WORDS & IMAGES: CLAUDE LAFRENIERE
On the 16th-17th September 2023, This is Flight returned to NAS Oceana, marking our first visit since 2019. Our extensive 17-hour journey from Montreal proved immensely rewarding as we experienced the base’s 68th annual air show.
This year’s NAS Oceana Airshow marked the theme of “50 Years of Women flying in Naval Aviation”, paying particular tribute to “The First Six”, who earned their Wings of Gold at Pensacola’s flight school in 1974. Captain Mary Louise Griffin, a distinguished guest, left an indelible mark on the event. Having earned her Wings of Gold in 1976 as the twelfth woman, she stood as only the second woman assigned to a tactical aircraft.
The event provides free entry and parking for all attendees, ensuring easy access. To enhance comfort, upgraded seats can be acquired either online or on-site, ranging from $15 to $25. For a premium visual experience, the “Executive Squadron Chalet” offers an exclusive setting at $125 per day. This premium space, situated close to the show center, features a catered buffet, a variety of beers, and access to dedicated sanitary facilities for an elevated event experience.
At the event, outside food and drinks were not permitted, but many food vendors near the flight line offered a range of dishes at reasonable prices. The standardized menus for all vendors clearly displayed the prices, but unfortunately the food offering was the only negative point of the weekend at the Oceana Airshow because no healthy choices were available. During discussions with attendees, one young couple expressed disappointment with the limited options for their two young children, citing an abundance of fatty and unhealthy food. Looking ahead, organizers should aim to introduce healthier food choices among vendors in 2024 to address this concern.
The static display this year featured a variety of aircraft, but smaller than the one we saw on our last visit in 2019. Highlights included a B-52H Stratofortress and F-15C/D Eagles from the US Air Force, Chinook from the US Army, US Navy equipment such as the MH-53E Sea Dragon, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and NP-3C Orion from the Naval Research Laboratory.
The flying display featured many familiar performers; the US Air Force sent is F-22A Raptor demonstration team, a frequent highlight at Oceana, while civilian participants included Melissa Burns in her Edge 540, Rob Holland in the MXS, Aaron Fitzgerald in Red Bull’s Bo.105C, Bob Carlton in his modified Super Salto glider equipped with a PBS TJ-100 jet engine and Greg Koontz, an airshow veteran since 1974, flying a Piper J-3 Cub as part of the Alabama Boys. Oceana was one of his final airshow appearances before retirement.
One of the most anticipated moments at each edition of the NAS Oceana Airshow is the “Air Power Demonstration”, in which NAS Oceana takes the opportunity to showcase its own aircraft, demonstrating four fundamental roles of Naval aviation: control, surveillance, reconnaissance and air mobility.
First into the air was an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye from VAW-126 “Seahawks” at NAS Norfolk, followed by four F/A-18E and two F/A-18F Super Hornets from a trio of Oceana-based squadrons: VFA-11 “Red Rippers”, VFA-81 “Sunliners” and VFA-143 “Pukin’ Dogs”. The Super Hornets carried out tactical departures at full power, with a very short interval between them. The E-2D then climbed to altitude and flew circuits around the base, simulating its role as an airborne early warning, command and control platform.
The six Super Hornets then filled the skies and flew above the crowds as they aggressively maneuvered in a spectacular display of force that included simulations of aerial combat (one-on-one and two-on-one) and air-to-ground attacks, all heavily supported by pyrotechnic explosions to add to the realism. Arriving in tight formations of four and then six aircrafts, they also carried out various formation dispersal maneuvers to simulate the deployment of aircraft in the face of a rapidly approaching enemy.
The Air Power Demonstration concluded with a “Fleet Fly-By” as the Super Hornets joined up with the E-2D for a flypast in Delta formation. The only downside to this magnificent viewing, unlike previous years, there were no Super Hornets with a special livery nor aircraft representing the colors of the aggressors’ training squadron unlike previous years, much to the displeasure of aerial photography fans.
The US Navy also displayed an MH-53E Sea Dragon, which demonstration captivated aviation enthusiasts by demonstrating the surprising maneuverability of this giant helicopter. The deployment of the MH-53E began with a rather rapid ascent to an altitude of around 2,500 meters, from which it served as jump platforms for two teams of US Navy paratroopers. This included the US Navy Leap Frogs and the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician Parachute Team, the latter performing a high altitude, high opening (HAHO) airdrop. This is a type of jump used for stealth deployments to avoid radar, with the jumpers travelling vast distances (often over 50 km), with specialized equipment for precision landing.
After the jumps, the helicopter then began a descent in flight at low altitude, following up with a demonstration of the immense Sea Dragon’s surprising maneuverability for its size, executing sharp turns, sideways and backwards flights, and rapid climb and descent maneuvers, showcasing the versatility of the MH-53E Sea Dragon in missions requiring low altitude operations. The demonstration culminated with a low-altitude flyover over the runway, imitating a mine countermeasures mission at sea.
More Super Hornet action followed courtesy of Oceana-based VFA-106’s “Rhino Demo Team”, which performed solo displays with the F/A-18F. Next came the six F/A-18Es of the Blue Angels, who closed the show. Fittingly, given the show’s theme, 2023 was the first season in which a female pilot is displaying with the Blue Angels (excluding their C-130 support aircraft), with Lt. Commander Amanda Lee flying in the Left Wing position.
The 2023 NAS Oceana Airshow drew an impressive crowd of 306,000 spectators, including more than 6,300 students from local schools on practice day. This was the result of an extraordinary collaborative effort involving close to 1,000 military volunteers, municipal partners from Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk, two school systems and over 50 local businesses, which all united forces to orchestrate a memorable airshow weekend; This is Flight looks forward to returning to Oceana in the future, possibly as soon as 2024.