NAFEC Air Show 2012

Words by Matt Willis

This may be a somewhat unusual post, or seem a little out of place, but I thought I’d share just to change things up from our regular event coverage. A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the El Centro Airshow, located about 150 miles east of San Diego. Since El Centro is the training base for the Blue Angels during the winter, it makes sense that the base hosts the first show of the season so they don’t have to relocate and come back at another time. I’ve been going to Imperial County since I was a kid, but I hadn’t been to the air show in well over a decade, so I figured I’d check it out and see what’s changed. I enjoy aircraft – similar to my passion cars, I enjoy hearing the sounds of different planes, the speed and maneuvering, the different designs and the engineering effort that goes into them. I get a little thrill out of it, which is all I need to be happy I suppose.

The cool thing about an air show in the middle of nowhere is that there isn’t a huge crowd to steer around, and because of that, the base staff is a little more flexible and it certainly makes the photography aspect easier. I was fortunate enough to get access to the flight line so during the show, it was just me and a few other photographers in our own section.

I was already in El Centro the afternoon prior to the show, when I got an invite to a little gathering on-base for air show regulars, staff and media. There was a variety of food from local places that I got to try out, as well as some music and seeing some of the locals.

Heading toward the base, I snapped this shot of Signal Mountain and one of thousands of canal routes in the area…

The southwest hangar was opened up for everyone to gather and eat…

American-themed bike on display…don’t really like these types of bikes but there was definitely some attention to detail here…

The entire Blue Angels crew…

Captain and lead pilot Greg McWherter presenting a gift to one of the base commanders…

Later on, the Metal Mulisha squad previewed some of their stunts, which was cool to see. The only thing I didn’t like was they had all the lights pointed towards the sides, rather than at the center, so there was immense amount of glare. A lot of the photographers were frustrated with it…




An awesome fireworks’ display finished the evening – many said it was one of the best-coordinated displays they’d ever seen, surpassing Washington D.C. and NYC. Though I haven’t seen many shows other than local ones, I would have to agree…it was very well-done…

The next morning, I was called to the media booth at 8AM sharp, so I rushed over to the base a little early. The next challenge, as with most events, is actually getting the passes. I won’t knock it because there was definitely a lot going on at once, but we’ll just say it took a fair amount of time to get the access and find out where I could and could not go on the flight line. Once I had that information, I rushed around the static displays and tried to shoot as much as I could before the show started.

P-51 Mustang, one of the fastest of it’s era…


T-28 Trojan…

This is a CAG scheme of one of the older F/A-18C squadrons. The older models apparently have a smaller body and round air intakes…



Here’s a newer generation F/A-18E model. Notice the rectangular intakes…



Predator drone…

Immense CH-53 “Sea Dragon”, used for delivering and picking up heavy cargo…

Taking a peek on-board…

One of the things I immediately noticed was how slick the floor was. Upon looking up, I noticed EVERYTHING was leaking this orange oil that smelled like brake fluid. Hopefully this one was under repair or out of commission…haha…

T-45 Goshawk, a common sight at the base. These are what F/A-18 pilots train in before the go prime-time…


A rare F-5 Tiger, which were decommissioned from the Navy back in the 90s. Because of the red star, people confuse these for MIGs because they saw the same plane as the adversary in Top Gun…but because the US film industry obviously couldn’t get access to Russian planes, they had to improvise…


S-3 Viking, used for Anti-Submarine warfare…


Another rare sight…B-52 Stratofortress.

By the time I went through all the statics, I rushed to the flight line before the action started…

Spencer Suderman’s aerobatic biplane that I caught on my way to the line…

The Navy Seal “Leap Frogs” who specialize in demonstrative parachute jumps…



Spencer Suderman got things started by doing some stunts…

…One of which included racing a jet-powered truck. The plane lost…



Joe Shetterly’s RV-8 aerobatic…


Search and rescue demo…

After a short intermission, the Blue Angels prepared to fire up.


A quick C-130 demo got things started…

Captain Greg ready to go…

The 5th plane had some difficulties getting going. Unlike my car, they can’t just zip tie or JB-weld something together to make it work as the planes fly so precisely. So the plane was towed off and replaced by their back-up…


And they quickly got into close formation…









The show was over within half an hour or so; I headed back to the hangars to try and beat the rush.

On my way back, I spotted this Jaguar XK-RS on display. Beautiful car which I am very fond of.


When the day was done, I felt it was a great experience. I probably won’t be heading out again until the Blues arrive for training again next year, so I bid them farewell and hope their season goes well across the nation. I also want to thank Kris for the flight line access and coordinating everything, and to Ted as well for his hospitality. And of course the staff at NAFEC who made it all happen.

El Centro at dusk…

Thanks for reading!

One response to “NAFEC Air Show 2012”

  1. Hey TimScribbles (or Matt?) 🙂

    Love the aircraft pictures. I spent some time working in the UK and managed to get to a few airshows while I was there. Your picture of the B52 reminds of one show where there was a B52 on display. Late in the afternoon the bomber took off to fly back to the NATO base it operated from – what an awesome sight and sound with all 8 engines flat out as it lumbers down the runway for takeoff!

    Also very jealous of your other pics of the Blue Angels training and the extreme close-ups you got of them coming in to land!


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