Tripping in the USA by Gary Stedman
There must be many aviation enthusiasts for whom a visit to the USA is relatively routine, but to an enthusiast who considers a trip to Lincolnshire from Suffolk a long trek, it is rather terrifying. However, with funds from a recent redundancy to burn, I decided to take the plunge and sign on with a group touring the East Coast of the United States back in 1996.
After meeting five seasoned veteran spotters at Heathrow and being led bewildered through the terminal onto the plane (supposedly a new Boeing 777 but what looks like United's most worn-out 747), the two additional engines only just easing the nerves of a first time flyer, the final chapters of Dale Brown's "Storming Heaven" turn out to be the wrong reading material as we approach Washington.
Somehow, we made it across the pond to Dulles, and land in the worst thunderstorm I have ever seen at an airport, which itself doesn't quite look finished. We're booked to visit the F/A18As of VMFA-321 at Andrews AFB the following morning, it's then that I learn the first lesson in aviation touring, keep asking if you can visit the unit next door, although this approach fails with the Columbia ANG F16 outfit, as they're closed for the weekend.
The following morning I learn a second lesson at Oceana NAS; if you are waved through a open gate, keep going, the MPs waving our mini-bus through. The prospect of snapping all those Tomcats to this F14 fanatic when we stop beside the fuel tankers near the taxiway is to good to be true, so sure enough the first jets past are Lossiemouth Tornado GR1Bs to remind me Exercise 'Purple Star' has brought considerable RAF aircraft over the pond. Over the next couple of hours we shoot every F14, F/A18 and Tornado taxying past (to the amusement of some American workmen nearby, our Dutch spotter climbs on top of a tanker to take his photos, and still no reaction!). After finally going quiet we move on, spotting a MP patrol finally talking to the workmen, but it is to late.
Our tour of NAS Norfolk turns out to also include the co-located naval base, but five groans confirm I'm the only member of our group with a naval interest. This apathy soon disappears upon spotting the massive silhouette of the Nimitz class 'Theodore Roosevelt', suprisingly the only carrier present. Our official tour of the NAS ramp becomes very unofficial once our guide is dropped off at the public affairs building.
Next, the highlight of the tour so far; the ramp tour given at MCAS Cherry Point, where a few marine KC130s share the ramp with over a dozen RAF C130Ks, our guide giving us permission to photograph anything with 'Marines' on it, but not to photograph the RAF Herks. The Harrier ramp is enormous, several squadrons being present, along with some RAF GR7s. When granted permission to tour a base's ramp it is sometimes easy to forget to only photograph aircraft of the unit you are with!
The reaction received by European spotters in the US appears to vary greatly, depending on the policy at each base. In general, the Navy and Marines seemed more tolerant than the USAF. At Shaw AFB our group was asked to leave the approach by the USAF police, yet at Seymour-Johnson we toured the newly formed AFRES KC135 unit, special permission also being granted to photograph the 4 FW F15Es from a distance.
At MCAS Beaufort we were told there was no problem photographing the approach although the MP was slightly bewildered as to why anyone would want to! Americans do not seem to share the European enthusiasm for aviation. The biggest surprise of the trip occurred upon arriving back at Andrews Open House a week later, as entry into USAF open days is free! If only this enlightened approach would catch on in the UK. A 400 man parachute drop, a B2 fly by, the Blue Angels and others, all free.
I'll always remember one display; we've all seen Pitts and Sukhois thrown around the sky, but in the US they "do it different", as the national anthem is played over the PA system at the same time! Somehow, I don't think it'll catch on at Duxford!