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El Centro Airshow 2007


Welcome to's review and pictures of the 2007 El Centro Airshow. It's a fun little airshow, just one day of diverse aerial displays including helicopters, fighter jets, warbirds, aerobatics, some hang-gliding and skydiving, and the Blue Angels to close. Unlike last year, the weather was fantastic with clear blue skies.

El Centro always puts lots of Navy aircraft on static display, including rare sights like the C-2 and a preserved A-6. The Marines brought in a V-22 this year (and we got to see it take off right after the airshow ended), and sleek jets like the T-38, Hornet, and SuperHornet could also be seen and closely inspected by the crowd. The unusual-looking E-2 Hawkeye radar-plane, the large C-130 Hercules transport/tanker, a Huey rescue helicopter, a luxurious business jet, some lethal-looking AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, and a graceful-looking radial-engined Yakovlev trainer with classic warbird lines, were also on static display.

Yes, I like artsy close-ups. And yes, I took the chance to snap a "self-portrait" on an IR sensor on the side of a C-130...

To see lots more pictures of the V-22 Osprey on static - including it taking off and making a fast pass - then scroll down to the bottom of the page.

The airshow started with a skydiving demonstration, about 7 people jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and gliding in. It's surprising how much these guys can do with their parachutes: The chutes don't just slow them down, they're basically flexible-wing gliders that generate a lot of lift from forward motion, and thus can be used for tight turns, steep dives, and even descending vertical rolls. Fun stuff.

We were then treated to several passes done in a T-6 that is the last airworthy airplane of the ones actually used by the Tuskegee Airmen, the first squadron in the US military with African-American pilots. Despite extensive segregation and many hardships during their trainng and operational missions, their combat record was exceptional: They would often engage larger groups of more advanced German fighters and come out victorious, and were often requested by bomber squadrons for escort into enemy territory. The Tuskegee Airmen were the only fighter group who never lost a bomber to enemy fighters.

Spencer Suderman then did some very fast, very precise, neck-breaking (not literally) aerobatics in his HAVOC-sponsored Pitts. He did things most people would not guess an airplane could do, such and tumbling the airplane end-ober-end, or - even more impressive - flying straight up, stopping in mid-air, and then flying backwards down his own column of smoke.

It was then time for my favorite helicopter demo in the airshow world. Sponsored by Red Bull, Charles Aaron flies an unmodified BO-105 helicopter, made by Eurocopter/Messerschmitt Boelkow Blohm (MBB). This stock helicopter is powered by two Rolls Royce C-20B "Allyson" turbine engines, each of which puts out about 425hp. This is the only helicopter demo I have even seen live where the pilot does loops and rolls, one after the other. Have YOU ever seen an inverted helicopter? Yeah, I hadn't either. In fact, I remember that at an airshow at Moffett field in 2003, a Gazelle pilot explained that the FAA at the time said he could not bank or pitch more than 90 degrees (i.e. a line perpendicular to the plane of the rotors, like a line pointing out from the axle of the rotor, could not point below the horizon). He then did cartwheels and hammerheads with his helicopter, very scary-looking, but not inverted. Well, I don't know what has changed since, but apparently we are now allowed to see the topside of a helicopter at an airshow!

In fact, the first time I saw Charles Aaron do these helicopter aerobatics was at Nellis last year. I was chatting with another photographer, and this guy took off. I put down my camera (because I had already photographed him the day before, and the second day was cloudy and not as good for photography as the first day) and so did she (because she had not seen this demo and thought, "Eh, how exciting can THIS be"). She said one about a sentence and a half before I saw her eyes widen, she went "Holy sh!t!!!" and picked up her camera and started snapping away. I still smile remembering her surprise at this exceptional airshow act.

So if you hear about an airshow in your area where "the Red Bull helicopter" will be flown, don't miss it.

After that, two MiGs took off, a two-seater MiG-15 and a big afterburnin' MiG-17 (the latter often jokingly called the world's biggest Zippo lighter because of its visible afterburner flame). I had never seen two MiGs in the air at once, and these guys put on quite a show. Well, I'm assuming they're guys, but I don't know who they are at all, which is a shame because their act was really great, with opposing passes (flying at each other), mock dogfights, some very photogenic knife-edge passes, and really tight formations flown really close to the crowd (again, very photogenic). The small size of these 19050s MiGs make them look even faster than they really are, so it was just awesome to watch these little silver bullets roar their way from one end of the airfield to the other.

Then, Dan Buchanan did his hang-glider act. He starts out being pulled by a pick-up truck that has a huge spool of cable in the back. This allows him to be flown like a kite, pulled by the truck until he is several hundred feer in the air, often requiring the truck to do a U-turn at each end of the runway, driving back and forth a couple times. He then releases the cable and turns on some smoke generators, and flies down doing smooth turns, tight manouvers, as well as almost-inverted turns. If a small aerobatic airplane is present at the airshow, Dan often will agree with the pilot to have him take off and fly right behind the hang-gliger, perpendicular to the hang-glider's path, so as to cut some of the shiny ribbons, narrowly missing the hang-glider itself. It's a fun act. As Dan comes in for a landing, patriotic music and famous speeches are played, an American flag is erected at the top of the hang-glider, and fireworks are shot off from the aircraft. When Dan touches down, the pick-up truck (or, at some airshows, a helicopter, when one is available, such as The Showcopters) goes to deliver his wheel-chair. This is when we find out that, while Dan enjoys hang-gliding and ATV racing and all kinds of other extreme sports, he is paraplegic. When people ask him why he flies, he says "I have to. I can't walk". Quite inspirational.

Above, Dan being flown like a kite. Below, his manouvers after he releases the cable:

Another inspirational airshow performer is Bill Cornick, nicknamed "Granpa", who at age 70 performs high-power aerobatics with his Pitts. He can roll, snap, turn, tailslide, loop, and tumble that Pitts (the "Green Goblin") as well as anyone - and lucky us, we got to see him show off those abilities.

Steve Stavrakakis, who used to do high-energy aerobatics in a Zlin 50, apparently now does slower, gentler aerobatics in a... er... um... Anyone know what this thing is? In any case, you gotta love the cammo paint scheme. (Ok, I have to look this up... Apparently his new airplane is an Industria Aeronatica Romania model 823, IAR-823 for short. His Zlin, if I recall, had been purchased from the Romanian aerobatic display team as well. I guess Romania is the place to go for cool aerobatic airplanes at low low prices, or something).

The USAF F-16 demo was next. This was every bit as exciting as it looks. An F-16 instructor, whose job for a year or two (other than instructing new pilots) is to perform a choreographed routine at airshows, showed off the power and agility of the Fighting Falcon. Fast rolls, extremely tight turns, slow flight at high angles of attack, vertical climbs, and high-speed passes, all showed that this jet must be a dream to fly, and a nightmare to encounter as an opponent in combat. The demo was narrated by another pilot, who described the manouvers, the airplane's performance numbers and impressive combat statistics, and other aspects of being an F-16 pilot.

The F-16 has a fuel overflow valve on the left wing. If it stays inverted for too long, fuel comes out, as can be seen on that last picture above.

As the F-16 demo came to a close, Steve Hinton took to the air in a super-rare P-38 lightning. Steve is one of the main guys responsible for the Chino "Planes of Fame" museum, which houses one of the world's largest (maybe THE largest) collection of airworthy World War Two aircraft. They have one or two of every fighter used in the war - there are more Japanese World War Two airplanes at Chino than there are in all of Japan! Many of their airplanes are the last airworthy aircraft of that model, such as the last airworthy P-26 Peashooter, N9M Flying Wing, razorback P-47, and AT-12 Guardsman, as well as the last Zero still flying with its original Nakajima engine rather than an American replacement.

Anyways, Steve met up with the F-16 for a two-ship Heritage Flight. This is one of my favorite parts of any airshow, watching old warbirds and modern jets slowly and gracefully fly by in formation, often as many as four aircraft. It lets you appreciate how far along aviation technology has come in 65 years. (Just imagine, this P-38 was once a record-holder, the first airplane to reach the amazing speed of 400 miles per hour...)

Bill Reeseman was then supposed to fly his Red-Bull-sponsored MiG-17, but unfortunately some mechanical trouble kept his bright red MiG grounded. It's a shame, because he does a great job of looping and rolling his MiG around the sky, making plenty of smoke and a huge afterburner flame as he tears the sky apart at weird angles. Oh well, I see him fly a few times a year, so it's no big deal.

Then, the Thunder Delphins did a few formation passes in three Aerovodochody L-29 Delphins. They then broke formation and did individual passes, doing rolls and tight turns and other manouvers. Pretty neat. It's aways cool to see jets in formation, and I almost never see an L-29 (predecessor to the extremely popular L-39) in the air.

Then, John Collver flew his SNJ demo. Set to beautiful instrumental music, John gracefully and slowly turns, aileron-rolls, barrel-rolls, and loops his SNJ, a naval (Marines, in this case) version of the T-6 Texan. One exceptional thing about John's flying is that, instead of just flying up and down along the runway, he performs his act over an 8-shaped ground track, so he is always turning towards and the away from the crowd during each manouver, making for very photogenic head-on shots. Another exceptional thing is that he deploys his landing gear during a roll, so the wheels go "up" instead of down. He then performs some aerobatics with the gear down before landing.

During the demo, the narrator explains how T-6s were THE advanced trainer used from the 30s into the 50s - almost every World War Two pilot learned to fly in one of these, and they were built in huge numbers all over the world, popular due to their ruggedness and reliability. (Even Brazil built many of them, some of which are still flying). The narrator even says that John once flew his Texan at an airshow in El Toro, where the airplane was used back when it was in service, and an older gentleman approached him after the show saying he had learned to fly in this airplane. "Well, a whole lot of people learned to fly in a T-6", John said, and the older pilot said "No, I learned to fly in THIS AIRPLANE", pointing out the serial number on the tail and remembering his student-pilot time spent on that very seat John now performed in. Pretty neat, if you ask me.

And now, the moment we had all gone there for: The US Navy aerial demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, marched to their F/A-18s, saluted their crew chiefs (who by then had inspected the Hornets to clear them for flight), got into their jets, started them up, and took off into one of the best airshow acts in the world. Flying in tight formations, fast speeds, high accelerations, unusual attitudes, and almost collition courses, the Blues tore the air and shook the ground with the thunderous roar of their F404 engines, in a performance almost too exciting to be described in words. Pictures don't come that close either... but hey, I still think my pictures are cool:

The demo started with the diamond (Blue Angels one through four) taking off in close formation (for some reason I did not get a good picture of this, but you can see one elsewhere on this site), and going straight into a loop! The opposing solos (Blue Angels 5 and 6) then rolled down the runway together. Blue Angel number 5 pulled his Hornet up and performed a dirty roll, as you can see above. Blue Angel 6 then pulled up, performed half a Cuban-8 (with his tanks so full that fuel was coming out of the overflow valve on the tips of the vertical stabilizers), and then did a quick aileron roll right over show center (again with plenty of fuel leaking out of the tail). What a way to start the act!!!

After the end of the show, the Marines got their V-22 ready (after some repairs to the left wing) and took off. This too was worth watching. The Osprey can tilt its engines straight up to take off and land like a helicopter, or tilt them forwards and fly like an airplane. Its range, speed, and cargo capacity are all much higher than those of the similarly-sized helicopters they are replacing. It's an awesome sight to see this airplane just rise out of the ground like a helicopter, and then accelerate forwards and transition into wing-borne airplane flight. It makes me proud to be an aerospace engineer...

That's it. I hope you enjoyed this review. If you did, or if you have any comments, suggestions, questions, corrections, etc, if you would like high-res versions of any of these images, etc, then please please email me.


- Bernardo

PS: At the airshow, I met a cool guy named Marco Ray, and he was nice enough to snap the following shot of myself and part of the gang of photographers I often hang out with at airshows. Thanks, Marco!

(And at the risk of having you leave my site and never come back again... The guy with the red shirt, Kevin Joyce, takes some of the best pictures I have ever seen! I'd love to have a 500mm lens like his, although I would have to sell my car before I could afford one... He does let me borrow his lens on occasion, though.)

PPS: I have GOT to get me one of these! A fellow airshow spectator watches the flying from a foldable "portable hammock"! After the end of the show, he folded it into a narrow tube-like bag just like those used to carry folding chairs. Kinda random, but real neat. (You can follow these links to buy one at Amazon, they go for $75-$100 with the $100 one including a radio pillow). We actually ended up having a conversation with this guy, who was there with his wife. They were really nice. That's a great thing about airshows, getting to chat with nice folks who are sitting next to you. Or lying in a hammock, as the case may be.

All images & text © Bernardo Malfitano; Unauthorized use is a violation of copyright law, so if you want to use any of this content, please ask.