USA IV 2019
A small group visited the USA in September 2019 and had an incredible two weeks with several pre-arranged base visits at NAF El Centro, March ARB, NAS Fallon, NAS Lemoore, NAS Point Mugu and several interesting aviation locations between these bases. Here is our full report of this impressive tour.
On Monday 2 September, this trip started as most previous 4Aviation trips, at the Amsterdam Schiphol international airport. Seven, of the group of eight, had gathered at Schiphol for the first stint of the American Airlines flight to Philadelphia, with the final destination being Los Angeles. American Airlines was rather sparse with the entertainment facilities onboard the Boeing 767, but we managed to survive the 8 hours flight. In Philly we had a stopover of a couple of hours, but this time was well spent with customs, picking up luggage and handing it back in again, immigration and a meal. As the United States is a big country, we had another five hours to go to reach the west coast.
As all customs issues had been cleared in Philadelphia, we only had to pick up our luggage and find our rental cars. The Thrifty employee did a great job and swiftly supplied us with two great cars. Here we also met up with the eighth member of our group. The last part of the day was filled with driving to our first hotel of the trip near San Diego.
This Tuesday 3 September was the day after Labor Day and meant a slow start for the military. There was no activity at NAF El Centro but thanks to our good contacts we soon were walking on the flightline to shoot fourteen AH-1Z and UH-1Y from a Hawaii based Marine Corps unit. Some time was left to visit the preserved aircraft and get a small snack in the shop. We were all very happy with this opportunity.
A drive past Imperial County Airport brought no visiting aircraft and an hour further down the road is Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Although it is potentially a superbase, looking at all the great stuff based here, it has not lived up to its name during most of our visits. Also, on this afternoon it was very slow, with lots of F-5s, F-35s and AV-8 under the sheds, but no movement at all. Time to call it a day.
Wednesday 4 September was also scheduled for MCAS Yuma, but it again started slow. Just after midday four VMFA-122 F-35Bs flew a mission, one brand new, unmarked, F-35B was on delivery with further movement being a local UC-12F, US Army C-12V, a Beale AFB based black T-38 and a MCAS Miramar based KC-130J carrying out several touch & go’s.
We had an appointment in Riverside the next day so at the end of the day we headed north via the, already closed, but still very interesting Palm Spring Air Museum. A couple aircraft are preserved outside and were captured in the golden hour, last light of the day. The temperatures during the first week were rather high and reached up to 45°Celsius during the day and would not drop below 30°Celsius during the night. Climate controlled cars and hotel rooms were not considered a luxury these days. At Palm Springs a strong breeze was blowing this evening which felt like a decent hairdryer. Luckily the temperatures would drop during the weekend and remain in the cool 30ties.
Thursday 5 September started with a delicious early breakfast on Magnolia Street followed by some rush hour traffic and then our appointment at March ARB. Here we met with a C-17 pilot with Dutch roots, who also performed at the Volkel airshow in June 2019, and a KC-135 pilot. This was a more formal visit and we got briefed on the current missions at March. After which we were shown a C-17A in 911th AW markings. This Pittsburgh Air Force Reserve unit has recently transferred from the C-130H to the C-17A and is learning the tricks of the trade at March ARB. The ramp was explored a bit more with a visit to a locally based KC-135R. Then a slow drive along the flightline with several more photo opportunities.
After the visit we ‘crossed the runway’ for a visit to the excellent March Field Air Museum, with an incredible collection, most of which are in an impeccable condition, a great few hours were spent. It was also possible to photograph some action on the active runway. At the end of the day we drove east towards Phoenix. A planned four-hour drive became almost seven hours due to the closure of a main road which resulted in a huge traffic jam. But we made it in one piece and had a good night’s rest.
The last working day of the week, Friday 6 September, started at Luke AFB. Two KC-10s were visible on the ramp and several F-16s and F-35s started rolling to the runways in the early morning. Many missions were flown until mid-afternoon and the cameras were used to its fullest extent. Although the F-35 is the jet of the future we saw more Vipers than Lightnings this day. All squadrons sent up some aircraft, only the Singapore 425th FS did not play ball this day.
At the end of the afternoon the journey took us south to inspect the, unfortunately, quiet Mesa Williams Gateway. Then further south to end up in Tucson, Arizona.
The first weekend of the month means activity with the Arizona National Guard at Tucson International Airport. This Saturday 7 September was no exception and about two dozen F-16s of the 162nd Fighter Wing took to the skies. The day started bright, but became a bit overcast late in the morning. The wind direction had also changed giving less opportunities for photography. This means we had to redeploy, and Davis Monthan AFB was our destination. Around midday we took a little tour around AMARG for those who had never been there before. But our main interest went to the ‘DP’ coded A-10Cs flying around DM. Luckily, the weather had improved a lot and some fluffy clouds decorated the blue skies and the background of our pictures. Two Dutch F-16s made some touch and goes and then it was time for us to look for our hotel in Mesa. But not before stopping at the Marana NorthWest Airport where we knocked on the door of the guys maintaining an A-4C in Argentine Navy colours and also have several A-4 and F-8 frames around their hangar.
Sunday 8 September was scheduled as a transition day as we were expected in Fallon, Nevada on Monday. So, we had to cover over 1100km in a single day. We had heard some rumours about a couple of Navy T-45s at Scottsdale Airport, but we did not find them this morning. Then it was only driving with the final food stop planned in Tonopah. There was not a lot of decent food around the time we were there, but the it was nice catching the atmosphere of this small little town with its F-117 history.
The start of the second week was intense with a visit to one of the greatest places in the world, Naval Air Station Fallon. This Monday 9 September, the visit started early with a stroll over the NAWDC ramp where already many of their F-16s and F/A-18s started up their engines and taxied past us just a few meters away. Followed by many VFC-13 F-5s in the greatest adversary colours and dozens of aircraft of the deployed Carrier Air Wing 11. The latter had deployed all eight squadrons to NAS Fallon to work up for their next cruise onboard a carrier. After the first wave had taken off, we visited VFC-13 for a short and very interesting briefing of their activities. It was already past midday when we took a break for lunch. After taking these vitamins it was time for some more, but these were consumed next to runway 31L. Dozens of E-2, F-5, F-16 and F/A-18 took off and landed an hour, or so, later in glorious weather. But all fun comes to an end and after saying our goodbyes we took our cars for another long drive, a little under 700km to Naval Air Station Lemoore.
Tuesday 10 September was the first of two days at another great US Navy base. We started the visit with the brand-new F-35Cs of VFA-125, VFA-147 and the single first Marines F-35C of VMFA-314. We saw six of them start up, taxy out and take-off. All very impressive and with almost no restrictions on photography. Then it was time to meet up with some of the squadrons leadership to exchange gifts and talk about photo opportunities. This took some time, but was time well invested. After lunch we were invited to the control tower to watch the action from above. Several Hornets taxied beneath us and we had a great overview of this massive airbase. A few more shots at the base before we concluded the first day.
The day had not started great as we discovered one of our cars had a flat tire and the rental was not equipped with a spare. The other car went to the base where our lovely point of contact took her van to pick up the rest of the group at the hotel. So now at the end of the day we had to find a spare tire. We found a great ‘old skool’ repair shop in the centre of Lemoore where the seasoned owner was not afraid to get some greasy hands. He supplied us with some black rubber for the rest of the tour.
On Wednesday 11 September security was a bit tighter at the gate as 9-11 is still on the minds of everybody. We started again with the F-35C where several different airframes took to the skies. Then a sweep of the western ramp before heading for a short break. After lunch we drove our van over the active runway to the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) shack. Here we spent a couple of hours to see F/A-18s and F-35s touch down only a few meters in front of us. This was unique and fantastic to witness! The drive back over the runway was under escort of Kenny Loggins Danger Zone, known from the movie Top Gun. Corny, but great fun!
The day ended with a visit to the ramps on the eastern side of the base. The sun was now perfectly situated to shoot the Hornets on this large ramp. Then it was time to say our goodbyes after two amazing days at an incredible base.
Thursday 12 September was another Navy day, this time Naval Air Station Point Mugu, just northwest of Los Angeles. This is the home of the west coast E-2 fleet, as well as a Navy and CA ANG C-130 unit and VX-30 who operates a variety of special mission aircraft. Last, but certainly not least, a MQ-8 maintenance unit is based here. It is still strange to see these ‘drones’ fly around an airbase.
We started our tour with the guy in charge of the E-2 fleet to get in depth information of the current and future situation of the E-2C/D-fleet and the new capabilities of the E-2D. This was very interesting to learn. After this briefing the ramp was visited where the first E-2D for VAW-113 was preparing for a mission. The Navy operates all their carrier borne aircraft as they were on the carrier; it was nice to see all the crew around the plane during start-up and taxi out. The other Hawkeyes on the ramp could also be photographed without restrictions after which we concluded our interview with a few more questions.
After the visit we relocated to the Missile Park, just outside the base, which has a great viewing area. ‘Our’ E-2D returned from its mission, four ATAC Hawker Hunters flew a mission as well as several C-130s, from several units, a VX-30 Orion and a HSC-23 flew by.
The last day of the trip, Friday 13 September, was also started at NAS Point Mugu. We knew that because of a ceremony there would be little to non activity in the morning. We were hoping for some early morning VIP activity, but that was not to be, but a VX-30 KC-130T made a short mission. We then drove the short distance to Camarillo Airport where we first visited the Ventura County Aviation Unit who operates a couple of Bells, of which two have a military history, and a trio of HH-60Ls of which one was present. These police officers were very kind and showed us around. Then the Commemorative Air Force Southern California Wing was up. They have a great collection next door. The quiet hours at Point Mugu were almost over so we went back to the Missile Park. Just as we parked an NP-3D came in, a couple more Hunters took off, a Guard C-130 landed and our final plane of the trip was a 56 years old VX-30 P-3C.
Not a bad way to end a great tour. American Airlines took us back to Amsterdam, where we arrived on Saturday 14 September.
We will be back for a similar tour, with a small group, in April 2020.