Shawn´s American Adventure - five airshows, four bases & one low level route
Update: 2021/08/05 by Shawn Clish / CHK6
On March 11, 2020, I boarded an Air Canada flight in Toronto and headed southwest to Las Vegas for a week-long trip that was to include Exercise Red Flag and air shows at NAF El Centro and MCAS Yuma. While the virus had been making headlines globally, the impact it would have in North America was not readily apparent. Unfortunately, everything changed the following day. Closures and cancellations were all over the news, including the events in El Centro and Yuma. Reluctantly, with nothing going on and a lot of uncertainty about safety, I headed home after only 36 hours in the US. As 2020 turned to 2021 I really started to miss the ability to travel that I had unknowingly taken for granted. While I loved seeing the photos coming from events like Red Flag, WTI and Sun ’n Fun, I wanted to be able to attend, enjoy the atmosphere, interact with fellow enthusiasts and of course, take pictures. Although the land border between Canada and the United States has been closed since March 21, 2020, the ability to enter the US through the air has remained possible with the only obstacle being the requirement to quarantine upon return. With this in mind a plan started to take shape that would pack enough aviation into a multiple week trip to make the quarantine worthwhile. The bookends for this adventure were set, starting at Nellis AFB for Weapons School Integration (WSINT) and ending with an opportunity to catch some jets flying low level through the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The southwestern US has many military bases and museums and there were air shows each weekend providing multiple contingency options should the weather not cooperate.
My adventure started on Tuesday, June 1 on the first Air Canada Express flight to Denver since the service had been halted on February 12, 2021. I was stunned to arrive at the bustling airport in Denver after departing from an empty terminal in Toronto. I felt fortunate to get the last seat on the second flight I tried, a Southwest 737 bound for Las Vegas.
I met up with my friend Rod McDonough who would be my travel partner for most of the next three weeks. Rod and I had high expectations for our four days at Nellis as we had visited in early June before and hoped there would be plenty of golden light opportunities. The United States Air Force Weapons School falls under the command of the 57th Wing, the most diverse wing in the Air Force. There are 21 squadrons that combine to make up the Weapons School with 14 of them based locally at Nellis. The Weapons School course provides training in advanced weapons and tactics with the goal of creating a combat specialist that will return to their squadron as an instructor. These biannual courses conclude with the Advanced Integration Phase, offering students the chance to plan and execute large-force missions multiple times each day. In our previous experiences, both Rod and I had enjoyed the late afternoon and evening launches of dozens of jets providing fantastic opportunities for photography. Our week started out perfectly as a B-52, an RC-135 and a pair of B-1s departed in the ideal conditions we had hoped for. But, as anyone who has visited Nellis knows, the base can be quite challenging and our Tuesday evening opportunity ended up being the only chance we would get with our preferred lighting. The following three days at the base featured morning departures with early afternoon recoveries in harsh summer sun and night missions that started just after dark. Nellis is always a gamble and although we were very happy with Tuesday’s results, we had envisioned so much more. Fortunately, there were a lot more picture taking opportunities ahead.
I truly enjoyed my time at this event and will certainly return. Watching the incredible collection of warbirds fly in perfect weather from the relaxed area on the hill while surrounded by friends was everything I had hoped for. I would have loved to stay for the Sunday show but I had to travel back to Nevada to rejoin Rod for a tour at NAS Fallon.
With an abundance of clear weather each year and surrounded by four bombing ranges, NAS Fallon provides combat training to visiting carrier air wings. I call this place ‘Aviation Photography Disneyland’ thanks to the incredible Public Affairs Team and their willingness to work with photographers from all over the world. A portion of Carrier Air Wing Nine was in town, including the colourful CAG birds from the VFA-14 Tophatters and VFA-151 Vigilantes. We were also treated to multiple operators of camouflaged F-5s as the locally based VFC-13 jets were joined by Marines from VMFT-401 and the defense contractor Tactical Air. We spent two and a half successful days in and around Fallon then headed southwest through the north central Sierra Nevada mountain range to Beale AFB.
In Portland I boarded American Airlines destined for Detroit with a connection in Chicago. In the days leading up to this flight I had become interested in the air show being held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, featuring the F-35A and F-16 Demonstration Teams along with the US Navy BLUE ANGELS. I decided that if the flight was on time and the weather forecast was still promising I would stop in Chicago and make the four hour drive to the Deke Slayton Airfest. Yet again I found myself in a fortuitous situation as the flight arrived early and thanks to my Avis Preferred status, I was in a rental car on the I-90W less than 30 minutes after the plane landed. Blue skies, a comfortable temperature and a relaxed approach to a drive-in style show made for an exceptional day. While I enjoyed the LIGHTNING II and VIPER demos, my main attraction to this event was the opportunity to see the BLUE ANGELS perform in their new SUPER HORNETs. I have always admired the BLUE ANGELS professionalism and believe them to be the pinnacle of military aviation. The weather remained perfect throughout the day and with the sun at my back and the blue and yellow jets in my lens I had a delightful afternoon watching their performance.
It was amazing that after minimal sleep on the flight the previous night, a four hour drive to the event and then being in the sun all afternoon, I wasn’t more exhausted on the return drive to Chicago. The excitement from such a successful day proved to be a wonderful stimulant to help get me safely back to Chicago. Once again I had a short night as I was flying standby to Detroit at 5:30 am and if there is one rule about standby travel it’s that you always try to get on the first flight. Arriving at O’Hare, I was shocked at how busy the airport was. I would never have believed such a short flight at an early hour on a Sunday would be full, but I started to worry after my standby list position dropped below the number of available seats on the plane. Thankfully, I received a seat on the plane and was off to Detroit for a day at the Yankee Air Museum.
The Yankee Air Museum is very special to me. My father and I have regularly attended Thunder Over Michigan since 2003 and become very comfortable with the area and especially fond of the people associated with the museum and show. My morning started on the west side of the field at Wings and Wheels, a combined car show and aircraft static event. Although it was obvious there were some incredible classics on display, my lack of knowledge about vintage cars meant I didn’t have the same understanding of their significance as the aircraft they were parked next to. After a few hours in the sun it was time for a break so I decided to finally visit the museum’s hangar. Incredibly, even with two events running that day the museum was open for tours and guests were offered free admission with the purchase of a Wings and Wheels ticket. It was a pleasure to interact with the wonderful group of docents and explore the terrific collection of items and aircraft. My favourite exhibit was the naval aviation section, especially the displays pertaining to the organization and evolution of the carrier flight deck.
The final act of the day was the evening show, which I watched from north of the airport on Ecorse Road due to the preferable lighting from that vantage point. Even though I was quite far from his performance, it was wonderful to watch my friend Mike Tryggvason throw his little yellow Giles 202 around the skies. Departures by ‘Rosie’s Reply’ and ‘Hairless Joe’ and the displays by the SNOWBIRDS and CF-18 Demo team were captured in stunning conditions. Especially noteworthy is that the SNOWBIRDS were performing for the first time since their heartbreaking tragedy in 2020. The proximity of Willow Run with Detroit International allowed me to fly out after the show and 23 hours after my day started in Chicago, I was back on the west coast in my hotel in Seattle.
My purpose for being in Washington State was low level aviation. In 2018 and 2019 I was able to visit the Star Wars Canyon in California before the disastrous crash that ended flying through the transition. Fortunately, Rod loves investigating new and exciting low level flying routes all over the world and one of his favourite places is a beautiful mountain in the Cascades. Unlike property value, location is only half the equation. Thankfully, other members of our group were in contact with some of the pilots scheduled to fly and alerted them to our existence and rather interesting position on top of a mountain. On Wednesday, June 16, over two years since my last opportunity, I finally photographed aircraft flying low level again. While the Boeing EA-18G GROWLER that started and ended the day were wonderful to see, the highlight was the two-ship Republic A-10C THUNDERBOLT II Demonstration Team on their way to the nearby Moses Lake Airshow. Multiple passes by the team resulted in some of the most dynamic images I’ve ever taken and created a bond amongst the ten people that summited Mount Rod that day. The airmanship demonstrated by the pilots was so inspiring that an unscheduled trip to Moses Lake to meet the aviators was a necessary addition to the end of my journey.
While the air show in Moses Lake was small, it presented an opportunity to find creative ways to make lasting memories. Starting with the social event on Friday night and continuing through the show on Saturday, we were able to meet many of the performers and spend time with them that isn’t possible at busier events. It was especially wonderful to meet the A-10 pilots, Gator and Comet, and the rest of the incredibly hospitable A-10 Team.
My trip was nearing its conclusion but I had one more act to enjoy. My final red-eye ended in Buffalo on the morning of Sunday, June 20 and allowed me to watch the performers for the Thunder on the Buffalo Waterfront operate out of the Niagara Falls Airport. Overcast skies spoiled some opportunities, but I am quite pleased with my shot of the colourful Bell MV-22B OSPREY from the VMM-365 Blue Knights.
After 20 days in the US I walked across the deserted Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls and was back in Canada. The trip was an incredible success in which I took over 11 000 pictures while visiting five air shows, four bases and one low level route. I crossed the country six times in the air while spending more than 3000 miles on the road. I was very lucky that all of my flights were on time, all of my rental cars functioned well and had wonderful cooperation from Mother Nature. I love the pictures I was able to take, but this trip ended up being equally about the people I spent time with along the way. It was fantastic to get reacquainted with good friends that I hadn’t seen in a while and equally enjoyable to meet some new friends along the way. Travel and aviation are two of my passions and it was difficult to have them taken from me for 14 months, but I think I made up for lost time in a spectacular way and look forward to my next adventure.
Shawn Clish / CHK6