check out the article from last February's photocall located here.
One of the important missions for NAF El Centro with winter in full swing is for the United States Navy's Flight Demonstration team known as the Blue Angels currently using the base for their winter practice. A few months after the 2012 airshow season has ended, the Blue Angels will begin their 3 month long training at NAF El Centro, even though their home base is at Pensacola in Florida, because of the incredible dry conditions that are quite consistent in the Imperial Valley. With only the occasional rain, the Blue Angels can enjoy wonderful weather as the team practices for the next season of airshows usually performing two shows a day as they improve their formation till they get that 18 inches of separation. Each pilot must complete a 120 training flight requirement in order for the Blue Angels to be approved for their first airshow where over 11 million people will see them. Even as the base is being used to host other transitioning squadron aircraft and train many others, the Blue Angels practice and practice first performing out in the desert and then moving to the base where they continue to improve and tighten their precision flying. Many El Centro locals will come out and park near the edge of the base to watch the Blue Angels as they practice each day. And while people might think that it's just their flying that is practiced, it's the full shows. That includes the Narrator and the many many members of the support crew, the signal officers and radio crews, along with even the Navy precision of walking in unison down the line of jets splitting off to their individual planes. No detail is left out during these many training days as they prepare for show time. NAF El Centro provides them with a home away from home and a perfect facility to practice their shows twice a day without disrupting encroaching cities or houses.
Beyond the Blue Angels, NAF El Centro's other mission of even more importance is that of training and support. This is evident with consistent visits to NAF El Centro, you'll see it's rarely empty for long and activity at the base is constant. Even during the winter months when the Blue Angels own the airspace for a few hours in a day, the base is quite active with various training missions and random arrivals for fuel or a place to spend the night. With this constant shifting of aircraft at the base for temporary time frames, this goes back to why it may be considered to be a 'hotel for military aircraft.' This will become more evident as you read on about this particular photocall and how the base went from being quite dead to suddenly a gaggle of various aircraft seemingly from out of nowhere appearing in need of NAF El Centro's fuels, runways, weapons range, or a place to park for a bit. Just about all branches of the US Military use NAF El Centro, even the US Air Force, which had some visiting F-16 Vipers come in earlier in the month. Several times during the year many F/A-18 Hornet squadrons from the US Marines and US Navy will be sent to NAF El Centro where they will constantly be armed and launched with live ordinance to practice bomb dropping and gunnery skills while being graded by rather sophisticated technology NAF El Centro has in place. To accompany these Hornets, instructors will often fly with them in T-45 Goshawk trainers which also add to the total of visiting squadrons. Often there is about one Goshawk per each F/A-18 Hornet used in the practice. During those times, NAF El Centro is quite busy with constant launches and recoveries throughout the day. It's times like those along with the random transient aircraft that come and go from NAF El Centro that get photographers excited.
If you read the last photocall article (See link here), you know a bit about what the photocalls at NAF El Centro are all about. But for those who are a bit new to reading about these, here's a bit of a breakdown of what a photocall is. Started a few years ago but the Public Affairs Officer Michelle Dee who realized that one of the best tools for promoting the base to the world and marketing what the base does for the US Military was right at her fingertips: passionate aviation photographers. With massive and prominent bases hosting many permanent squadrons, NAF El Centro can be often overlooked but the base's mission is incredibly important. These passionate photographers who number in the hundreds from various groups such as APSocal (Aviation Photographers of Southern California), Fence Check, Arizona Aviation Photographers, PHX Spotters, etc could get the right photos and angles to tell the story of NAF El Centro in a way they couldn't. As such, an unheard of event was formed called a 'photocall' where select photographers from each group would be picked and allowed to come on the base to the honor of incredible access that you just can't get anywhere else. With about two photocalls a year generally in February and October, these photocalls are highly sought after because of this special access. While the base would love to host every photographer who could make it, because of safety reasons along with space available and man power needed they can only let a limited group in. So these different aviation photographer groups are given a number of 'slots' for them to determine who is able to go. Each group does this a bit differently and is often determined by who will be able to give the most back to the base. Since the first inception of the photocall, several other bases have tried very limited photocalls (usually only a special one time event with very limited slots) but none has had the consistent longevity that El Centro has faithfully give these photographers. In fact, these photocalls have sparked the interest of the Navy as the last few photocalls have included Naval reporters and Public Affairs Officers to observe the popularity and the return that the Navy gets from these photographers through photography. As for myself, I've been honored and fortunate to be on 3 photocalls now, and each one is just as amazing and different as the next. The difference between the February and October photocalls (aside from the random squadrons or aircraft you may see) is really the Blue Angels as during the October photocall they are out performing airshows and haven't been to NAF El Centro since their winter training and first airshow at the base in March.
As winter was in full swing and the 2012 year turned into 2013, I knew it'd be time for another photocall. The last one in mid-October (story with photos coming) was action packed as we were able to witness first hand all the work that goes into arming aircraft for weapons practice with the F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18 Super Hornets launching carrying live weapons and returning with empty weapon mounts having dropped their ordinance. It was a pretty action packed photocall, so with the February one coming up I was excited to see what this one would be. Of course, I knew already that the USN Blue Angels (and by now if you don't know, I am a huge Blue Angels fan with them being my childhood heroes growing up next to the former MCAS El Toro base) would be performing their show during the photocall with another show being done in the early morning before the event as well. But that's about all I knew that would be there, and I was okay with that as with this budget sequestration on the horizon threatening to impact every airshow in the United States during the 2013 year, this might be one of the only times I get to see the Blue Angels for 2013. Even their first airshow of the year at NAF El Centro in just a few weeks is still not completely safe as this article is being written. Because of this, my desire to go to this photocall especially was quite high. Thankfully I was able to get on the slot list thanks to the generosity of the Aviation Photographers of Southern California group for which I'm a member. As the morning of Thursday February 21 approached I got my gear ready and prepared for the 3.5 hour drive. The schedule was to muster (meet) at the entrance to NAF El Centro by 1100 for check in, but most photographers will head out to the base at the crack of dawn to shoot from outside the fence in the adjoining fields as the random military aircraft perform training flights. Additionally, the Blue Angels will often fly in the early morning, around 8-9am, which provided another incentive to get out there early.
Leaving Orange County at about 0530 I arrived at NAF El Centro about 0830, just in time as the Blue Angels were lifting into the air to start their first show of the day. The Blue Angels performed a pretty good show, but at times it was clear they still could go a little tighter and with still a few weeks left of their winter training they'd have ample time to perfect it. They flew some of the maneuvers they didn't like twice to get it closer and tighter, which was very welcomed to all of us other there shooting photos. Many photographers were standing on their vehicles or with ladders they had brought to get a higher vantage point over the fence line to catch some of the low flying maneuvers without obstructions. Once the Blue Angels had landed (with the two solo aircraft coming nearly 30 feet above us on landing) the airfield opened back up to normal operations. Surveying the base, a very rare instance was observed... there were no Hornets on the base (aside from the Blue Angels). That's highly unusual as there's most often several Hornets if not whole squadrons there. In actuality, the base was pretty empty with only the Blue Angels, three EA-6 Prowlers, an Osprey which was having some problems, several T-45 Goshawk trainers, and about five AH-64 Longbow Apaches operated by the British Army Air Corps being put together from overseas transport of which one was airworthy yet. For NAF El Centro, the base might have well been considered pretty empty! For most of us that have been to El Centro and several photocalls, this was very unusual and for a moment we thought it might be a pretty slow day at the base and in turn a very slow photocall. We still had the Blue Angels to shoot and whatever might show up, but as we would see later on in the day, you never know what will show up at NAF El Centro making it obvious how important of a base it is. It didn't take too long after the Blue Angels show for something to start moving as two of the Northrop Grumman EA-6 Prowlers from VAQ-129 'Vikings' started up and taxied for takeoff. While that was happening, four Boeing T-45C Goshawks started up and also departed the base for weapon training with small smoke bombs. With 1100 fast approaching, we all got into our cars and headed to the front gate right as the first surprise visitor of the day, a Grumman C-2A Greyhound from VRC-30 'Providers' came in to perform several touch and go landings, probably for a new pilot. After a few of these, the Greyhound departed back home to NAS North Island just as another VRC-30 C-2A Greyhound arrived from the same base and started practicing touch and goes as well. Now lined up along the only road into NAF El Centro, it was time to check in. Some photographers stood outside their cars shooting the Greyhounds while others chatted occasionally looking up.
1100 - CHECK IN AND MUSTER
After each of the different groups had checked in everyone and made sure there were no surprised additions to the list, we got back into our cars and headed inside the base in a very long caravan. I'm sure any personnel on the base who saw what seemed like a never ending stream of cars entering had to be very curious what was going on. We drove past the entrance 'gate guard' birds (also called 'stick birds') which was a lineage of USN Blue Angel aircraft surrounded by a nicely kept grassy park. We arrived at our parking area outside one of the El Centro offices and everyone departed their cars after parking and mustered together for the traditional 'potty break.' Being that for the next several hours we'd be out on the airfield, this would be the last stop for a restroom, and as always the lines were pretty long. Not long after the Public Affairs Officer Michelle Dee came out of the office building and introduced herself welcoming everyone to the photocall. She also introduced us to her Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Kristopher Haugh who would be accompanying us on our trip to the airfield today. After giving out a few rules and guidelines to those who have never been to a photocall before (and a refresher for those who have), the Commanding Officer of NAF El Centro, CAPT Devon Jones, came out and welcomed us again and gave a little speech of gratitude for the publicity and positive light that we as photographers present NAF El Centro. Sadly, he would not be able to join us out on the field this time. After saying goodbye to the CAPT Jones and Michelle, Kris gave some final rules and introductions to the Navy personnel who'd be joining us to help corral everyone. With some time before the Blue Angels were to fly at 1230 the decision was made to make a quick pit stop before heading out to the field so we loaded into several Navy buses and vans and took off.
1200 - STICK BIRDS
Something I've always wanted to do, but never taken the time to stop, was to photograph that lineage of USN Blue Angel aircraft. A first for the photocalls, the group decided to kill the half hour before the USN Blue Angels were to fly by heading over to the gate guard aircraft and get some shots. Right at the entrance of NAF El Centro are four representations of the USN Blue Angel's eight aircraft they've flown since their first airshow in 1945. A Grumman F11F-1 Tiger, McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, and current Boeing F/A-18 Hornet line a dedication park with various flags and park benches. While these aircraft may not have actually been Blue Angel aircraft in their life-time nor the actual model of aircraft the Blue Angels really used (The F-4 Phantom in the park is actually a QF-4B Phantom vs the Blue Angel's F-4J Phantom model), they still carry the Blue Angel's signature blue and gold paint jobs and represent the vast history the team has had. Not to mention it's one of the very few places you can not only get up close but see a Phantom, Skyhawk, or Tiger in Blue Angel colors. It was rather quiet and peaceful at this small park, with only the sound of the wind and flags waving filling the air. After 15 minutes of taking photos, everyone piled back into the vans and the caravan continued to the airfield.
1230 - BLUE ANGELS
The vans pulled up along one of the taxi ways and parked along the side right were the Blue Angels had set up their comm. cart that had the signal officers, communications officers, safety observer, and Blue Angels Narrator. In the distance the 6 Boeing F/A-18A and F/A-18C Hornets were lined up with perfect precision as the ground crews prepped the aircraft for the pilot's arrival. Two spare F/A-18D Hornets (Blue Angel #7 Aircraft) were facing the Blue Angel aircraft also being prepared just in case there's a problem with any of the 6 show jets. As the group was waiting for the pilots to appear, two EA-6B Prowlers had returned and taxied back to their original spots from earlier in the morning. At about 1250, the Blue Angels pilots arrived and almost immediately they began their precision walk to their aircraft with each pilot breaking off from the line as their reached his aircraft. Climbing in and starting up pretty quickly, their canopies closed and the initial checks began. It wasn't long till the first aircraft was moving taxing from the line and heading out to the taxi way. One of the very unique parts of this particular NAF El Centro photocall earlier in the year is the fact that the Blue Angels use the taxi way where everyone for the photocall are located. That means they taxi past just mere feet from everyone... Talk about getting up close with the Blue Angels! As the size aircraft traveled past the group with the #5 solo flipping on his smoke and giving everyone a hello as he passed, the aircraft traveled out to the runway with the diamond (Blue Angels #1-#4 aircraft) turning left to head down to the end of the runway and the solos (Blue Angels #5 and #6 aircraft) turning right. The Blue Angels had all their typical airshow speaker equipment hooked up to the comm. cart so everyone could hear Blue Angel #7's narration. Just a few minutes past 1300, the USN Blue Angels took to the air. As always, their show was a great one though you could see they still were ironing out their perfect precision that they have during the airshows. For the most part, they looked great and put on their signature show that millions of people will end up viewing throughout the coming year (that is, if the current sequestration is averted). Near the end of their practice show, they repeated a few of their maneuvers most likely because they were unhappy about something and wanted to practice it again. This just goes to show the amount of work and dedication these amazing aviators put into their shows. Once the Blues had all landed and taxied back to their parking spots (once again passing by on the super close taxi way mere feet from the photographers) it was time to load up again into the buses and head out to the spot that makes the NAF El Centro photocalls famous.
1530 - LSO SHACK
After getting permission to drive across the taxi ways and runways once the Blue Angels had released the airfield, we caravanned over to the end of runway 26, the main runway used at NAF El Centro. At the end of this runway is what's known as the LSO Shack; LSO standing for Landing Signal Officer. At this shack during simulated aircraft carrier landing practice or in certain weather conditions a Naval officer will help the pilots with the Optical Landing System (OLS) which includes a special Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (FLOLS). The FLOLS has a series of lights that give pilots in aircraft information on their landing such as speed, altitude, and position by referencing the color and position of the lights. The LSO will advise the pilot of his speed and altitude in order to keep a specific light known as the 'Ball' in a specific position for the best landing angle. While the LSO shack was not being used we were there, the FLOLS was active in case pilots wanted to use it. Departing the buses, we headed towards the left side of the runway, making sure we did NOT pass the dreaded white line of death which would immediately end the photocall for everyone. The photographers spread out along the side of this 9,500 foot runway as we patiently waited for the first customer either landing or departing. Unlike many previous photocalls, we were given the okay to go down as far as we wanted along the runway, so many photographers like myself opted to get different photos than previous photocalls and travel further down the runway to get more lift off shots. It didn't take long for the first aircraft to appear; a returning T-45C Goshawk from TW-1 (Training Air Wing 1) 'Eagles' which touched down a mere 40 feet in front of the line of photographers. Right behind him was one of the EA-6B Prowlers from VAQ-129 that had been flying earlier in the day. Lining up at the end of the runway, the Prowler was the first aircraft to depart for everyone on the side of the runway, and for those who were new to the photocall got their first experience with the bone shaking thrill a departing jet fighter gives you as it passes so close to you. With the Prowlers being replaced by the brand new Boeing E/A-18G Growlers, it was a delight to see the Prowlers as you never know when they will finally be decommissioned and mothballed. Not soon after the Prowler had been airborne, the first surprise visitor of the day arrived: a Beechcraft T-34C Mentor from VMFAT-101 'Sharpshooters' based at MCAS Miramar. Now, those of you who know your squadrons might ask "Isn't VMFAT-101 a F/A-18 Hornet squadron? Why do they have a Mentor?" Many squadrons will have T-34 Mentors on hand for flight training and practice. Anything from check out flights for pilots, refreshers, or different instruction flights on aviation instruments and procedures are accomplished with the T-34. The all black trainer with famous tiger shark mouth on the nose touched down and taxied off to another part of NAF El Centro as all eyes turned back to the approaching EA-6B Prowler who had just taken off moments ago coming in for a touch and go landing. While coming down to land, another EA-6B Prowler which had been out flying since earlier in the morning came in performing an overhead break to land and joined in the pattern with the other Prowler both switching off one after another doing touch and go landings. This lasted for the better part of 35 minutes as the two stayed in the NAF El Centro pattern giving all the photographers ample opportunities to catch the Prowlers many times over from every different angle possible.
During the rest of the three and a half hours out at the LSO Shack along the runway, everyone was witness to just how busy NAF El Centro can get, even when the base seems empty. Aircraft from all sorts of nearby bases stopped by for anything from fuel, touch and go practice, to just a short rest before the next flight. The versatility of NAF El Centro to be able to host any type of military aircraft (fixed wing or rotor) is pretty amazing just considering how random the visiting aircraft can be. The base is capable to handle all of it in an efficient and quick manner exemplary of the professionalism that all bases should strive for. First up on the list of visitors was a delightful contrast to the Prowlers: a Boeing E/A-18G Growler from VAQ-129 (same squadron as the Prowlers). Following the Growler were two Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornets from VFA-86 'Sidewinders' located at NAS Lemoore. Four T-45C Goshawks from TW-1 departed soon after from the bases loaded with the small blue MK76 practice bombs for target practice out at the nearby range. Keep in mind, this is all going on between the times the two Prowlers are making their touch and go practices. This otherwise quiet base has suddenly become a fighter jet swarm. Three very surprise guests to the base, including one that would end up being the highlight for many during the day, appeared in the far distance as three dots. They were two F/A-18C Hornets and a F/A-18D Hornet. Arriving at the base before one of the Prowlers was finished with their current approach, they were forced to do a go around and we got a good look at these aircraft. The three Hornets were all from VMFAT-101 'Sharpshooters' and had come over from MCAS Miramar. The first two were just your standard F/A-18C Hornets from the squadron, but the third one was a very special F/A-18D Hornet which had ironically been talked about by many of the photographers earlier in the day before the photocall with hope (though slim and seemingly unbelievable) that it could randomly show up during the photocall. This Hornet is what's known as the 'Medal of Honor' tribute Hornet. Painted all white with green markings, this restored 'show' Hornet bares the name of several recent Medal of Honor recipients. The Hornet had a special ceremony on November 2, 2012 with the paint job done just for the ceremony for these Medal of Honor recipients. It will make appearances at various airshows throughout the 2013 year until its final retirement. The sight of this Hornet stirred up all the photographers as they quickly went to the best vantage points to get the best shots of this aircraft, for many the first time they'd seen it (including myself). The two squadron Hornets landed first turning off the runway and taxiing to park at the base. The Medal of Honor Hornet, however, touched down and immediately hit the burners performing a touch and go lifting back into the air. Sadly, that would be the only pass as the Hornet then immediately returned back to MCAS Miramar, however everyone was quite thankful it made an appearance!
As the Prowlers continued to make their race track pattern above the base, four more T-45C Goshawks lined up and launched to head out to the bombing range. In the distance, a loud whooping sound filled the air as the broken Bell MV-22 Osprey from VMM-163 'Ridge Runners' based at MCAS Miramar had been fixed up after all and would be departing back for MCAS Miramar. This would be the first time that I know of that an Osprey had taken off from the 26 runway for a photocall, and was much welcomed as a nice break from the usual jets. The large unusual tiltrotor aircraft didn't take long to lift off into the air with massive engines tilted just slightly forward. The wind from the engines nearly blew everyone over as the Osprey went by. It was after the Osprey that finally the two Prowlers landed and headed back to their parking spots and it appeared that there would be a little break in the action. This pause was soon broken with another E/A-18G Growler coming in for a carrier break starting nearly an hour straight of touch and goes before heading off to MCAS Miramar. A second E/A-18G Growler joined the first one and switched off their touch and goes making for non-stop action and many photo opportunities once again... a perfect mirror of what the Prowlers, whom they would be replacing in the fleet in the near future, had been doing. During the Growlers many touch and goes, the two F/A-18E Super Hornets from VFA-86 started back up and launched out of the base heading out towards wherever their next destination would be. Several T-45C Goshawks arrived back from their target practices and many more launched to head back out there. They would launch in groups of 4 one at a time, head out to the range and be out there for quite some time, then return to the base in formation breaking off to land individually. Again, all this happening while the Growlers were running their race track pattern. As you can start to see, NAF El Centro isn't just a little base in the middle of nowhere, but a critical part of training and support for the military and is used regularly. In the distance, one of the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters (technically a AgustaWestland WAH-64D Apache) from the British Army Air Corps with a call sign of 'Wolfman' taxied out to the middle of the base on the diagonal runway 30 for hover and flight testing. Unfortunately, it stayed far away from the photocall group, but that didn't stop everyone from attaching what ever telephoto zoom lenses they had onto their cameras to get what photos they could. For myself, it was the first time I've seen an Apache flying on the west coast (they are a bit rare to see around the west coast area). The Beechcraft T-34C Mentor from VMFAT-101 came back out and launched to head home to MCAS Miramar, and one of the EA-6B Prowlers launched again but this time heading out to another destination. Two more visitors appeared not too long after the two Growlers had finally finished their touch and goes heading to MCAS Miramar, two Bell MV-22 Ospreys from VMM-363 'Lucky Red Lions' based at MCAS Miramar appeared from the north. Using the diagonal runway 30 just after the Apache Longbow had departed for a quick test flight the two Ospreys landed and headed over to the hot pit to get some fuel keeping their rotors going. Four more T-45C Goshawks departed for the range and the Apache Longbow returned finishing the test flight as the Ospreys continued to refuel. Yet again, four more T-45C Goshawks departed heading out to the range again as the Ospreys headed out to the runways to depart. We thought they would depart the diagonal runway as most helicopters do, but probably because the photographers were lined on the further away runway 26 they decided to head over there. The first Osprey surprised everyone launching from the hold short taxiway rather than the runway catching all the photographers off guard not ready for this very unusual departure. The second Osprey continued to taxi onto the runway and took off in front of everyone just as the Osprey from earlier had.
With the light fading fast from the thickening clouds and the sun setting, the last two aircraft to depart the base were the two F/A-18C Hornets from VMFAT-101 that had arrived earlier with the Medal of Honor Hornet. Taxiing out to the end of the runway, the two Hornets lined up and launched one after another with their afterburners glowing very brightly against the now dark cloudy sunset light. Both Hornets were headed back to MCAS Miramar and over the radio they were advised of frost and limited visibility out at Miramar. With the amount of dark clouds that had suddenly enveloped the air, it was no surprise. As the sound of these last two Hornets went from a loud roar to a distant rumble, it was time to pile back onto the buses as our time out at the LSO Shack was finished. While driving away we could hear the sound of two more E/A-18G Growlers arriving at NAF El Centro to do some dusk touch and goes. Bummed that we had to leave, though not really realizing that we had been shooting Growlers doing the same thing in better light for a few hours, the caravan of buses left the airfield and headed back into the base to our final destination of this 2013 Photocall.
1820 - NEX STOP
The final stop of the photocall, a bit of a tradition, is to the bases NEX (Naval Exchange) which is a bit of a general store selling everything from electronics, food, books, uniforms, toys, and a lot more. But the reason for the stop is because the NEX could be also considered to be the 'gift shop' for the base with clothing, patches, pens, stickers, coins, and all sorts of trinkets for the USN Blue Angels and NAF El Centro. Most photographers stock up on some mementos from the base and some 'wake up' food and drink for the long drives back home. The line at the NEX gets pretty long because of this, and often times it takes a while for them to get everyone out of the store. After saying goodbye and a hearty round of thank yous to Michelle and Kris, it's time to hop back onto the buses one final time.
1850 - TILL NEXT TIME
Arriving back at the parking area and going full circle from earlier in the day, the photocall is officially over. All the photographers, tired from a long day but excitedly clutching their cameras with their photos on memory cards, head back to their cards saying goodbye to one another and departing the base. Leaving NAF El Centro, we were parted with the two E/A-18 Growlers still making touch and go pattern flights even has the darkness crept in and the only thing you could see (while their loud roars were still very prevalent even in the car) were the blinking lights on the tail. As NAF El Centro grew smaller in the distance and the sound of the Growlers faded away, it was time to head home and look forward to the upcoming airshow!
YOU CAN CHECK OUT THE OFFICIAL AIRSHOW WEBSITE LOCATED HERE.
A BIG round of thank yous to all the people who made this photocall possible: This includes PAQ Michelle Dee, Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Kristopher Haugh, Commanding Officer CAPT Devon Jones (for allowing these to continue), all the Navy personnel who escorted us throughout the base, the USN Blue Angels, and the US Navy for their hospitality. A big thank you to Damon and Glenn for allowing me to participate as well.