USA II 2019
The second tour to the USA in 2019 lead us to the east coast. Main points of interest were the open houses at MCAS Beaufort and Seymour Johnson AFB. This in the mix with a visit to, among others, NAS Oceana were the ingredients for another great tour.
The tour started with a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta on Thursday 25 April 2019. Ten of the eleven participants met at the new meeting point at Schiphol before that and the final participant flew in from Lyon that morning first and was welcomed while boarding.
Our first day truly in the Good ‘Ole US of A (Friday 26 April) started with a couple of preserved/derelict aircraft on our way to Warner Robins AFB and its magnificent museum. We had the whole morning scheduled for the museum, which isn’t an unnecessary luxury given the amount of aircraft. In the meantime the guys with an interest in numbers checked out the airbase and its Air Logistics Center where maintenance is performed on C-130s, C-5s, C-17s and F-15s. They returned with good results, but unfortunately the resident E-8s where in no mood to do any flying, or anything else for that matter, so it was decided not to spend any time in the approach after the group had finished in the museum. And thus we started moving, the next stop was the 8th Air Force Museum near Savannah, a good 2,5 hours’ drive. Not the largest museum compared to the others we would be visiting this tour, but a B-47 Stratojet in the museum garden sure makes up for size.
At Savannah airport we had hoped to encounter an bunch of F-35s which apparently had “escaped” MCAS Beaufort for the upcoming airshow, but unfortunately there was no F-35 to be seen. Afterwards we heard they actually had arrived but had all been put inside. Bummer! We had to content ourselves with the locally based C-130s, a couple of F-18s, and a nice collection of military and government Gulfstreams over at their facility. A drive through touristic downtown Savannah and a Skyhawk at the university sports grounds were the last achievements of the day, before heading to our hotel for a well-deserved dinner and rest.
Saturday 27 April; Airshow time at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort! We arrived an hour early at the main gate, only to be told to “wait somewhere outside and queue up after nine”. Instead we parked near the preserved aircraft outside of the gate for half an hour or so, and then queued up at the alternate entrance. This gate too opened at exactly nine, and we had high hopes we would be on base and on the static show amongst the first spectators. Unfortunately this plan crashed when most of our group, and all other people appearing to be foreigners going through the security checkpoint, were subjected to extra security checks… which turned out to be a very slow process indeed. The brand new handheld computers, with integrated camera, passport scanner and fingerprint reader didn’t work very well, probably bought cheap from a Chinese website? We were allowed on base, that wasn’t the problem, but it took at least half an hour before the whole group had entered the showground. By then it was crowded and all hopes for decent photography on the static was gone. Ah well… At least there was shade to be found. For this edition of the Beaufort airshow the organisers had decided to move the static display area to the F-35 flight line, fitted with sun sheds. It promised to be a hot day out in the sun, so every bit of shade was welcome! The airshow itself was of course a typical American affair, with a lot of patriotic flag waving, fast cars, jet trucks and aerobatic flying. But luckily with military hardware as well, ranging from a C-17 flying a demo routine to a spirited F-22 demo, and not forgetting one of the based F-35s. The “airpower demo”, however, was a bit of a disgrace, let’s just say “we’ve seen better”. For most Americans the Blue Angels, finishing the flying displays, were the real reason for attending. This gave us a good opportunity, after the “Blues” had taken off, to head to our cars and hope to be off base before the masses. This too didn’t work out exactly as planned, due to some miscommunication, but in the end all was well and when we finally were on the move we could do so without any traffic jams. A good thing, we still had a long drive ahead of us.
On Sunday (28 April) we were going to see how the Air Force at Seymour-Johnson AFB would fare with their airshow, compared to their Marines brothers at Beaufort. What to say… what a difference! Again one of the first cars on base, no special treatment for foreigners, a nonchalant camera bag inspection, and a very relaxed atmosphere overall. The flying activity started early, with six Strike Eagles taxiing out and eventually taking part in the opening ceremony. In the afternoon another six would be part of the air power display. On the ground there was interesting hardware as well, including F-22s, F-35s, a B-52 and one of the first operational KC-46 tankers. And F-15s of course. The resident Strike Eagle squadrons at Seymour-Johnson roots go back to the RAF’s “Eagle Squadrons”, therefore it was less of a surprise than maybe thought at first sight, that a Spitfire was the centrepiece of the Eagles on display. The afternoon air power display was well organised and quite spectacular (certainly compared to the one shown at Beaufort) with two A-10s supporting the Strike Eagles (or the other way around, just as you like it!). We were in no hurry today and thus were comfortably able to spend all day at the “Wings Over Wayne” airshow, and only left amongst the last spectators well after the Thunderbirds had finished their show. On our way out we managed to do a small detour to get to the preserved aircraft near the Wing headquarters on base, and again confirming the relaxed atmosphere this was not a problem. After catching an F-86 recently put on display in Goldsboro town, we checked in at our hotel, slightly dehydrated but very satisfied after two airshow days.
Not finished yet with Seymour-Johnson, Monday morning (29 April) morning was spent outside the fence, hoping for some airshow departures and maybe a bunch of local F-15Es. Unfortunately the latter did not fly (their pilots still nurturing hangovers from last night’s party, undoubtedly) but we did get to see a lot of departures. The last one to leave was also the cherry on the cake, so to say, most of us don’t get to see a B-52 taking off every day! In the meantime our number crunchers had a field day too, for we were positioned right in front of the Eagles flightlines. The sun sheds didn’t make life easier, but after some effort we managed to note down a whole bunch of Strike Eagles.
On our way to Virginia Beach we detoured a bit to the Coast Guard airfield at Elizabeth City. Fortunately there was still some activity there in the late afternoon, but most pleasant were the four MH-47 “special forces” Chinooks on detachment. Positioned not too far from the fence, and being towed back and forth, we even managed to take decent photos of two of them. At the main Coast Guard entrance, after asking politely if the preserved aircraft outside the gate could be photographed, we were told to park our cars inside the gate, then walk out and take photos, and then come back in. Normally you’d hope to be able to do it the other way around, but this was a nice change! Dropping by Fentress auxiliary landing field for a quick look we saw no flying activity, but we did get the Hawkeye in use as an instructional airframe. Time to check in to our hotel for the coming two nights, followed by steaks and beer served by a former navy sailor turned waiter who tried to speak German (close enough to Dutch, he must have thought) but barely managed. Never mind. Now… let’s see if we can get some Hornets tomorrow!
Naval Air Station Oceana is one of the “Master Jet Bases” of the US Navy, with all Atlantic fleet Hornet squadrons based here if not out at sea, and thus promises good flying activity all year long! However, when it comes to good photography opportunities much depends on the wind direction and thus which runway is in use. From what we had heard the evening before it looked like the southern approach of one of the parallel runways could be in use today, not perfect but it would have to do. So we did a little reconnaissance in the morning of Tuesday 30 April, to see where we could position ourselves. Fortunately our assumption proved to be wrong and as it turned out the best possible option, runway 23L, would be in use all day. We were soon at our spot in the approach, to be greeted by the first Hawkeye and Hornets returning. With almost constant flying activity and waves of returning aircraft (mostly Hornets) there was little time to relax and you had to make sure your camera was within arm’s length in order not to miss anything! We had parked our two cars next to a line of trees and in the shade, a very welcome bonus! Most aircraft would do a curved final approach, typical navy style, good for photos! Only a very few, the locally based T-34s mainly, would overdo it and turn in right on top of us… Halfway during the afternoon we had to relocate to another spot at the opposite side of the approach, not a bad spot either but here we were on the outside of the curved approach which is somewhat less perfect. Nevertheless the flying continued unabated. Almost 70(!) different Hornets took to the air today! Finally, with the light almost gone and the number crunchers happy too, it was time to pack in. Later that evening, skipping the Italian restaurant near to our hotel which was a bit too crowded to our liking, we ended up in an out-of-this-world pizza restaurant, completely in UFO and aliens style. It was even suggested the place was run by green aliens stranded on planet earth. Maybe, but the waitresses looked quite human.
Wednesday 1 May. Labour Day, yes we had some work to do (again) today. We decided to start at nearby NAS Norfolk, the main Atlantic coast helicopter, Hawkeye and Greyhound base. NAS Norfolk, part of an even larger Naval installation, is not the easiest airbase for spotting and photography, but fortunately there are several spots to go to. We started at two locations opposite the bay, with view of where the helicopters and Ospreys are located. With no heat haze at all we had good view of the RH-53 minesweeper helicopters. Next we moved to the approach of the active runway, from here photography was tricky however: high grass somewhat obscured the Hawkeyes turning onto the runway for departure, and for landing shots the sun was in the wrong position already, as proved by a couple of Seahawk helicopters practising approaches over and over. Nevertheless, most of the group decided to stay at this spot while the number crunchers went on to check out a couple of other spots to read off as many Hawkeyes and Greyhounds as possible. From the top floor of a public parking garage the view of the platforms is excellent, but heat haze was a factor. After picking up the rest of the group again, we headed back to Oceana for more Hornet action!
Again the group split up, with some deciding to check out the nearby “Military Aviation Museum” which has an interesting collection of museum aircraft and warbirds, worthy enough to visit. Unfortunately, because the “active” part of the museum is by guided tour only, it took us two hours to complete the tour. Our guide talked a lot but wasn’t very willing to make much effort where it counted, and so we only had very limited access to the restoration hangar, and no access at all to the PBY Catalina outside on the platform. The last hangar was a bit of a let-down too, with most occupants merely mock-ups of “1946 German Luftwaffe what-if’s”.
In the meantime the group at Oceana had managed to bag a rare military all-white Twin Otter. By the time the groups had reunited we had to vacate to the mid-afternoon spot again, although we wouldn’t be staying until last light today. Instead we started to move to our final destination of the day: our last hotel in Richmond, Virginia. First stop was the Hampton Air Park, a few miles from the main entrance to Langley AFB. This small public park holds quite a good number of interesting jets in good condition, ranging from several Century Series fighters to a rare XV-6 Kestrel (forerunner to the Harrier). Langley AFB was not on our list of places to go on this tour, but we couldn’t help ourselves to at least drive up to the main gate for a visual inspection of the gate guards. Next stop: Newport News airfield, home to defence services company ATAC. On this late hour their facility was empty of people, so no chance of asking for a quick tour, but at least two of their Hawker Hunters were outside, plus a stored Saab Draken and a fully bagged L-39. An hour later we were in Richmond, first checking out the nearby airfield before heading to our hotel.
Time sure flies, feeling we had just arrived but this, Thursday 2 May, was to be our last day of the tour already. We had a long day ahead of us, and it was in no way certain we would be able to tick off all the targets for today. After breakfast and checking out of our hotel, we headed to the capital, Washington DC. We were hoping to visit the National Air And Space Museum (NASM), and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near the airport, in the meantime not forgetting we had to turn in our cars at the airport at around three o’clock and start our homeward journey. We had expected heavy traffic going into DC, but not anything like the huge traffic jam on the “regular” highway. Fortunately for us, we were on the carpool express lanes and were comfortably passing the mile after mile of stationary traffic to our right. Had we been stuck in that traffic jam, it is certain we would not have made both museums, possibly not even one. So it was with great relief when we arrived at our (necessarily pre-booked) parking garage and the NASM, only to find we had an half hour wait in line before it opened. Ah well, at least we had made it and were at the front of the queue… or so it seemed, until large groups of school children apparently had early access and flooded the museum before we even had a chance to enter ourselves. The NASM was a bit of a “good and bad” experience for us. On the one hand it is fantastic to see a REAL X-15, Chuck Yeagers REAL X-1, the REAL “Spirit of Saint Louis”, instead of the replicas found in many other museums. But on the other hand due to large renovations about half of the museum was closed off, and it was very crowded. I don’t think we missed an awful lot of aircraft on display due to the renovations, but still. With some time to spare, some decided to stay a bit longer in the museum, whilst others took a little stroll outside to view the Washington Mall, the Capitol and the Washington Monument in first person (from a short distance).
Getting out of Washington DC proved to take longer than anticipated, the roads and directions given weren’t very clear and it took quite some time to get well on our way on the highway in the direction of Washington airport. And so it was (again) with great relief arriving at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center with enough time to spare to properly “do the museum”. This facility is officially an annex of the NASM, but is nowadays a proper (and big!) museum in itself, with the majority of NASM’s collection housed here. Also, NASM’s storage and restoration facility formerly at Silver Hill has moved here as well, with everything on view. This is truly a magnificent museum, easily competing for the title of top aircraft museum in the world! The amount and above all quality and rarity of aircraft on display is astonishing, from sole remaining German types like the Arado 235 Blitz, Dornier 335 Pfeil and Horten 229 flying wing bomber, to a genuine Space Shuttle. And not forgetting “just a B-29 bomber” but in fact the most (in)famous of them all. Two hours is really too short to photograph everything and then enjoy the collection, but that’s all we had. This is one museum where it is no punishment at all to do a second visit and just enjoy the many aircraft on display.
Stepping out of the museum and looking up, it quickly became obvious that the excellent weather we had been enjoying all week was about to change. Indeed it was already raining by the time we turned in our cars at the rental car company. But it would get worse. Thunderstorms and busy airports usually don’t mix very well, a point well proven today. Many flights were delayed by the foul weather, our A380 arriving from Paris had even made an unscheduled stop in Pittsburgh and would not arrive at DC until way after its scheduled departure time. One member of our group had the good fortune to be re-booked to a direct KLM flight to Amsterdam, but of course that flight was delayed just as well. By the time we were finally airborne (again with much relief) it was all too obvious we would not be making our connecting flight in Paris to Amsterdam. But we were all re-booked on an afternoon flight to Amsterdam (on Friday 3 May) without any hassle, and in the end made it home with “only” a six hour delay. Looking back at a week filled with lots and lots of aircraft, good weather and in good company, this slight delay was worth its every minute and quickly forgotten.