The Last Fightertown Airshow

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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.

My airplane 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 the best 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, the Marines take over Miramar next year when El Toro closes. The Marines haven't decided yet what 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 jammed after the show, we decided to stroll through the static displays. I had always figured that in order to get an invitation to fly into the show you needed to be US Navy, and probably an Admiral, but the pilots last year told us that they had just called the base and said they wanted to fly!

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

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

Permission and paperwork

I called the base in March and talked to the USMC Captain in charge of the transient line at Miramar. I was prepared to answer the question of my lack of military service by explaining my student deferment, my high number in the draft lottery and the controversy about the shape of the table at the Paris peace talks. I had quotes from Kissinger and Jane 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 oral exam 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 that looks like your grandmother's old Underwood. It blows my mind to think of the hundreds of millions 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 I expected. Basically, insurance is what they care about. As I was filling out the forms, I wondered 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 a Uhaul grazed the wing of the B1 bomber. No kidding.

They were offering rooms and because I remembered the traffic being such a hassle, I decided 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 visiting pilots wound up in the enlisted quarters. The double bed/private bath/cable TV room we got was 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 up for arrival. He guided me toward Black Mountain (no relation to Black's Beach) and told me to call the tower there. I anticipated having to get behind an L-19 or a Stearman, or having 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 the numbers and with Miramar's 12,000 foot runway, dump the gear and flaps and easily slow down and land. That comes in handy if there's a jet in trail. Or I can slow to 70 knots and follow slower traffic without running over them. I was psyched up for either circumstance, and felt a little disappointed when the controller cleared me to land with a short approach from 3 miles out.

I've landed at lots of airports which have runways almost as long as Miramar's, so that wasn'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 ruin your 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 Miramar Airshow had to be cancelled today because some idiot named Joe Godfrey put a big dent in the runway because he was so jazzed about landing at Miramar he forgot to put his wheels down!" in the paper. 3 down and locked. Better look again. Yep, still 3 down and locked. My landing was excellent. Heard the horn and the tire squeak at the same time. Too bad 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 with flashing yellow lights. None of them said the traditional "FOLLOW ME" on them and none of them were moving. I sat, and sat, and sat. Finally I asked ground if I could just shut down somwhere and move it later if I had to. Ground said sure. Ground probably figured I didn't know who he was and by the time the guy in the alleged FOLLOW ME truck figured 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 or cheaper or more excellently. They're just trying not to screw it up, or at least not to get blamed for the screwup. If the screwup happens down the line, everyone breathes a sigh of relief that it didn't happen on their watch. Four days of this philosophy drives an entrepreneur crazy.

It turns out that the place I stumbled into was just about perfect. By the next morning, I was on the end of a row with a KC-130, a FEDEX DC-10, the Red Baron Pizza hotair balloon, the Red Cross shade, sunscreen and icewater tent, and a line of portapotties 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'll want 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 you plan to bunk here, sign this for the wristband you'll need if you plan to eat while you're here" was easier to buy my house!

All of this in pencil on a yellow legal pad. If they keep it, somewhere there's a huge building of all this crap taking up space. If they don't keep it, they just have to start all over from scratch next year. Does everybody in the military keep their Christmas card list 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 a couple from Chicago-a 737 Captain married to a senior flight attendant for American Airlines. He flies the route from Miami to Cali, where AA lost an airplane last year. They came 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, and lots of people based at Chino. I met the people who run the flying club at NAS North Island and promised to trade a ride in the Viking for a ride in their T-34 (my second favorite airplane).

I sanded my rusty German with 2 German Luftwaffe pilots who flew in from New Mexico in their Tornado at Mach .9. There were lots of Canadian pilots. The most fun guys were 3 guys one row over from me that flew in a C-90 King Air. I was thinking..I don't think I've ever met a grouchy Canadian. At least one from west of Montreal. And I finally met a guy from Palomar that I used to see a lot because we got our instrument ratings from the same guy. I use my rating to dink around in the clouds once in a while. He used his to get a job 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 ever seen. Truth is they are. Who's better...Rembrandt or Van Gogh? Jeff Beck or Eddie Van Halen? 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 they probably do every other night of the year. The Blue Angel crew was there, but the Angels themselves 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 very kind to a Blue Angel. What's the aviation equivalent of "Baseball Annie"? Or maybe they suffer from "headline-o-phobia" too...."Elite Navy Pilots seen in bar before crash".

When I knew I was going to be on the line, I called Bellanca and told Ben (the customer relations guy) that I'd be happy to display anything they wanted to send to the estimated million people that were expected at the show. I figured they'd be delighted to tell the Bellanca 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 great airplane is made by a company that can't seem to get out of its own way. At the last AOPA show, their showplane was a green and yellow number that had to be the ugliest paint scheme I've ever seen this side of a Mexican taxi. I guess they expect to grow their customer 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 times before. 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 they get forever). Tucker, Handley, Joanne Osterud, The Red Baron Stearmans, the F-16 demo, the F-14 demo, the F-18D demo, the AV-8 (Harrier) demo, Delmar Benjamin in the Gee Bee, Jimmy Franklin'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's MIG before. He was impressive. I had never seen aerobatics in a Beech 18. Bobby Yonkin's show was impressive. And I had never seen aerobatics in a glider. Dan Buchanan did a great show.

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 looked like a jam session in the sky, although each move had been carefully staged. It wasn't precision formation flying, it was what each of them do, only they did it together. It was neat 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 more impressive than 6 of something. And most of the Angels's show is 4 guys doing something together while 2 guys do something else in mirror image. They fly F/A-18's, but their claim to fame is that they do a dirty diamond loop (dirty means gear and tailhook extended and diamond means in formation). Big deal. Everybody that wants to see this airplane go SLOWER raise your hand!

The Birds split into threes, and twos, and they go fast a lot. It's just a more interesting performance. Plus, I played poker with one of them in Reno, so I know they're not above mingling with flib drivers.

Having said that ...

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

Time to go

When I filled out the original paperwork, they had offered to refuel my airplane. The flight from Palomar takes about 1/6 of an hour and I burn about 14 gallons an hour. It hardly paid to pull the truck up for that amount. But when I checked in, they asked me how much 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 one we have a lot of extra 100LL, so would it be okay if we topped you off? We really don't have any place to store all this avgas." I thought of the taxes I pay every April and figured maybe it was time Sam gave me something back. (Getting a free tank of gas would almost qualify as a "moment", but what happened is much more exciting.)

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

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

Watching the parade of takeoffs I realized how much I like single engine piston driven propeller airplanes. If somebody gave me a G-IV, I'd probably trade it for a Viking, a Bonanza, 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 fly quietly. Sometimes the wind and the Viking cooperate, sometimes they don't. If I've got 4 people and gas I'd rather make a little extra prop noise for a few seconds on climbout than that awful noise an airplane makes when it stalls and hits a house. After years of dealing with the restrictive noise abatement rules of Santa Monica, Torrance and John Wayne, 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 end of the field to the other, picking up anything and everything that a turbine engine could ingest and cough on. Crumpled cups, paper scraps, fingernails, you name it. A human vacuum cleaner.

Where's my @#%&! camera?

The other "moment" is one I'll remember forever. After I got fuel, I taxied to 24 for takeoff. All of the visiting military aircraft were staying over for one more night of hangar flying and beer (sure beats work) and almost all of the piston drivers had already left. I shared the runup with a T-28 based at Chino and two Beech 18's based at Rialto. I had just finished my runup, stowed my checklist, switched to tower frequency and taxied up to the hold short line when I looked west into the setting sun to see 2 F/A-18's coming 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, and did a formation takeoff. As they did, Blue Angels 5 and 4 each called "ready at the end" and were cleared for individual takeoffs.

There I was, sitting in my little airplane, waiting to take off, watching out the windscreen as 4 of 7 (they always carry a spare) of the Blue Angels took off from the last Navy airshow at NAS Miramar, and my camera was packed away in the baggage compartment. I'm going to try and get the tower tapes so I have a permanent reminder of what I saw and heard, but remember this. Always, always, always keep a camera within reach. Some wonderful moment may happen out of the Blue to turn the most routine 8 minute flight into one 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 the rules 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 in effect, the jet blast has to be moving as fast that way as he moved that way. I never felt a thing.

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

I sure hope so!