By Eric McCarthy
Wow! Just…wow! Does it get any better than this? Beautiful Southern California weather and a world-class airshow, on the beach – or, in my case, on a boat! Sponsored by Breitling – makers of exquisite aviation watches – and in just its second year, the Huntington Beach Airshow managed, once again, to secure a plethora of top-tier performers for the weekend show that benefits the Aerospace Education Foundation of Huntington Beach.
Last year, it was the USAF Thunderbirds and the Breitling Jet Team headlining the show, with a host of other military and aerobatic performers, including an F/A-18 Super Hornet Demo, and performances by John Klatt, Bill Stein, and, having just finished their Red Bull Air Race season the weekend before in Las Vegas, both Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss. An impressive lineup for their inaugural event, and with just a few months’ marketing, they drew over a half a million people!
This year? Well, they really outdid themselves with wall-to-wall entertainment kicking off at noon each day! This year, it was the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds that held the top billing for the show, with at least a dozen additional performers and demonstrations scheduled between noon and 4 p.m.
The official attendance was estimated at one million, which seems a little light considering they estimated the crowd at 725,000 on Saturday alone! And I’m sure the total count would have been significantly higher if they hadn’t had to cancel the Friday warm-up show due to fog.
I went to the show on Sunday. My wife and I coerced – or convinced – a friend to take us there on his boat. Actually, it didn’t take too much arm twisting; I had planted the seeds of this adventure back in the spring and received a very enthusiastic reception – who wouldn’t want to see an incredible airshow, up close, and as a bonus, avoid the nightmare of parking and traffic? It was just a matter of making sure we all had it on our calendars as the date approached.
We cast off from Dana Point Harbor around 10:30; the trip north to Huntington Beach would take us about an hour and 15 minutes. Motoring along the impressive Laguna Beach coastline, we began to notice that we weren’t the only ones to have figured that a boat would be a great place from which to watch the show. By the time we reached Newport Beach, we were surrounded by lots of other vessels all heading north to Huntington Beach Pier area.
When we reached show center, there were already several hundred boats anchored, but we were able to pick a nice spot with a great view of the action. The boats ranged from small 25-footers to 100-plus-foot yachts; the atmosphere felt a lot like pre-game tailgating at a football game – the smell of food wafting in the air, music playing on decks, and many partaking of the drinks of their choice.
Sheriff’s, harbor patrol, and lifeguard boats and jet skis patrolled the show line to keep the airshow box clear. More boats continued to arrive over the next couple of hours, each trying to find the perfect spot to anchor, which was somewhat entertaining in and of itself, as not everyone appeared to be an experienced mariner. I saw a photo taken from one of the Snowbirds as they climbed in formation over show center; there had to have been at least 500 boats gathered offshore for the airshow!
The show opened with the Black Daggers – the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command Parachute Team descending under canopy with Mike Wiskus in the Lucas Oil Pitts circling as they deployed the U.S. Flag. After that, it was a blur of near-constant activity ranging from the sedate FedEx 757 flyby to the thunderous F-35 Lightning II demonstration and the Blue Angels.
We watched the Coast Guard Search and Rescue demonstration in their Eurocopter HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, Orange County and Huntington Beach helicopter rescue demonstrations, a pair of Air Combat Marchetti SF-260s skimming the waves as the beautifully restored Blackstone Airways 1957 Beech 18S made several low passes along the beach. The Lyon Air Museum’s immaculately restored C-47 Willa Dean also made several passes showing off its D-Day Invasion Stripes. Airshow performances by Mike Wiskus in the bright red Lucas Oil Pitts and David Martin in the black and brilliant yellow Breitling CAP 232 contrasted starkly with the beautiful blue sky.
Interspersed with those performances were the jets. Former Thunderbird slot pilot, Paul “Sticky” Strickland, started things off flying the Raising Cane Aero L39 through its paces. The nimble F-16 Viper, sometimes called the “electric jet” because of its fly-by-wire controls (certainly not a reflection of its quietness – it’s quite adept at turning fuel into noise!) – carved through the air demonstrating its incredible maneuverability. Similarly, the F-35 Lightning II muscled its way through an impressive performance. The F-16 and F-35 also joined up with a P-51D Mustang for the Heritage Flight, a tribute to warbirds and their pilots, old and new.
The Canadian Forces Snowbirds put on a graceful display of skill and choreographed beauty. Flying as many as nine CT-114 Tutors through formation maneuvers, the Snowbirds put on a really great and captivating show.
And then it was the Blue Angels’ turn! As we’ve all come to expect, the Blue Angels wowed the crowd with their incredibly tight formations and high-speed maneuvers. The low-speed, high alpha flyby was also very impressive, especially as the two F/A-18’s ended the demonstration, one lowering its nose and accelerating rapidly down the showline, while the other powered its way away in a constant speed, ear-shattering climb. While the four-ship team thundered through their elegant formations, the opposing solos made jousting passes at show center and sneak passes from behind the crowd on the beach. The skill of our naval aviators was clearly on display – no one left disappointed!
And through it all, we sat in what had to have been one of the best vantage points for any airshow. Almost all the performers passed directly over our location, often at no more than 200 feet overhead and in some cases, quite a bit less! I’m an experienced airshow aficionado, attending several shows each year, but this show was truly exhilarating! Never a dull moment!
If you get a chance to attend next years’ show (Oct. 19-21, 2018), do it! You will not be disappointed!