God bless air shows. Nothing else combines raw power, ear-splitting noise, and mind-blowing precision — all wrapped in titanium balls of pluck — like an American air show.
Who in their right mind would joystick a 12-ton jet propelled by 36,000 pounds of thrust just a few hundred feet above the ground, and execute flips, tumbles, and loops? What kind of disorder does it take to maneuver that jet in formation with just 18 inches separating wingtips?
This year, the 2011 Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show landed on Veterans Day. Every year the Blue Angels — the Navy’s flight demonstration team — caps its annual show schedule with a finale at Naval Air Station Pensacola, its home base.
Established by Admiral Chester Nimitz in 1946 and allegedly named after the Blue Angel nightclub in New York City, the Blue Angels ride the leading edge of aviator virtuosity. If naval aviators are the cream of all flyboys — and anyone who regularly crash-lands a 12-ton fighter on a moving carrier qualifies as cream — then a Blue Angel is the top one percent of that cream.
Example: the Blue Angels don’t wear G-suits, which help jet pilots absorb rapid acceleration forces without blacking out. The suit’s inflating and deflating air bladders interfere with the pilots control during precision maneuvers. So Blue Angels pilots, who have flown the F/A-18 Hornet since 1986, must anticipate these forces and combat them with muscle contractions.
This year’s Homecoming exhibition not only commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Blue Angels, it marked the 100th anniversary of naval aviation itself. On January 18, 1911, aviation pioneer Eugene Burton Ely flew his Curtiss pusher biplane from an airfield at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, and landed it on a platform affixed to the USS Pennsylvania anchored in San Francisco Bay. Ely’s flight was the first successful shipboard landing, and the first ever to use a tailhook system. A replica of the Ely’s pusher biplane, which sputtered around the Pensacola airfield at 55 miles per hour, made an appearance at this year’s homecoming.
In addition to tumbling Stearman biplanes and performances by World War II warbirds, the show featured an aerial acrobatic display by the A-10 Thunderbolt aka Warthog. The Warthog is Essentially a 30mm rotary cannon wrapped in a jet, a design focused on interdicting Soviet tanks in Western Europe. It was slated for decommissioning in the early 1990s until Saddam Hussein intervened to save it by invading Kuwait.
Introduced in 1977 and deployed in combat for the first time during Desert Storm, the Warthog wiped out 900 Iraqi tanks and thousands of military vehicles and artillery pieces. It’s been a staple in the U.S. Air Force arsenal ever since. The Warthog is expected to stick around until 2028.
A Japanese Zero and a Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” torpedo also buzzed the airfield during the Homecoming. But these Japanese war birds weren’t the real things. The terms of the August 1945 surrender agreement between the U.S. and Japan called for the destruction of all offensive Japanese weapons. Only three authentic Zeros exist, recovered and restored wrecks from crashes in the Pacific.
These versions were actually American planes — a North American SNJ T-6 Texan trainer as the Zero and a BT-13 Valiant trainer as the Kate torpedo bomber. These examples were among several modified by 20th Century Fox (at $20,000 a copy) to mimic the Japanese combat aircraft in the 1970 Pearl Harbor attack film Tora! Tora! Tora! Fox’s $25 million production budget actually surpassed the cost (to Japanese) of Pearl Harbor attack itself.
But perhaps the best show depiction of distinctively American brazenness is Les Shockley’s Super Shockwave. The Super Shockwave is a 1957 Chevy truck with two J-34 jet engines strapped to its rear. The fire-spitting, smoke-puffing Super Shockwave generates 10,000 pounds of thrust and can hit speeds of 336 miles per hour. Before he hit the runway for his Saturday performance, a fire-suited Shockley sat in the truck cab bemoaning the economic wreckage wrought by Pelosi-Obama. The side of his jet truck reads “Sponsor Wanted.”
So get yourself to a Blue Angels Airshow in 2012. In this era of military budget cuts, it won’t be long before the Blue Angels are nothing but a squad of drones flown by pilots in double-wides in Vegas.