Okay, do the math. This jet entered service in the 1950s, and I'm told the Air Force plans to keep it in service until 2040. I'm not sure I'll be in service then!
I'm talking about, of course, the B-52 Stratofortress, long a pillar of America's Cold War nuclear deterrent. With new satellite-guided bombs that can be dropped from outside enemy air defenses and strike surgically, this old bird is still the USA's main heavy-hauler in wartime. With its huge payload, it's also an excellent psychological weapon against potential enemies. Ever seen one take off? There is nothing more apocalyptically sinister-looking than a Buff rising from the runway, a storm cloud of black exhaust behind it, the enormous landing gear reaching down like the talons of some prehistoric bird of prey.
You've probably seen the mysterious new B-2 Stealth Bomber, the flying-wing aircraft that flies around air shows like a huge boomerang but never lands because it's still too secret. The B-52 guys I spoke with joked that their old jets will perform a fly-by at the Stealth's retirement ceremony.
The annual air show at Nellis Air Force Base is a two-day event (October 5th and 6th in 2002), and it's a good thing: you need that much time to see all of the exhibits, and the flightline is so huge that it takes half a day just to walk from one end of the show to the other.
Aviation Nation is an apt name for this event. It shows us how our tax dollars are being spent to protect the nation, and it provides an entertaining look at military and civil aviation. Moreover, this year's show provided a history lesson.
We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern aviation (2003), which occurred when a fragile kite-like aircraft lifted off from a sand dune in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. To celebrate, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has built a beautiful replica of the Wright Flyer and is taking it on tour around the country. (See the schedule at www.flight100.org/activities/tour.html.) The craft was on display in a hangar, surrounded by informative memorabilia and photographs. Just think: in one century we've advanced from kites to boomerangs!
Most people aren't history buffs, however; they came for the action outside. Besides a gazillion aircraft parked for close-up viewing, there were many planes there to fly in the show.
I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning! Plenty of it was burned on this occasion. The Red Bull MiG-17, an old Russian jet fighter now resplendent in a bright red paint scheme, wowed the crowd with its sweeping turns and dives. Then an even older American fighter, an F-86 Sabre flown by retired Navy pilot Dale "Snort" Snodgrass, was not to be outdone. The new C-17 Globemaster transport, while not an agile fighter, showed some nice moves and amazed me with its quiet engines. I couldn't hear the plane flying by because of the little Honda generator powering the nearby camera truck! That wasn't a problem with the next performer, an Air Force F-15C air-superiority fighter.
This jet, with its two huge afterburning turbofan engines, shakes the ground as it flashes by, just above the runway and just below the speed of sound.
Earlier I had spoken with a pilot of the F-15E Strike Eagle, an impressive all-weather ground attack version of the plane. He clearly liked his jet better than the pure air-to-air version, and I agree. My own background is in Navy attack jets, and I figure any time you can take a great fighter and hang big honkin' bombs on it, you've done a beautiful thing.
Even today, flying isn't just jets. Special propeller-driven stunt planes flown by well-known performers Patty Wagstaff and Jim "Bulldog" LeRoy mesmerized us with their maneuverability.
These small aircraft turned on a dime, and often they became invisible in their own colored smoke trails as they repeatedly covered the same small patch of sky.
Speaking of fancy flying, this air show also saw the unveiling of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, which will compete at the World Aerobatic Championships in 2003. Next year should be a great one for aviation.
Few things sound as sexy to me as the throaty roar of an old propeller-driven fighter plane. In the afternoon we had Las Vegas-style Unlimited Air Racing, with some of the fastest prop planes ever flown. These are old fighters with sleek new low-profile canopies and souped-up engines, and they are blindingly fast. They raced a circuit around the runway in front of us, the lead changing hands several times as they rounded the turns very low to the ground, their wings banked almost to the vertical. Fantastic!
The military has a long history of making old things new again. A quarter-century ago I saw my first Thunderbirds show, when they were flying the T-38 Talon, a petite, maneuverable jet trainer. The Air Force is still training fighter pilots in modernized versions of this excellent airplane. We should remember things like this when we grumble about $600 toilet seats.
The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, now fly something even hotter: the F-16 Fighting Falcon. This strike fighter's legendary agility and speed make it perfect for their purposes. Based right here at Nellis Air Force Base, the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron thrilled the hometown crowd with soaring acrobatics by the four-plane diamond formation, hair-raising crossing maneuvers by the two solo aircraft, and a whole lot of really cool jet noise. Their narrator, who announced the maneuvers over the P.A. system, sounded as if he came straight from the pro wrestling circuit, and several people openly snickered at his rather comical growling. Oh, well - it's the flying that counts, and that was excellent. The highly-trained Thunderbird pilots fly in formation with less than two feet between wingtips. We did that occasionally in the Navy, but only when the clouds were so thick that pilots otherwise couldn't see each other. Don't try it at home, folks.
The only really unfortunate aspect of the whole air show was the music on the loudspeakers. The flying airplanes are so marvelously noisy that any music would have to really blare to compete, and this music did. Worse, a lot of it was truly obnoxious, I-sniff-glue-and-worship-the-devil stuff. At an air show? What were they thinking?
There was much more to this show, of course. The Army's Golden Knights parachute team gave us all sore necks as its members tumbled from the heavens, and the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier "jump jet" gave us sore eardrums as it hovered and pivoted above the field on the vectored thrust of its huge jet engine. The Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II ground-attack aircraft, unique for its huge anti-tank cannon and armored cockpit, showed off its maneuverability, if not its beauty (it is affectionately known as the "Warthog").
In another bit of history, the Heritage Flight of several generations of military aircraft performed a short flight demonstration together; www.nellis.af.mil/Airshow.htm has more information.
This is a very big air show, and you have to keep moving if you're going to see a lot of it. I hope many of the guests attended on both days, as I did. Aviation Nation is an excellent look at where aviation has been, where it is now, and where it's headed.
Feature and Photos By Rob LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.