2015 Event Review

El Centro Photocall, February 19, 2015

Location: NAF El Centro, CA
Admission: Closed to the general public, by inviation only
Parking: £3 / £4 for on-site parking.
Value: Excellent -- Off the chart!
Rating out of 10: None, not an air show
Blue Angels at El Centro 2015
Sikorsky AH-1W Cobra, HMLA-369 “Gunfighters”

El Centro, located in the Imperial Valley of southern California more than 100 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 42 feet below sea level, seems an unlikely place for a Navy installation. However, the year-round good weather (over 350 days of sunshine and less than 3 inches of rain) and proximity to hundreds of square miles of bombing and gunnery ranges make it an ideal location for a Naval Air Facility. Unlike Naval Air Stations, which have permanently assigned squadrons, NAF El Centro (NAFEC) is home only to temporarily assigned and transient aircraft. Nevertheless, NAFEC is a very busy airfield, attracting Army, Navy and Marine units from around the US and foreign aircraft from Canada and various European allies. The British Army Air Corps, in particular, conducts a lot of flight and live-fire training with their Apache helicopters. As a consequence, you never know what you might see there, but it’s almost always worth a visit.

Of additional interest to airshow enthusiasts is the fact that since 1967 the facility has served as the “winter home” of the US Navy and Marine Corps Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels. Starting every January the team conducts over two months of intensive training and practice, honing their flying and maintenance skills and building the cohesiveness required to safely and successfully complete the upcoming airshow season.

Naturally, this profusion of aircraft also draws aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. Despite the fact that there are no permanently assigned squadrons at the facility, plane spotters can be found outside the base at any time of the year, hoping to photograph one of the training aircraft or a transient passing through. The small size, flat, treeless topography, and a close-in perimeter road provide excellent views of the activities on the facility. Incredibly, the base actually invites photographers on board roughly twice a year to get even closer to the action. was invited to participate in the first NAFEC Photocall of 2015.

On the morning of February 19 at 1100 approximately 50 photographers assembled outside the main gate of NAFEC. We were transported on board and met by Kris Haugh, Public Affairs Officer (PAO), and members of his team. We had all received detailed safety instructions via email but Kris went through each of the items once again. We would be photographing high-performance jets taking off and landing from a distance of only fifty feet, so safety, both ours and the pilots’, was the number one concern. “Think safety!” was Kris’ mantra. Second on the list was “BE MINDFUL OF FOD!” Foreign Object Debris is any object in an inappropriate location that can damage equipment or injure airplane or ground personnel. The resulting Foreign Object Damage is estimated to cost the aerospace industry over $4 billion a year. We were warned to be extremely careful of any loose items, including clothing, that could be either sucked in or blown about by the extremely powerful exhaust of jet aircraft or prop wash from rotorcraft. “Your hat for example should be securely bolted, nailed, glued, welded, stapled or otherwise permanently fastened to your head. I will have duct tape for those of you who may have difficulty understanding this important rule.” The last item in the long list of do’s and don’ts was “be prepared for a truly awesome experience!” After this detailed safety briefing, we were warmly greeted by Cmdr. Adam Schlismann, the Executive Officer. Buried deeply in the Photocall Safety Brief had been a reference to a brown M&M clause. When questioned about this, Cmdr. Schlismann recounted the story of how the rock band Van Halen used such a clause to ensure that all elements of their standard contract had been attended to (see http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/vanhalen.asp for details). It was a lighthearted moment but underscored how seriously he took his responsibilities to safeguard both the resources under his command and the visitors he was welcoming on board. We were expected to have read and understood all of the rules of engagement. After lunching on chicken mega burritos bought from the Chief Petty Officer's Association and visiting the Facility’s facilities (there are no porta-potties at the runway) we departed for the flightline.

We arrived on the airfield just as the Blue Angels were taxiing out for their afternoon practice flight over the base. With less than a month to go before the beginning of their airshow season, and well into the 120 flights required for show qualification, they were already flying the full delta demonstration routine. Extra effort is, however, devoted to a few of the more difficult maneuvers to get the timing and precision nailed down. Emphasis is also placed on safety. At any time during the flying, team members must be prepared to instantaneously react to unsafe conditions. Flying mere inches apart at hundreds of knots of airspeed does not allow time for any delay. In the unlikely event that an aircraft were to suffer an engine malfunction, even Blue Angel #1 during the transition into the diamond formation on takeoff, the other pilots should know almost instinctively how to disperse if anyone were to call “Knock it off!” The team members also practice how to land, transition to another waiting aircraft, and rejoin the demonstration after encountering difficulties, such as a mechanical malfunction or bird strike. Millions of spectators who thrill to the demonstrations may never be aware of all the time and effort which goes into these preparations, but they will be safer for it. On the scanner we heard “Off brakes, now!” and the Blue Angels show began. Their performances are amazing viewed from the distance of a normal airshow fence line: being this close to the action was thrilling, to say the least!

Our next stop was at the helicopter ramp where a number of Marine Corps choppers were preparing to depart. Alerted to our presence and cleared to depart in our direction, a pair of Sikorsky AH-1Z Super Cobras of HMLA-267 “Stingers” from MCB Camp Pendleton gently lifted off and slowly approached. The gunships bristled with armaments and passed so closely that the bright green reflection from the helmet-mounted “Top Owl” sight and display system glowed menacingly in the bright sunlight. To the delight of the photographers the pilots deliberately pirouetted, showing off their aircraft to good advantage. Not to be outdone, the pilots of the UH-1Y Super Hueys, also from HMLA-267, likewise passed close by before departing. However, the best was saved for last. An AH-1W Cobra, of HMLA-369 “Gunfighters” from MCB Camp Pendleton, now arose. Its fuselage was painted with the image of an enormous Cobra, stretching from the engine nacelle to the tail. Judging from the cacophony of camera shutter clicks, “Gunfighter 23” was clearly the highlight of the day for most of the photographers.

Our final location was along runway 8/26. This 9,500 foot runway is set up to emulate the deck of an aircraft carrier, complete with a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System which helps the aviator maintain the correct glide slope. A Landing Signal Officer (LSO) will normally provide additional guidance over the radio. We were set up across from the LSO shack fifty feet from the runway, positioning us right between where cables two and three would be located on a real carrier deck, i.e. the sweet spot for landings. Our first visitors were the pairs of Vipers and Venoms which had taken off earlier. They returned for a high-speed, low-level pass along the runway, zoom-climbing right in front of us to provide some dramatic photographs of unique angles. Shortly thereafter we listened in as an MH-60 Seahawk on its way to NAS North Island requested clearance south of NAFEC. Informed of the presence of a large number of photographers and given clearance to pass over the field, the crew did us the favor of flying overhead. VAQ-129, the “Vikings” from NAS Whidbey Island had been training at NAFEC the week before. One of their EA-18G Growlers had experienced mechanical difficulties and had not departed with the rest of the squadron. We were lucky to be there when it finally taxied out and departed. Even at a distance of fifty feet and with ear protection, the roar of the two F414-GE-400 turbofan engines was incredible. The rest of the afternoon was filled with departures and landings of student pilots from Training Squadron Nine, either with an instructor pilot in the rear or flying solo. Based at NAS Meridian, VT-9 flies brightly painted T-45C Goshawks. A-109 was particularly resplendent, painted in “Tigers” markings complete with angry eyes, a toothy mouth and tiger stripes on the tail. We stayed at the runway until the light failed shortly after dusk. A short pit-stop at the base exchange allowed participants to stock up on NAFEC and Blue Angels memorabilia before we were all bused back to the entrance. What a truly awesome experience!

would like to thank Kristopher Haugh and the members of his team in the Public Affairs Office for arranging this visit, and Commanding Officer Capt. William Doster and Executive Officer Cmdr. Adam Schlismann for their hospitality in allowing this photocall to take place. It’s hard to imagine a military base more welcoming and accommodating to aviation photographers.

Aircraft included:
McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/C/D Hornet, Blue Angels
McDonnell Douglas T-45C Goshawk, VT-9 “Tigers”, NAS Meridian
Sikorsky AH-1W Cobra, HMLA-369 “Gunfighters”, MCB Camp Pendleton
Sikorsky AH-1Z Super Cobra (Viper), HMLA-267 “Stingers”, MCB Camp Pendleton
Sikorsky UH-1Y Super Huey (Venom), HMLA-267 “Stingers”, MCB Camp Pendleton
Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawk
Boeing EA-18G Growler, VAQ-129 “Vikings”, NAS Whidbey Island
Report and photography Norman A. Graf for

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