LANCASTER, Calif.—I trudged from Los Angeles County Air Show headquarters building, a red brick bunker with big windows facing the airfield, and I marched into a wind chill dropping the temperature by a couple of dozen degrees.
The wind on the two days of the air show blasted refrigerator cold, like it was howling out of the Fulda Gap along the East German border, on its way west from Russia and Poland.
Weather is not kind, it just is. And the weather at the Los Angeles County Air Show was not kind. It could have been worse, though, it could have been raining. But, it was colder than a well digger’s tennis shoe.
Leaning into the wind on the hundred yard walk toward the History Tent, I listened to Ric Garrison, the announcer, rolling out takeoff narrative for the F-22 Raptor, with Maj. Carlos “Loco” Lopez in the pilot seat.
The F-22 is on the short list of the hottest jet fighter aircraft ever conceived or built — another miracle from that house of no windows and many door locks called the Skunk Works of the Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Theme of this year’s show was “First, Fastest, Farthest,” and it celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the famed Skunk Works headquartered in Palmdale, adjoining U.S. Air Force Plant 42.
The F-22 bolted off the tarmac at William J. Fox Field like rolling thunder, a stealthy, twin-engined air superiority fighter with hot flame leaping from its tail like a real bat out of real hell.
The ground, and the crowd lining the airfield, shook a bit and they murmured, necks craning skyward in the Raptor’s wake, some dads lofting boys and girls on their fatherly shoulders.
Man, what a world shaker of an airplane is the Raptor. It thundered, spit fire, rumbled, nudged up, nose to sky and shot vertical, and then inverted and rolled into an Immelman Turn, a long, looping circle that Max Immelman, a World War I forerunner to the Red Baron, used to get on his adversary’s tail before sending the other guy to flaming death.
Air combat is not kind, it just is.
Lopez returned, flying parallel to the long runway and nudged the Raptor forward, flying close to the deck, then nosed the angry bird to a near stall. Breathtaking does not begin to describe it.
But that was just a few moments of what somewhere near 100,000 people got to see on the weekend of the Los Angeles County Air Show, now hurtling into a fifth year, like an air ace taking five kills.
There were so many other aircraft and so much showmanship to see. Air teams with brand names like Red Bull and Jelly Belly put aerobatic aircraft into the wind-chilled blue sky. An ancient British jet, barely out of World War II vintage, called Vampire, gave the crowd a glimpse of the dawn of the jet age.
Two other vintage jet fighter aircraft streamed across the wintry skies — an F-86 Sabre Jet and a MiG-15, silvery, with swept wings gleaming in the cold sunshine. They looked like starlings swirling above treetops, except that they were aircraft flown by pilots who waged air war with each other above the Yalu River during the Korean War nearly 70 years ago.
The MiG-15s, often flown by Russian pilots, dueled with the Sabre Jets, while the dogface grunts slugged it out, thousands of feet below on the hard, cold, frozen ground that even nearly 70 years later remains a contested war zone, separating the two Koreas only by a fragile and threatened armistice.
In that early Jet Age combat, the MiG had a surprisingly good performance envelope, with ability to climb, turn and deal death from cannons in the hog-like nose.
But Air Force and Marine fighter pilots in Sabre Jets outraced the MiG kill rates. The other team, sent to North Korea by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, had high-performing planes, but we had higher-performing pilots. They were men with names like Ted Williams and John Glenn. Athletes, heroes, future astronauts, they also were killers.
That is a disconcerting thing about high performance combat aircraft. It’s virtually impossible to refrain from “Ooh … “ and “Ahhh … “ but the purpose of the majority of aircraft sweeping the skies above Fox Field was to deal out flaming death.
War Birds — World War II vintage combat aircraft — that lifted up from Fox Field March 24-25, included planes that bombed Tokyo and Berlin.
There was a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, the kind flown by Col. Jimmy Doolittle and Doolittle’s Raiders, to deliver 30 seconds worth of bomb load on Tokyo.
The mission was launched four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor to inform Emperor Hirohito and Company that the Americans were coming for them.
Also, there was a B-17 Flying Fortress, “Sentimental Journey,” the aircraft that bombed the Third Reich down to the paving stones in the Nazi capital of Berlin, and across the wide spread of Occupied Europe.
Also racing low above the airfield was the P-51 Mustang, “Cadillac of the Air,” the long-range escort fighter that made bombing Berlin, and Frankfurt, and Schweinfurt and other towns and cities a daily nightmare for the Nazi regime.
The Mustang was joined by a P-38 Lightning that ace pilot Dick Bong flew to down dozens of Japanese fighters, and a Spitfire, the plane that joined the Hurricane in winning the Battle of Britain, and a gull-winged Corsair that could out-fly and out-fight anything the Tokyo war party could put in the air.
With the on-field air show explosions — expertly detonated from the ground by the pyrotechnics crew — the windows in the air show headquarters rattled, and a few veterans and war fighters inadvertently lurched toward cover.
Out on the “pad,” were parked experimental aircraft, emergency services aircraft, military rescue aircraft, and some vintage aircraft, the heritage of flight.
To observe the machinery on the ground at an air show is to understand our history that was invented, designed and built in the U.S.A. Historically, most of aviation’s best machines, have been the ones built right here in the U.S.A. — many of them issuing out of factories and hangars in our own Aerospace Valley, the Antelope Valley.
The pride of place vintage aircraft was parked in front of the Air Show History tent. The aircraft, and its associates, were VIPs and a bit of aviation royalty.
The owner-pilot of the Lockheed Vega, the man who searched out the ancient aircraft in a gasoline-puddled hangar, is John Magoffin. Magoffin, in leather flight jacket, ball cap, blue jeans and boots, looks a bit like a mash-up of John Wayne with a dash of Errol Flynn, moustache and all. Magoffin has flown military, flown Alaska bush, flown fire suppression and airliners, and flown since early youth as a way to make a living in the clouds.
Magoffin was joined by his co-pilot buddy, Buzz Hale, another leather flying jacket adventurer, and next joined by Allan Lockheed Jr., the seventy-something son of one of the original Loughead brothers who founded what is now the world’s largest aerospace company. The brothers shifted the name spelling to Lockheed so that non-Scots people could know how the name was pronounced.
Lockheed Jr. and Magoffin were there to share the lore of a shiny, silvery rotary-engine airplane with yellow wings and Army Air Corps insignia markings. The Vega is the oldest flying Lockheed aircraft in the world, having been whelped in 1927, and this one rolling off a hand-made production line the same year that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, and that Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellor’s chair and ushered in the Third Reich.
The Vega was a plane known to the likes of Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and as Allan Lockheed Jr. saw it, the Vega functioned as the bridge between the past of strut-and-wire biplanes, and the future that would eventually carry us into space.
What set the Vega apart was the Lockheed innovation of a “monocoque” fuselage — not wood, not fabric, but an all-metal fuselage supplying its own structural strength. The Vega fuselage was a forerunner of all that would come after, with Army Air Corps Capt. Ira Eaker in the early 1930s orchestrating a military purchase of the aircraft that would pave the way for the strategic air force — “The Mighty 8th,” which Eaker would go on to command a decade later as a lieutenant general during the air war in Europe.
“Any plane that came before is a dinosaur,” Magoffin decreed.
The aircraft that came after, would point us relentlessly toward the present that is rapidly becoming the future.
Somewhere out on the tarmac was another vintage plane, similar to the Vega, capable of carrying passengers, and used for a variety of activities, including dropping parachutists into wildfire country. It was called the Howard, with a big rotary engine, wide wing surface, supported by big struts, the legacy of 1930s aviation technology.
It was an eccentric pleasure of my youth to fly in a Howard, and hanging free from the strut, let go, into free fall.
I was never a pilot, but I do know how it feels to fly a jet fighter aircraft, and not from a simulator or computer game. As an Associated Press military and aviation reporter I was offered a “back seat” ride in a two-seater version of an F-16 Fighting Falcon when I was nearly 30 years younger than I am now.
We thundered off the flight deck at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada en route to observe “Gun Smoke,” a scored shooting competition for ground attack aircraft, the venerable A-10 Warthog.
It was a simpler time, Cold War static, just before Operation Desert Storm. My command pilot was Capt. “Omar” Bradley, not that Omar Bradley, but that was how he got the call sign name.
About 15,000 feet above the Nevada desert, the captain said “Do you want to take the controls?” And I gulped, but by God, yes, I did. The aircraft joystick of a fly-by-wire aircraft was responsive, but not radical. At Bradley’s direction, I nudged the joy stick until we were flying vertical, and kept nudging it until the aircraft righted itself — like turning inverting and rolling a photo over on your mobile phone. And I nudged the aircraft nose up into a gradual climb of a thousand feet or so — watching my instrument panel, and leveled it off.
In the Army, as a paratrooper, then a free fall parachutist with a motley of soldiery from the 3rd Brigade of the 8th Infantry Div. (Airborne), I exited aircraft in flight that included the mighty C-130 Hercules, a CH-47 Chinook big cargo and troop helicopter, the UH-1 Huey “slick” version helicopter with the doors removed, and a bunch of small aircraft, most often the Cessna-152.
I never became a pilot, but learned how to board and exit aircraft, boarding on the ground, and exiting in flight, sometimes freefalling for more than 10,000 feet with my body as the air frame.
A million years ago, in 1975, I was awarded an A-level license from the U.S. Parachute Association, with folded silver wings banding around a parachute. Those wings, certified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, are a point of lifetime pride.
Aircraft are like guns. They are amazing, but fearsome, tools. Aircraft provide global transportation, rescue utility, and unprecedented humanitarian relief capacity. They also deliver bomb and missile loads with capacity to unleash untold dread, misery and lethality. In a dangerous world, we use aircraft for all of these things.
As I watched the human “wave” ripple in the wind and thrill to the thunder blazing from Lopez’s own, personal F-22 Raptor, I strode into the wind knowing that everyone on the ground comes to an air show because whether they fought in the air, or flew every day for a living, or turned wrenches, or monitored telemetry and software, or will never, ever fly an aircraft, or even ride in one, they stand in the cold wind in order to soak in just a bit of glory.
That is what all of aviation is. It is glory.