What is an airshow? I’m going to use the British definition from the Collins Dictionary:
Airshow (noun): an occasion when an air base is open to the public and a flying display and, usually, static exhibitions are held.
Using this definition, there is an airshow almost every week from March to November in Pensacola, FL, home of the US Navy Blue Angels and the Naval Aviation Museum. The Blue Angels over the last several years have opened their practices to the public, generally once or twice a week when they are not. You can see their schedule here.
As a Navy ‘brat’ I’ve watched the Blue Angels since the F-11 Tiger days. The Angels currently fly the F/A-18A/C Hornet and will transition to the F/A-18E/F before the end of the decade. I’ve seen the Angels at airshows around the country; however, there is nothing better than going to a practice in Pensacola as you will be spoiled because of the intimate setting. When going to a practice in Pensacola, here are viewing tips I’ve garnered over the years: if you have sensitive ears or have little guys with you, bring hearing protection because you are going to be up close and personal with six F/A-18s. Also, bring sunscreen, as the Florida sun can be brutal to all skin types. Plan to arrive early – you will want to secure a good viewing spot. In addition, NAS Pensacola is an active base where the primary mission of the base is training pilots and naval flight officers. During your visit to the base, you are almost guaranteed to see T-6 Texan IIs and T-45 Goshawks, but you never know what else may fly in. I was able to see this P-8 Poseidon in June about 15 minutes before a practice.
The Blue Angels have a standing Notice to Airman (NOTAMS), an FAA directive. The directive states no traffic is allowed within 5 miles of the center of the field from 0-12,000 feet for 1 hour during the airshow. Therefore, there is a good bit of activity getting the aircraft up and out before the show. If you are a photographer there is a roped area reserved for just for you that has some of the best seats in the house. Once you are situated in the photographers’ area, there are several other tips for finding the best shots. Find the control tower, look right about 10-15 degrees from the center of the field. There you will see a white school bus that marks the center point of the show. Here is where all the opposing flight passes will take place.
As you can see, this is a picture of the maneuver call “pandemonium”. The team is using the bus as the reference point. In a road show the Blues fly a strict number sequence 1-4 in the diamond with four being the slot and 5-6 are the solos. During an on site practice, the number sequence goes out the window and it is not uncommon to see at least one two seat aircraft in the mix with a team member on board. Numbers aside, a Blue Angel practice never disappoints!
Looking at the second part of our definition of an airshow, the static displays. The Naval Aviation Museum is, in my opinion, second only to the Smithsonian Museum in the collection of aircraft exhibited. Here you can get up close and personal with almost every aircraft the Navy has flown throughout history. In the museum you will see the S-3 Viking that George Bush flew to the USS Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Iraq war and the last combat US Navy F-14 Tomcat. In the auditorium one of the coolest displays is the Blue Angels in A-4 Skyhawks in a perfect 18 inch wing-tip to canopy diamond formation, suspended from the ceiling.
Any aviation enthusiast will think they have died and gone to heaven as they walk around; you walk right up to each and every plane. Additionally, trolley rides are available during the day back to the flight line for visitors to view the boneyard of aircraft awaiting renovation. In summary, the museum itself is worth the trip, the admission is free and there is ample parking. The terrain is flat and an easy walk – after all it is Florida! A little planning and luck with the weather and you have a great airshow almost all year round. I would highly recommend it!
Raphael “Rafe” Smith is a life-long aviation enthusiast, private pilot, and real estate broker in Nashville, TN.