the entire development spectrum during that period. So, upon arrival at Nellis, visitors were greeted with a wellspaced static park, which sprawled across the vast acres of available ramp space. However, for anyone with a desire for photography, an early arrival time, coupled with the ability to run from aircraft to aircraft, was a vital necessity, as the static followed the usual North American trend of no barriers. Effectively, if you hadnt finished the static before Midday, you could forget it! The combination of ever increasing crowds, and ever increasing heat being the deciding factor, although for anyone rushing to finish their photographs, it was perhaps an ideal (but drastic) means of shedding a few pounds following the previous evening of culinary excess in the local diner!
The static contained a wellbalanced display of current in service types, alongside a superb collection of vintage and historic USAF/USAAF aircraft, all of which had been flown in to Nellis by their proud owners. As far as the modern day Air Force was concerned, there were a number of familiar types, such as B52H Stratofortress 600059/LA from 96 BS/2 BW, B1B Lancer 860132/DY from 28 BS/7 BW, C5B Galaxy 840059 from 436 AW, and C141B Starlifter from 60 AMW, whilst one area of the static could boast seven variants of C130 Hercules. However, for some European enthusiasts, some of the static participants held the attention a little longer, as well as putting the camera into overdrive.
Such notable highlights included a trio from 475 WEG, which comprised of E9A 840048/WE, QF4E Phantom 670390, and also QF106A Delta Dart 590043, which was still sporting some interesting artwork and titles from its previous service with the New Jersey ANGs 177 FIG. AETC was well represented and attendees included T1A Jayhawk 950047/XL from 86 FTS/47 FTW, T3A Firefly 940001/N31879/RA from 3 FTS/12 FTW, CT43A 731151/RA from 562 FTS/12 FTW, T37B 667991/EN from 89 FTS/80 FTW, and AT38B Talon 600572/RA from 560 FTS/12 FTW. As an indication of the shape of things to come for AETC, the Raytheon T6A demonstrator N8284M was parked next to the T37B, the aircraft it will ultimately replace.
As far as Black Projects were concerned, Nellis was able to boast a full house in the shape of B2A Spirit 890128/WM 'Spirit of Nebraska' from 393 BS/509 BW, F117A Nighthawk 850830/HO from 9 FS/49 FW, U2S 801073/BB from 99 RS/9 RW, and SR71A Blackbird 6417967/BB from Det. 2 of 9 RW. The B2A and SR71A certainly attracted the attentions of the crowds, with both seemingly thronged with people for most of the day.
Other highlights included NASA YF15B Eagle 710290/N837NA, F4E Phantom 680337/HO from 20 FS/49 FW, which was resplendent in a freshly applied Vietnam style camouflage scheme, and the Calspan Flight Research NT33A 514120. At the time of the show, the NT33A was reported to be the oldest active duty aircraft on the AF inventory, but it was making its last public appearance before final retirement to the museum at Wright Patterson AFB.
Naturally, it was no surprise to see the resident 57 Wing well represented in the static park by A10A Thunderbolt 810958/WA, F15C Eagle 800033/WA, F15E Strike Eagle 860190/WA, and a pair of F16C Fighting Falcons; 900707/WA, and 870321/WA. The latter, from 414 CTS, in an extremely photogenic brown, tan and green aggressor colour scheme. Parked just a short distance from all those Nellis residents, there was another sleek shape to be found adorned with the familiar WA tailcode. Representative of future procurement for 57 Wing, this was one of two YF22A prototypes built and was displayed carrying the false serial 86022. The true identity was actually 870700, which was the aircraft that crash landed at Edwards AFB in 1992, and was subsequently rebuilt to static display standard only. As a consequence, the aircraft arrived at Nellis aboard a C5, and was reported to be also destined for the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson after the show.
Other interesting static participants included E8C JSTARS 923290/WR from 93 ACW, EF111A Raven 660021/CC from 429 ECS/27 FW, and parked next to the Raven, it was no coincidence to see EA6B Prowler 162938/NL620 from VAQ142. Also from the USN was F5E Tiger 741568/46, which appeared to have been purloined by Northrop to promote the Tiger IV, complete with some attractive tail artwork. This presumably being some kind of upgrade to the existing Tiger II airframes.
As far as foreign static participation was concerned, this was confined to a pair of RAF Tornado GR1s, 31 Squadron ZG779/DK and 617 Squadron ZA374/AJW, alongside their support tanker, VC10K2 ZA142/C from 101 Squadron. Whilst immediately behind the RAF contingent was RAAF F111C A8142 from 6 Squadron.
For anyone with an interest in USAF history, the static also contained a rich variety of past aircraft, some individually owned, others operated by syndicates or charitable organisations. However there was one common feature which was clearly obvious, they were all immaculately presented. These included the inevitable warbirds, both fighter and bomber types, with examples of P51D Mustang, P47G Thunderbolt, P38J Lightning and P39Q Airacobra, along with B17G Flying Fortress and TB25N Mitchell, sharing ramp space with their modern day equivalents. Postwar representation included a good selection of trainer and liaison types such as O1A Bird Dog, O2A Super Skymaster, L17 Navion, T34A Mentor, and T28D Trojan. Of the two Trojans present, T28D 513557/NX85228 had a polished metal finish of mirror like appearance, in which you really could see your face reflected in the engine cowling.
Of all the historic types in the static, there were perhaps two of particular interest. Firstly, CF104D Starfighter N104JR (ExCAF 12633) was present as a reminder of possibly the most charismatic of the Century Series Fighters. Whilst this particular example did not see service with the USAF, it had nevertheless enjoyed a varied career, as prior to its civilian service, it had also been operated by the RNAF as 4633. Meanwhile, attracting much attention from the crowds was EC121T Warning Star 530548/N548GF. Operated by the Global Aeronautical Foundation, this magnificent aircraft was most popular by virtue of it being open to public inspection for most of the day.
The flying display itself began in earnest with three paired flypasts of old and new. This comprised of A10A and P40N Warhawk, F15C and P38L Lightning, and finally F16C and P51D Mustang. The display then followed a set pattern of themed flypasts and displays, which were punctuated by the various aerobatic teams that had gathered at Nellis for the occasion. There were a total of five display teams in attendance, one of which, not surprisingly, was the resident Thunderbirds. The remainder comprised of the Halcones from Chile (Extra 300), Esquadrilha da Fumaša or Smoke Squadron from Brazil (T27 Tucano), the Snowbirds from Canada (CT114 Tutor), and Blue Impulse from Japan (Kawasaki T4). The Japanese team was especially welcome as it was making its display debut outside Japan. The aircraft had actually been dismantled and shipped to San Diego, and then reassembled and flown out from North Island NAS. All five teams were noticeably popular with the crowds, with the Blue Impulse and, quite understandably, the Thunderbirds gaining the most applause.
First theme for the day was the trainer review. This included a flypast of PT17, T33A, T37A, T38A, T1A, and seven T6 Texans. Both the transport/tanker and bomber reviews were especially impressive. For the transports this included C46F Commando, C54E Skymaster, C121A Constellation, C130H Hercules, KC135R Stratotanker, C141B Starlifter, C5A Galaxy, KC10A Extender, and C17A Globemaster. The bomber selection comprised of TB25N Mitchell, A26B Invader, B17G Flying Fortress, B24J Liberator, B52H Stratofortress, B1B Lancer, and finally B2A Spirit. For the enthusiasts who took the trouble to attend both days of the show, they were rewarded with a different flying B2A on each day. The Friday flypast included Spirit of Georgia 890129, whilst Saturday saw participation from Spirit of Oklahoma 931085.
Further highlights included a Korean War tribute involving four beautifully restored Sabres, three F86Fs and a Canadair CL13B, which together outnumbered the opposition, which was represented by an equally immaculate Chinese built Mig15 (a Shenyang F2 to be precise). An excellent display was also flown by another 49 FW Phantom in a Vietnam era colour scheme, this being F4E 680531/HO, which was flown by retired Brigadier General Steve Ritchie, a veteran pilot ace, with five confirmed kills to his credit, all Mig21s whilst flying the F4 over Vietnam.
A number of vintage piston engined warbirds performed during the show, which included a dual performance from a Spitfire and a Hispano HA1112 masquerading as a Luftwaffe Bf109. The Spitfire undoubtedly had a number of UK enthusiasts rubbing their eyes in disbelief, as this was none other than Spitfire VB AB910 from the BBMF. Wearing the temporary code XRA to represent 71 (Eagle) Squadron, the aircraft had been dismantled in the UK and flown across to the States in the back of a Hercules especially for the show.
Once again, any visitors who returned on the Saturday were rewarded, with the extra spectacle of witnessing a short display by SR71A 6417971/BB, which had not been available on the Friday. As expected, both days of the show were closed by the Thunderbirds, with their usual combination of outstanding skill and showmanship.
Upon return to our Las Vegas motel, it was evident that a substantial contingent of enthusiasts from the UK had made the effort to attend the show, but regrettably, there appeared to be a number of disappointed souls amongst us. Unfortunately, prior to the show, the spotters grapevine had been working overtime, with abundant tales of massed ranks of anniversary schemed aircraft, or aircraft from every operational unit expected. However, any show should surely be judged on fact, and not on speculation of what might have been. The whole event had provided a spectacle worthy of a 50th Anniversary celebration, with an excellent mix of modern and historic aircraft, some of which are unlikely to be seen beyond the shores of America.
So for the privilege of attending such a prestigious event, the uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking the admission charge was high; $10, $20, maybe even $30? Well, to coin a phrase, it actually cost zip to get in. Not a nickel, not a dime. Another feature common to Stateside airshows. Was I disappointed? A B2A on static, another two flying, SR71A on static, another flying, F117A, QF106A, QF4E, Blue Impulse, Snowbirds, etc, etc...need I continue? Needless to say, the next time I get the opportunity to go to a US airshow, I wont need asking twice.