|Nellis AFB Open House, Aviation Nation, Nov. 8-9, 2014
|Location: Nellis AFB, Nevada
|Parking: Free off-site at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway
|Rating out of 10: 10
F-35A Lightning II
Aviation Nation came back with a bang! Canceled last year due to funding cuts, this year’s Open House at Nellis AFB was eagerly anticipated. The two-day show offered visitors the opportunity to not only watch a world-class air show, but also take in acres of aircraft on static display, and perhaps more importantly, to interact with the many Airmen on base. With the budget sequestration still in effect and Air Combat Command’s support for the Tactical Demonstration Teams limited to the F-22 Raptor, it was one of the few airshows in the US where one could experience the raw power of modern combat jets in action, and the only air show where both fifth-generation fighters flew in formation. It also had warbirds and civilian aerobatic acts, providing something of interest to just about every airshow enthusiast.
Access to the air show is via bus shuttle from the parking lots of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It always pays to get there early, since airshow enthusiasts, especially photographers, start lining up much earlier than the scheduled opening time. This year the gates were scheduled to open an hour later than in previous years, although the flying schedule remained the same. This, combined with the much larger crowds, contributed to long delays getting on base Saturday morning. Fortunately this was remedied on Sunday when the buses began running around 0900. Security checks are conducted at the parking lot so once you disembarked at the flightline you were free to proceed directly to stake out a location along the flightline. New this year were the box seating arrangements: for a fee you could arrange reserved seating in one of the many areas set up at show left or even seating with catered dining in a chalet. Then it was off to view the many aircraft and vehicles on static display and talk with the many Airmen in attendance before the flying started.
The air show began at 11:00 with the singing of the national anthem. With impeccable timing a formation flight of the Air Force’s two newest fighter jets flew over from behind the crowd just as the singer finished. It was the first public display of the F-35A at Nellis and the first time the Lightning II and F-22 Raptor had flown in formation at an airshow. What a sight! Although this single flyover was the extent of the flying demonstration for the F-35A it was clearly the darling of this year’s Open House. Spectators ran forward to the fences ooh-ing and aah-ing as Maj. Brad Matherne, 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron F-35 test director, landed and taxied by. Visitors also crowded several deep around the Lightning II on static display, peppering the pilots and ground crew with an endless stream of questions. Taken off-guard by the unannounced flyover, many photographers in the audience made sure not to miss the photo on Sunday morning. Chuck Coleman started off the day’s flying in his Extra 300 and put on a high-octane demonstration of precision aerobatics that woke up the crowd and prepared them for the non-stop action ahead.
Las Vegas Army Airfield, the precursor to Nellis AFB, was activated just two weeks after Pearl Harbor Day. Its primary mission was bomber gunnery training. The Legacy Bombers act honored that history, with the B-25J Mitchell “Executive Sweet,” a C-45 in the role of an AT-11 Kansan, and an AT-6 Texan all performing as bombing-gunnery trainers. This quickly morphed into a World War II aerial engagement re-enactment as an A6M Zero attacked the bombers, only to be attacked itself by an F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair and P-51 Mustangs. Afterwards, Craig “Brute” Teft flew a very nice aerobatic demonstration in his CJ-6 Nanchang which then segued nicely into the Korean War aerial warfare demonstration. This featured jet dogfights between a MiG-15, F-86 Sabres, and a brand new T-33 which was nicely painted in Korean War markings. The ground attack mission was undertaken by a P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair and F8F Bearcat, all controlled by an AT-6 Texan as FAC. Chris “Zippo” Fahey and Greg “Wired” Colyer finished off with some really nice and tight formation flights in the MiG-15 and T-33, respectively. Greg then put on a solo aerobatic demonstration in “Ace Maker II.” Later, the Horsemen put on an amazing aerobatic formation demonstration in their F-86 Sabrejets, although only Steve Hinton and Dan Friedkin performed. Continuing the aerobatic jet theme, Paul Strickland, former Thunderbird and current Patriots pilot, put on a nice demonstration in the Bitcoin L-39. “Sticky” put the Albatros through its paces, including a very dynamic touch-and-go landing at show center.
As impressive as the morning’s acts were, one could have seen such warbirds or aerobatic demonstrations at many of the season’s airshows. What makes the Aviation Nation airshow unique were the ensuing demonstrations of fighter and attack capabilities. They demonstrate the tactics and techniques that are developed and taught at the USAF Warfare Center, based right here at Nellis AFB. First off was a demonstration of air-to-air combat that started when a pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 64th Aggressor Squadron bounced the airfield. A pair of F-15C Eagle fighters immediately scrambled, taking off in full afterburner. The four aircraft dueled it out in the sky, jinking and weaving through the bright November skies, the attackers desperately attempting to evade their pursuers, all four fighters popping flares as countermeasures against heat-seeking missiles. It was a rare display of the dogfighting capabilities honed to perfection during endless training missions and taught to US and allied pilots during the Red Flag exercises held at Nellis several times each year. (For a review of these exercises, see our coverage of Red Flag 14-1, 14-2 and 14-3.) Next was a very impressive demonstration of ground attack capabilities carried out by a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-15E Strike Eagles. Preparing to attack the airfield, they too deployed flares during their inbound flights before engaging in simulated bombing runs. The pyrotechnics accompanying their passes were remarkable, the percussive explosions providing incredible simulations of the military ordnance being deployed. Training for such ground attack missions takes place regularly during Green Flag exercises at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin with aircraft staging out of Nellis. A Green Flag exercise was actually in progress during the weekend, so the audience was treated to takeoffs and landings of several B-1B Lancer bombers during Sunday’s show. Kudos to the organizers for arranging this airshow extra!
After the close air support demonstration, HH-60G helicopters of the 66th Rescue Squadron, accompanied by pararescuemen assigned to the 58th Rescue Squadron, swooped in to demonstrate a combat search and rescue mission. As one Pave Hawk provided cover, the other came in low, slowed to a hover and dropped a line to the ground. A pararescuer fast-roped down, attended to the wounded Airman, then both were winched back aboard the waiting helicopter. It sounds simple enough, but the fluid execution of such a complex and important life-saving mission only results from countless hours of training and practice.
Although the F-35A Lightning II only performed a single flyover in its Nellis airshow debut, Capt John Cummings put on an amazing demonstration of the F-22’s flight capabilities, flying a combat-ready Raptor from the Nellis-based 53rd Test and Evaluation Group. “Taboo” really wowed the crowd with maneuvers that seemed to defy the laws of physics, and engaged in such high-g turns that he was able to pull vapor out of the high desert atmosphere. Displaying the weapons bay in a “now you see it now you don’t” banking pass is always a thrill for the audience, but the tail slide elicits the most gasps of disbelief. After finishing his routine he joined up with Steve Hinton and Dan Friedkin in their F-86 Sabrejets for an all-jet Heritage Flight.
The final act of the show was the Thunderbirds, performing in their last show of the season at their home base. We were privileged to watch them perform at over half a dozen shows this year and their final show was one of their best. The beautiful blue skies and the wonderful backdrop of Sunrise Mountain made for some amazing photographic opportunities. We wish the best to Lt. Col. Greg Moseley, newly-promoted Lt. Col. Caroline Jensen, Maj. Blaine Jones, Maj. Michael Fisher and Maj. Michael Carletti, all of whom will be leaving the team after an extended three year term.
Over 175,000 visitors attended the two-day Open House, a testament to the interest of the public in the mission of the base and the pent-up demand caused by last year’s airshow cancelation. This caused some issues with transportation on Saturday, but show organizers reacted by starting the buses an hour earlier on Sunday. There were sufficient food booths and bathroom facilities distributed throughout the air show grounds that lines were not an issue, and prices were reasonable. Free water was available from military water trailers. New this year were the premium seating areas and chalets for the general public. Several bleachers were provided at show center as well as a section reserved for handicapped visitors. The viewing area is west of the double 03/21 runways, meaning that the afternoon sun is over your right shoulder. Show right, with the best lighting, is also closest to the hot ramp. Since much of the air-to-air demonstration takes place at the north end of the base it’s a good idea to attend both days and sample the action from various vantage points. It’s also good practice in case weather or other circumstances cause a change in the flying schedule (such as the B-1 launches and recoveries on Sunday only.) Taxiing takes place quite close to the audience, with aircraft utilizing both near and far runways for takeoffs and landings. A zoom lens is therefore the best choice unless shooting with multiple cameras.
The Nellis AFB Open House was a fantastic way to end the 2014 airshow season! Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts have ruled out a show in 2015. Nevertheless, we look forward to visiting again soon: look for our coverage of Red Flag 15-1 early next year.
We would like to thank the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office for all of their hard work, in particular Master Sgt. David Miller, Staff Sgt. Siuta Ika and A1C Thomas Spangler whose dedication and persistence got us our photos and interviews.
|Air show performers:
|F-35A Lightning II flyover
|F-22A Raptor Tactical Demonstration
|Air-to-Air: F-15C Eagles and F-16C Fighting Falcons (Aggressors)
|Air-to-Ground: A-10C Thunderbolt IIs, F-15E Strike Eagles
|B-1B Lancer launches and recovery (associated with Green Flag exercise)
|HH-60 Pave Hawk Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) demonstration
|Heritage Flight: F-86E Sabre (x2) and F-22A Raptor
|WWII Re-enactment: B-25J, A6M Zero, F6F, F4U, P-51, C-45
|Korean Conflict Re-enactment: T-33, F-86, MiG-15, P-51, F4U, F8F, AT-6 Texan
|Greg “Wired” Colyer, T-33 Shooting Star “Ace Maker II” Aerobatics
|The Horseman F-86 Sabre Aerobatics
|Static display included:
|C-5M Super Galaxy, Travis AFB
|KC-10 Extender, Travis AFB
|KC-135 Stratotanker, Altus AFB
|Aggressors: F-16C, F-15C, USAFWC, Nellis AFB
|Nellis AFB lineup: MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, HH-60 Pave Hawk, F-15C Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, A-10C Thunderbolt II, F-16C Fighting Falcon, F-22A Raptor,
|F-35A Lightning II
|B-52H Stratofortress, Minot AFB
|B-1B Lancer, Ellsworth AFB
|QF-4E Phantom II, Holloman AFB
|Typhoon, UK Royal Air Force
|Tornado, German Air Force
|EA-18G Prowler, NAS Whidbey Island
|T-6A Texan II, Sheppard AFB
|T-38C Talon, Sheppard AFB
|CAP Green Flag West Support Aircraft
|Various Civilian Warbirds
|Numerous ground vehicles, current and historical
Malta School of Flying Tecnam P92-JS reg no 9H-MSF Private Beechcraft V35B Bonzana reg N456T and various other aircraft from the Island Microlight Club, Diamond Aviation, and the Malta School of flying.
|Report and photography by Norman A. Graf for