As is often the case, the focus of the local media coverage of the NAS Jacksonville Airshow this weekend was on the Blue Angels. That’s appropriate, given the celebration this year of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Naval Aviation, and the spectacular show the Blues fly. On my “bucket list” is an opportunity to strap into the back seat of an F/A-18 Hornet and merrily lose my lunch pulling multiple “G’s” … one of the ultimate “E-Ticket” rides. About the only thing that would rival it would be a $200,000 sub-orbital flight with Virgin Galactic, or one of the other commercial spaceflight companies that will be coming along in the next few years.
That photo, BTW, is of the first-ever landing of an airplane on the deck of a ship … a Curtiss Pusher landing on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in 1911.
But sometimes overlooked are the other performers that fly at airshows like NAS, or the Sky and Sea Spectacular out at the beach, or hundreds of other airshows around the country. The Blues are the big draw, or course, and an opportunity to see them should not be missed. But neither should the rest.
I accepted an invitation from some good friends at the Chamber of Commerce to attend Friday’s practice show. Driving out to NAS on a chilly, breezy, grey morning, I crossed the Buckman Bridge hoping the weather would lift enough to allow the performers to fly. As I topped the bridge, could see the edge of the weather pushing to the east, and I knew that we’d see some great flying.
And we did. I enjoyed very much watching the demonstrations by an F-4 Phantom, an airplane we were told by the show announcer would be ending its life as a target drone in a live-fire exercise. A real shame, really, because the thunder it created as it pulled up from the runway in full afterburner showed there is still a lot of life left in the Vietnam-era supersonic fighter. Also impressive was the A-10 Thunderbolt, … the “Warthog” which found new life in the “shooting gallery” of the first Gulf war, and will continue to fly for decades to come in close-air support. “The Horsemen” flew formation aerobatics in a pair of P-51s, perhaps the most-recognizable airplane from WWII. No ballet is more elegantly choreographed.
But as a (admittedly not current) GA pilot, the small airplanes and the pilots who fly them, are equally impressive.
The show opened with a routine flown by Skip Stewart in his Prometheus biplane, a modified Pitts S-2S which is something of a cross between a Ferrari and a muscle car. Stewart executed a quarter snap roll immediately after his wheels left the ground and gave us a low pass past airshow center in a knife-edge configuration … a testament to the abilities of both the airplane and the pilot. Here, he’s about to cut the second of two ribbons suspended between two poles about 30 feet off the ground with the horizontal stabilizer of the airplane, which at this attitude becomes the vertical stabilizer. The picture really doesn’t do it justice.
Also flying in the morning was three-time National Aerobatic Champion Patty Wagstaff. Patty is an inductee in both the National Aerobatics Hall of Fame and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Her Extra 300S airplane spends as much time upside down as right side up, at least when it’s flying. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Patty at a couple of aviation events, though she probably wouldn’t know me from Adam’s cat. At one point, one of the other spectators watching Patty fly said “I’d never get into that airplane.” My response was “I’d fly with her any day, any time,” and I meant it.
Unfortunately, I had to leave the base around noon to get back to the deadline work that was piling up in my inbox for Friday.
The Blue Angels deserve the accolades they receive. They are a among the most elite pilots flying anywhere, and what they can accomplish in those jets is a thing of beauty. But just as impressive is the caliber of pilots and acts that fly at airshows around the country every year. We’re fortunate that they came to perform here.