Known as the US Air Force's (USAF) keystone anniversary celebration, Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada, hosted one of the largest air shows of the year on the weekend of 10-11 November 2007.
Established on 1 August 1907, the US Army Signal Corps (USASC) created the Aeronautical Division tasked with "…all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects." Following WWI, the Air Corps Act of 1926 changed the name of the Signal Corps to that of the US Army Air Corps (USAAC). At that time, the Air Corps maintained 60 pursuit planes and 169 observation planes. Thirty years of military aviation advancement brought the Air Corps into WWII. According to USAF historical sources, the U.S. Army air forces strength in World War II had increased to 2,253,000 men and women and 63,715 aircraft by 1945. Following the War, the creation of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), Air Defense Command (ADC), Tactical Air Command (TAC) and Air Transport Command (ATC) provided the foundation for building an independent Air Force.
On 26 July, The National Security Act of 1947 became law whereby creating the Department of the Air Force, headed by a Secretary of the Air Force. From the P-51 'Mustang' to the F-22 'Raptor', the USAF has paved the way in maintaining air superiority through exceptional pilot training and advanced aviation technology. Aviation Nation's celebration of the USAF's 60th anniversary at Nellis AFB hosted many of the aircraft that formed the basis of the USAF aerial dominance. From the 50-year old B-52 Stratofortress to the new CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, attendees could wander through time as they walk about the historic tarmac. Special guest, Edwin Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. joined the excitement of the celebration by personally greeting each pilot at the morning briefing. Astronaut aboard Apollo 11, he was the second person to walk on the surface of the moon following Mission Commander, Neil Armstrong.
Ironically, Nellis AFB holds a place in history as being associated with many of the USAF's modern day achievements. Formerly a B-17 gunnery school, the base went through a series of evolutions eventually becoming the prime location for fighter pilot training. Nellis is the home of the largest fighter wing in the Air Force, the 57th FW as well as the 98th Range group that oversees the massive Nevada Test and Training Range. The 53rd Test and Evaluation Group utilizes all current USAF service aircraft by incorporating various bases into the evaluation regimen and the most famous jets of all, the USAF Thunderbirds call Nellis their home. These units and others (minus the Thunderbirds of course) all come together to host various training courses like Red Flag, Green Flag, Blue Flag and others depending on the tactical expertise of the units being trained. The most well known of the exercises, Red Flag, has been called the most real-world training program ever devised, going so far as to incorporate allied forces.
Upon arrival to Nellis, spectators were greeted to a sea of flags which parted to reveal the behemoth C-5 Galaxy. Directed through the cargo-bay of the C-5, an aerial sequence illustrating the past 60 years of the USAF awaited them in the skies. Strolling down the flight line, local aircraft such as a bomb-laden F-15E Strike Eagle and a missile-carrying F-16C Falcon from the 57th Fighter Wing sit proudly next to an A-10 Warthog. Off to the side underneath one of the many quasi-hangars rests an F-15C and F-16C in telltale 65th and 64th Aggressor Squadron camouflage respectively. Just aft the flight line rest the largest collection of 'heavies' assembled in years, an E-3 AWACS, KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, C-17, RC-135, C-130. Nearby rest a B-1B, F-117, F-22 and an F-35 mockup.
Taking to the skies in the mid-morning were the USAF early trainer aircraft such as the Boeing Stearman followed by the iconic B-17, B-24 and two B-25 bombers of WWII. Caught in a dogfight during the escort efforts, a P-51 flown by Dan Martin is pursued by Jason Somes in the CAF's Mitsubishi Zero. The Korean and Vietnam eras were represented with flybys of a MiG-17 in hot pursuit of an F-86 Sabre flown by Steve Hinton. The infamous 'Sandy's', or A-1 Skyraiders flew overhead providing air support with 'Spooky', an AC-47 gunship flown by Brooks Pettit, insuring ground threats were destroyed.
Civilian performances were second to none. Sean D. Tucker and Ed Hamill illustrated their talents in their modified biplanes filling the sky with smoke trails. Red Bull's Kirby Chambliss, Bill Reeseman and Chuck Aaron as well as the Red Bull Skydiving Team made their presence known over the weekend. Due to the quantity of aircraft scheduled for flight, the USAF Thunderbirds flew mid-show at their usual 1500 timeframe. Their last show of the season was undoubtedly their finest. It was not only the last show for the season, but also the last flight for a few members of the team including the first female Thunderbird, Maj. Nicole 'FiFi' Malachowski.
Despite the roar and precision of the Thunderbirds, there was still more to come. To commemorate the life of Col. Robin Olds, a QF-4 Phantom from Holloman AFB roared into the heavens wearing the nostalgic markings of the Colonel's Vietnam era aircraft. Also taking to the skies was the West Coast A-10 Demonstration Team along with Maj. Paul 'Max' Moga in the F-22 Raptor. Joining them for the last time was Chuck Hall in the P-51 Mustang. With all four in tight formation, they were the Heritage Flight. An historic ensemble of Air Force might through the evolution of military aviation.
Aviation Nation is always a bittersweet event. Although Chuck Hall will continue with the airshow industry, his flying 'Six Shooter' as part of the Heritage Program will be missed. Maj. Malachowski's role with the Thunderbirds has already made an impact on the importance of female aviators in the military. On 13 March 2008 she was inducted into the Women in Aviation International's Pioneer Hall of Fame. The F-117 Nighthawk will be retired within a few short days of this writing, yet it's final public appearance at Nellis will forever be remembered. The recent passing of Col. Olds and the tribute flight of the commemorative F-4 Phantom II not only brought tears to the eyes of the Olds' family, but to a few of those in their presence. Year after year, the Nellis AFB Aviation Nation Air Show proves to be one of the most memorable aviation events of the year.
Special thanks to Bob Avery, Charles Ramey, AC-47 pilot Brooks Pettit, the entire 'Heavenly Body' B-25 crew, A-10 West Coast Demonstration Team, Jim & Nicole Pera, Eric Martin, Aviation Nation volunteers and staff.