Heritage Flight Training Course - Davis-Monthan AFB / Tucson Arizona
Update: 2020/08/26 by Shawn Clish / CHK6
In 1947, the United States Air Force (USAF) was created through the National Security Act, thanks in part to the efforts of President Harry S. Truman. In 1997, the Golden Air Tattoo at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Air Force by pairing modern military jets with World War II fighters. These formation flights connected the past with the present and started a tradition that is now known as the Heritage Flight. As the service celebrates their 75th anniversary, Air Force Heritage Flights are one of the most sought after displays at air shows across North America. Over their 25 year existence, Heritage Flights have featured every generation of fighter aircraft since World War II, honouring the men and women who have served, or are currently serving, while inspiring future generations of airmen and women.
Each year before the start of the air show season, aircraft and crews come together at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, for the Heritage Flight Training Course (HFTC). Currently there are four Air Combat Command (ACC) single ship demonstration teams: the Lockheed Martin F-16 VIPER Demo Team from Shaw AFB, South Carolina, the Lockheed Martin F-22 RAPTOR Demo Team from Langley AFB, Virginia, the Lockheed Martin F-35A LIGHTNING II Demo Team out of Hill AFB, Utah and the Republic A-10C THUNDERBOLT II Demonstration Team based locally at Davis-Monthan AFB. This multi-day event provides the pilots with an opportunity to train and certify in formations of two, three or four aircraft that will be flown at venues across North America.
The 2022 edition of the HFTC took place from March 3 to 6 and featured 11 warbirds: 10 North American P-51 MUSTANGS and a North American F-86 SABRE. The flying schedule followed the same format all four days. Teams flew a demonstration each morning and afternoon, then were joined by at least one heritage aircraft after their solo display. Pilots practised flying as lead and wing, with the formations growing in size as the course progressed. New pilots, of which there were three this year, received an opportunity to fly in the backseat of both a P-51 and an F-16, to get acclimatized to the five-pass routine before participating in the formations as the flying pilot.
There are plenty of prominent figures among the group of warbird pilots. Greg Anders and Tommy Williams are Air Force veterans, while Dan Friedkin and Jim Beasley Jr are founding members of the program. There is, however, one name that stands above the rest and that is Steve Hinton, the President of the Planes of Fame Air Museum. After 25 years of flying Heritage Flights, Steve retired from the program on February 13, 2022, after flying P-51 “Wee Willy II” in the special five-ship flyover of SoFi Stadium that opened Super Bowl LVI. Steve passed the torch to his son at Davis-Monthan, as Steven Hinton joined the team as one of the two new civilian pilots. Steven is a 7-time Reno Air Races Unlimited Gold Champion, holder of the World Speed Record for Piston Powered Aircraft and has over 2000 hours of flight time in an incredible assortment of World War II aircraft.
The other rookie civilian heritage pilot was Bruce “Doc” Winter. “Doc” flew Boeing F/A-18 HORNETS with the United States Navy, including combat operations, and also while on exchange with the United States Marine Corps. He has over 800 hours flying the Mustang and was the heritage pilot at the controls of P-51D “Happy Jack’s Go-Buggy” in Tucson. On the military side, the Viper Demo Team welcomed a new Commander to display their beautifully painted jet, “Venom”. On Saturday March 5, Captain Aimee “Rebel” Fielder was certified by Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, as the new Demonstration Team Pilot flying a Lockheed Martin F-16CJ VIPER.
My unorthodox travel plans started with a flight from Calgary to Los Angeles and was followed by an eight hour drive to Tucson for the event. It was difficult to pass up spotting opportunities at two of my favourite places, Naval Air Facility El Centro and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma on my way to Tucson, but since I was attending my first HFTC I wanted to maximize my time spent around the base. Having said that, I started the morning of Thursday March 3 at the Tucson International Airport (KTUS), which is located just a short distance southwest of Davis-Monthan. Morris Air National Guard Base is the name of the military installation at the airport and is home to the 162nd Fighter Wing, the largest fighter unit in the Air National Guard. Its three F-16 squadrons conduct flight training for American and international crews and regularly commence their operations at 0800. I headed to the wonderful spotting location next to the fire hall that enjoys a few hours of perfect light every morning and watched over a dozen jets depart and return before heading to Davis-Monthan.
While KTUS is a fairly easy place to spot and photograph, Davis-Monthan can be quite difficult due to its size and layout. Although there is only one runway, Runway 12-30, it is surrounded by base buildings to the east and industrial complexes to the west. This inability to get close to the action is compounded by some harsh lighting conditions as the sun moves through the sky resulting in the lack of an obvious location for photography. An additional issue was the actual flight paths flown during the course. Although the heritage flights all follow the same format, they aren’t flown identically by the 15 different pilots that lead the formations and tend to be less maneuverable as the formation size increases. I tried a variety of locations on Thursday and even used a flight tracking app to see if there was any commonality among the flight paths, but found minimal success. With afternoon clouds obscuring the sun, I headed south of the base and watched the final displays while standing among the 400 aircraft collection at the Pima Air & Space Museum.
Friday I had the opportunity to attend the on-base media day on behalf of Checksix. This meant an interesting drive along South Kolb Road with the aircraft of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) visible on either side. The media group was kept small due to covid precautions so I felt especially fortunate to have been included. Although confined to a fenced-in location on the flight line, the morning started out brilliantly with a demonstration from Major Haden “Gator” Fullam in the Fairchild A-10C WARTHOG. After his solo performance, he was joined by Steven Hinton in P-51D MUSTANG “Spam Can”, for two Heritage Flights, allowing each pilot to have a turn as lead. Unfortunately, but as forecast, the wind strengthened to an unsafe level after the A-10 and P-51 duo and grounded the remaining warbird flights for the rest of the day. While the other three ACC Teams practised their individual routines, it just wasn’t the same without their piston (or turbojet) powered wingmen and once again I was left with a lot of available space on my memory cards with only one day left in town.
I returned to KTUS on Saturday morning for more F-16 launches and recoveries under perfect sky conditions and with dynamic backgrounds that included former Air Canada Embraer jets. It was a welcome start to the day and was followed by more positivity as the winds remained at an acceptable level and allowed the HFTC to train in three and four-ship formations throughout the day. I finally found an advantageous location with favourable lighting to photograph the fifth-generation fighter demonstrations that included plenty of afterburner and even some vapour squeezed out of the dry desert air. Their performances were followed by impressive formations as Major Joshua “Cabo” Gunderson flew his Lockheed Martin F-22 RAPTOR with a pair of Mustangs while Major Kristen “Beo” Wolfe’s Lockheed Martin F-35A LIGHTNING II was joined by a trio of P-51s
The day had worked out well but it wasn’t until late afternoon, when a group of four jets taxied out, that the special type of formation I had come all this way to see finally happened. The extra flight was lead by the F-86 Sabre and was followed by an F-22, an F-16 and the special Vietnam-era camouflaged A-10, the “Red River Hawg”. I chose a location further west than I had been positioned for most of the day, believing the jets would fly a wider pattern due to their formation size. Fortunately, I ended up in the perfect spot and held the shutter down on my Canon R5 for an excessive number of golden topside exposures of this very special Heritage Flight. It was a perfect finale and just the stimulant I needed to help me with the long drive to my next adventure at NAS Fallon in northern Nevada.
It was nice to finally witness the unofficial opening to the North American air show season in Tucson, Arizona, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the United States Air Force, the 30th anniversary of Air Combat Command, and the 25th anniversary of the Heritage Flight. Even though this event is not open to the public, it is very appealing to aviation enthusiasts since it brings together all four ACC demonstration teams and the civilian warbirds that will fly with them all season. It was particularly special to be included in the limited access media day on Friday March 4, providing me with a chance to get close to the action on the flight line at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Finally, there was plenty of bonus aviation to enjoy thanks to Tucson also being the home of the very active Morris Air National Guard Base, the incredible Pima Air & Space Museum and the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group. I look forward to returning in 2023.
Special thanks to Lt Calvillo and the 355th Wing Public Affairs Team for the opportunity to attend the Media Day on behalf of Checksix.
Shawn Clish / CHK6