The Last Fightertown Airshow

With San Diego's NAS Miramar (a.k.a "Fightertown USA") about to be turned over to the Marines, and with its famous "Top Gun" school moving to the Nevada desert, this year's Miramar airshow was something of a historic event. Our man-on-the-scene flew his Bellanca Super Viking there and spent four days watching - and drinking beer with - the best of the best American pilots.


Myairplane and I spent the last four days as part of the static display at NAS Miramar.Miramar’s nickname is "Fightertown" and it’s the home of Top Gun….where thebest of the best American pilots go to train. At least it has been since the end of WWII.This was the last Navy-sponsored air show at Miramar. As part of the BRAC allignment, theMarines take over Miramar next year when El Toro closes. The Marines haven’t decided yetwhat the future of airshows at USMCAS Miramar will be.

My wife and I and some friends drove to last year’s show. Because traffic was so jammedafter the show, we decided to stroll through the static displays. I had always figuredthat in order to get an invitation to fly into the show you needed to be US Navy, andprobably an Admiral, but the pilots last year told us that they had just called the baseand said they wanted to fly in…!

They said the best thing about flying in was the party Friday night, where all thevisiting pilots hangar fly over a few beers.

Well, they were half right. It turns out there’s a party every night, and night isloosely defined as 8 hours before you have to climb in your airplane. I’m convinced we wondesert storm so fast because the Muslim leadership of Saudi Arabia wouldn’t let the UStroops drink beer. Hannibal used to get his troops drunk so they’d be brave enough tofight. Schwartzkopf told ’em "let’s kick some ass and go home so we can drink likesoldiers again!"

Permission and paperwork

I called the base in March and talked to the USMC Captain in charge of the transientline at Miramar. I was prepared to answer the question of my lack of military service byexplaining my student deferment, my high number in the draft lottery and the controversyabout the shape of the table at the Paris peace talks. I had quotes from Kissinger andJane Fonda to back me up.

He didn’t ask. He just said "tell me about your airplane". I said,"well, the wings are made of wood…" and that’s as far as I got. He said"give me your address and I’ll mail you the paperwork". I was ready for an oralexam and this was pass/fail.

The FAA is the largest (soon to be only) consumer of vacuum tubes in the world.

Apparently the Department of Defense is the largest consumer of typewriter ribbons,because every form I got was TYPED! Either that, or they had somebody design a font thatlooks like your grandmother’s old Underwood. It blows my mind to think of the hundreds ofmillions of dollars in airplanes and fuel we spend to run just one airbase for one day,but nobody can find a thousand dollars for a PC for this guy’s secretary’s desk.Incredible!

The paperwork for permission to land on a military base was not as complicated as Iexpected. Basically, insurance is what they care about. As I was filling out the forms, Iwondered how much insurance I should have in case I ran into the F-117 in stealth mode.Somebody gets to find out. After the twilight show on Saturday, some knucklehead in aUhaul grazed the wing of the B1 bomber. No kidding.

They were offering rooms and because I remembered the traffic being such a hassle, Idecided it might be nice to have a room on the base for the 4 days.

Somehow we wound up in the barracks with the brass, and most of the other visitingpilots wound up in the enlisted quarters. The double bed/private bath/cable TV room we gotwas the envy of everybody we talked to.

Flying into NAS Miramar

Miramar is only about a 10 minute flight from Palomar, where I keep my plane.

Because I had never been to Miramar, I asked the Socal approach controller to set me upfor arrival. He guided me toward Black Mountain (no relation to Black’s Beach) and told meto call the tower there. I anticipated having to get behind an L-19 or a Stearman, orhaving an F-14 in trail, or some interesting airshow traffic situation.

The Viking is perfect when that happens. If I have to, I can fly 150 knots to thenumbers and with Miramar’s 12,000 foot runway, dump the gear and flaps and easily slowdown and land. That comes in handy if there’s a jet in trail. Or I can slow to 70 knotsand follow slower traffic without running over them. I was psyched up for eithercircumstance, and felt a little disappointed when the controller cleared me to land with ashort approach from 3 miles out.

I’ve landed at lots of airports which have runways almost as long as Miramar’s, so thatwasn’t such a big deal. But it was the first time I’ve ever heard the phrase"arresting gear is disabled" in my landing clearance. I guess that would ruinyour day. It sort of reminded me of the time an Alaskan unicom said "wind calm,caution, moose reported near the runway 5 minutes ago."

I must’ve checked the gear a hundred times for fear of seeing "the 1996 MiramarAirshow had to be cancelled today because some idiot named Joe Godfrey put a big dent inthe runway because he was so jazzed about landing at Miramar he forgot to put his wheelsdown!" in the paper. 3 down and locked. Better look again. Yep, still 3 down andlocked. My landing was excellent. Heard the horn and the tire squeak at the same time. Toobad there was nobody in those grandstands to see it.

Ground said "taxi all the way to the end, turn left and look for the truck".I did. There was no truck. Actually, there were dozens of trucks, all parked, some withflashing yellow lights. None of them said the traditional "FOLLOW ME" on themand none of them were moving. I sat, and sat, and sat. Finally I asked ground if I couldjust shut down somwhere and move it later if I had to. Ground said sure. Ground probablyfigured I didn’t know who he was and by the time the guy in the alleged FOLLOW ME truckfigured out who told me to park there ground’d be home in bed.

The military seems to operate under the philosphy of "not on my watch".Unlike the private sector, there is no incentive for anyone to do something faster orcheaper or more excellently. They’re just trying not to screw it up, or at least not toget blamed for the screwup. If the screwup happens down the line, everyone breathes a sighof relief that it didn’t happen on their watch. Four days of this philosophy drives anentrepreneur crazy.

It turns out that the place I stumbled into was just about perfect. By the nextmorning, I was on the end of a row with a KC-130, a FEDEX DC-10, the Red Baron Pizzahotair balloon, the Red Cross shade, sunscreen and icewater tent, and a line ofportapotties all within an easy walk. Advice to future exhibitors: in a sea of airplanes,big, tall things help people find you. The balloon was ideal.

The FEDEX logo on the 10 was nice, too. And when they find you sooner or later they’llwant icewater and a potty.

Sign this

I chocked and walked to the transient line shack. More paperwork. "Sign this.

Sign this. Read this. Take one of these, you’ll need two of these, sign this if youplan to bunk here, sign this for the wristband you’ll need if you plan to eat while you’rehere"….it was easier to buy my house!

All of this in pencil on a yellow legal pad. If they keep it, somewhere there’s a hugebuilding of all this crap taking up space. If they don’t keep it, they just have to startall over from scratch next year. Does everybody in the military keep their Christmas cardlist on a yellow legal pad?

Schmoozing with "the best of the best"

At the party, I ran into 4 guys from Phoenix who flew 2 Yaks in formation. I met acouple from Chicago-a 737 Captain married to a senior flight attendant for AmericanAirlines. He flies the route from Miami to Cali, where AA lost an airplane last year. Theycame in their T-28 which burns 50 gallons an hour in cruise. I met people from Oregon,Northern California, two people I had met at Palomar who moved to Colorado Springs, andlots of people based at Chino. I met the people who run the flying club at NAS NorthIsland and promised to trade a ride in the Viking for a ride in their T-34 (my secondfavorite airplane).

I sanded my rusty German with 2 German Luftwaffe pilots who flew in from New Mexico intheir Tornado at Mach .9. There were lots of Canadian pilots. The most fun guys were 3guys one row over from me that flew in a C-90 King Air. I was thinking..I don’t think I’veever met a grouchy Canadian. At least one from west of Montreal. And I finally met a guyfrom Palomar that I used to see a lot because we got our instrument ratings from the sameguy. I use my rating to dink around in the clouds once in a while. He used his to get ajob towing targets behind a Lear 35 for Phoenix Air while Tomcats shoot live ammo at him.

I lied and told both Sean Tucker and Wayne Handley that they were the best I’d everseen. Truth is they are. Who’s better…Rembrandt or Van Gogh? Jeff Beck or Eddie VanHalen? Or Segovia? When you reach that level of excellence, comparisons seem meaningless.

They were there, having a beer, anxious to talk flying with other pilots like theyprobably do every other night of the year. The Blue Angel crew was there, but the Angelsthemselves declined to appear. I guess while they’re technically not forbidden to party,it’s just not done. There were a lot of scantily clad women there who would’ve been verykind to a Blue Angel. What’s the aviation equivalent of "Baseball Annie"? Ormaybe they suffer from "headline-o-phobia" too…."Elite Navy Pilots seenin bar before crash".

When I knew I was going to be on the line, I called Bellanca and told Ben (the customerrelations guy) that I’d be happy to display anything they wanted to send to the estimatedmillion people that were expected at the show. I figured they’d be delighted to tell theBellanca story, for free no less. You would’ve thought I had asked Ben to donate a kidney.He said he’d think about it and I never heard another word. It’s too bad that such a greatairplane is made by a company that can’t seem to get out of its own way. At the last AOPAshow, their showplane was a green and yellow number that had to be the ugliest paintscheme I’ve ever seen this side of a Mexican taxi. I guess they expect to grow theircustomer base from that tiny little ad in the Trade-A-Plane every issue. Okay, fine.

The best of the best show their stuff

At the airshows Friday, Saturday and Sunday I saw a lot of things I’d seen many timesbefore. Typically airshow performers are of the "now watch me do this" type.They get 10 or 15 minutes by themselves to show off (unless they’re Bob Hoover then theyget forever). Tucker, Handley, Joanne Osterud, The Red Baron Stearmans, the F-16 demo, theF-14 demo, the F-18D demo, the AV-8 (Harrier) demo, Delmar Benjamin in the Gee Bee, JimmyFranklin’s wingwalker act, Jimmy Franklin’s drunk-pilot act, the jet car, the jet truck,and lots of parachute jumping. I saw some new things, too. I had never seen Bill Reesman’sMIG before. He was impressive. I had never seen aerobatics in a Beech 18. Bobby Yonkin’sshow was impressive. And I had never seen aerobatics in a glider. Dan Buchanan did a greatshow.

Then I also saw something new AND different. This time, Tucker, Handley, Piggott,Osterud, Benjamin, and the dueling R-22 helicopters worked out an act together. It lookedlike a jam session in the sky, although each move had been carefully staged. It wasn’tprecision formation flying, it was what each of them do, only they did it together. It wasneat to see what’s traditionally been a solo sport become a team sport for a little while.

I don’t mean to diss the Blue Angels. They’re a thousand times the pilot I’ll ever be.But IMHO the Canadian Snowbirds put on a better show. First of all, 9 of something is moreimpressive than 6 of something. And most of the Angels’s show is 4 guys doing somethingtogether while 2 guys do something else in mirror image. They fly F/A-18’s, but theirclaim to fame is that they do a dirty diamond loop (dirty means gear and tailhook extendedand diamond means in formation). Big deal. Everybody that wants to see this airplane goSLOWER raise your hand!

The Birds split into threes, and twos, and they go fast a lot. It’s just a moreinteresting performance. Plus, I played poker with one of them in Reno, so I know they’renot above mingling with flib drivers.

Having said that …

The Angels provided me with two moments I’ll never forget. One is their C-130 crewplane’s JATO (jet-assisted-take-off) demo. To see this apartment-building-sized airplaneleap into the sky under the power of 8 rockets is truly amazing. The other moment was justone of those unpredictable moments.

Time to go

When I filled out the original paperwork, they had offered to refuel my airplane. Theflight from Palomar takes about 1/6 of an hour and I burn about 14 gallons an hour. Ithardly paid to pull the truck up for that amount. But when I checked in, they asked me howmuch I could hold. I was carrying about an hour’s worth, so I could take about 60 gallons.They said, "We were expecting 2 Lockheed Constellations and since we’ve only got onewe have a lot of extra 100LL, so would it be okay if we topped you off? We really don’thave any place to store all this avgas." I thought of the taxes I pay every April andfigured maybe it was time Sam gave me something back. (Getting a free tank of gas wouldalmost qualify as a "moment", but what happened is much more exciting.)

They only fuel airplanes when there are no civilians around. Since people startarriving for the airshow about 7AM, this meant waiting until the field was clear. I missedthem when they came by Friday and Saturday, so I had to wait until everybody left afterthe Sunday show.

I watched as the Yaks left for Phoenix, the Mooney left for Sedona as an overnight stopfor Colorado Springs, and the Chino-based planes took off.

Watching the parade of takeoffs I realized how much I like single engine piston drivenpropeller airplanes. If somebody gave me a G-IV, I’d probably trade it for a Viking, aBonanza, a Stinson, a Howard, a Waco or a 195…or one of each.

As I was listening to planes take off, I thought about airport noise. I attempt to flyquietly. Sometimes the wind and the Viking cooperate, sometimes they don’t. If I’ve got 4people and gas I’d rather make a little extra prop noise for a few seconds on climboutthan that awful noise an airplane makes when it stalls and hits a house. After years ofdealing with the restrictive noise abatement rules of Santa Monica, Torrance and JohnWayne, it was nice to finally take off from an airfield where noise is not an issue.

While I was waiting for fuel I watched the "FOD (foreign object damage)walk".

About a hundred men (I didn’t see any women) walk abreast in one big line from one endof the field to the other, picking up anything and everything that a turbine engine couldingest and cough on. Crumpled cups, paper scraps, fingernails, you name it. A human vacuumcleaner.

Where’s my @#%&! camera?

The other "moment" is one I’ll remember forever. After I got fuel, I taxiedto 24 for takeoff. All of the visiting military aircraft were staying over for one morenight of hangar flying and beer (sure beats work) and almost all of the piston drivers hadalready left. I shared the runup with a T-28 based at Chino and two Beech 18’s based atRialto. I had just finished my runup, stowed my checklist, switched to tower frequency andtaxied up to the hold short line when I looked west into the setting sun to see 2 F/A-18’scoming down the taxiway. "Miramar Tower, Blue Angel 6 flight ready at the end"."Blue Angel 6 flight of 2 cleared for takeoff…see you next year". With that,Blue Angels 6 and 3 rolled into position right in front of me, lit the afterburners, anddid a formation takeoff. As they did, Blue Angels 5 and 4 each called "ready at theend" and were cleared for individual takeoffs.

There I was, sitting in my little airplane, waiting to take off, watching out thewindscreen as 4 of 7 (they always carry a spare) of the Blue Angels took off from the lastNavy airshow at NAS Miramar, and my camera was packed away in the baggage compartment. I’mgoing to try and get the tower tapes so I have a permanent reminder of what I saw andheard, but remember this. Always, always, always keep a camera within reach. Somewonderful moment may happen out of the Blue to turn the most routine 8 minute flight intoone you’ll never forget.

In the dusk, with my dirty windshield, it wouldn’t have been a postcard shot.

Still, I wish I had the picture to put right here!

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(Just isn’t the same, is it?)

They cleared me into position as Angel 4 started to roll, and I quickly reviewed therules for wake turbulence and jet blasts. Heavy, clean and slow….well, he’s not heavy,and while he may be clean, he’s definitely not slow. And if Newton’s law is still ineffect, the jet blast has to be moving as fast that way as he moved that way. I never felta thing.

Soon the moment was over and it was time for business. "Bellanca 14709, clearedfor takeoff report clear to the north…see you next year, sir"."Bellanca 709will call clear north…see you next year, sir."

I sure hope so!