Musings of an Aviation Photographer

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AH-1W Cobras hover in to their landing spots followed by UH-1N Hueys

You’re walking to your car after a long day. You’re exhausted and ready to sit down in your car, trying to use the last drops of energy you have after standing in the heat all day to make it to the car, which is now in sight.  Suddenly, a loud thunderous roar echoes in the late afternoon sky, starting from a low rumble and growing loudly till the ground begins to tremble.  Scanning the skies, you don’t see anything at first, but the roaring sound is too hard to ignore as the ground vibrates.  Finally spotting what appears at fist to be a single dot in the distant horizon, this dot begins to multiply and turns into several dots.  As these dots grow larger, they begin to morph into the shapes of US Marine helicopters, many different ones all heading towards you.  The heat from their engine exhaust combine to ripple anything behind them as they triumphantly announce their arrival to anything in the vicinity.  Attack helicopters lead the pack followed by a squadron worth of other Marine helicopters, all carrying precious cargo of Marines to their destination.  Put in some Hans Zimmer music, and you’d swear you were watching something out of a Michael Bay film… but in this case, it was very real.

As usual, let’s backtrack before the rest of the story and talk a bit about the history behind MCAS Miramar: MCAS Miramar, located in San Diego California, is most famously known for being the former location of the elite Top Gun school and where the movie bearing the Top Gun name was filmed in the 1980s back when it was still a US Naval base. An F/A-18C Hornet based at MCAS Miramar taxis in.MCAS Miramar was opened as Camp Kearny in 1917 during World War 1.  Rarely used, the base sat mostly abandoned in 1920 until the US Navy took over the base and turned it into a dirigible blimp base.  In 1943, the base became known as Naval Auxiliary Air Station Camp Kearny and had three runways for use in training pilots to fly Navy version Liberators. The Marines were able to lease a part of the base in 1934, and then took the northern part of the base during the start of World War 2, in which they named their part of the base as Marine Corps Air Depot Miramar.  At the end of the World War 2, both the US Navy and Us Marines were using the base for aviation purposes, however during 1946 the US Navy left the based and Camp Kearny became known as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. This was short lived as the Marines moved to MCAS El Toro in 1947, and MCAS Miramar became known as a Naval Auxiliary Air Station.  The base started to gain it’s reputation as a top notch facility in the 1950s with the introduction of the Jet Fighter squadrons. The base was transformed, and soon the need for a school for fighter pilots was brought to Miramar where the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School was created.  In 1993, the BRACC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission) suggested that MCAS El Toro and MCAS Tustin be closed and transfered to NAS Miramar, which would be then handed back over the Marines to become MCAS Miramar once again. In 1999, the last groups of El Toro and Tustin were moved over to Miramar and the base becamed known as MCAS Miramar officially.

CH-53E Super Stallions pass in review at the 2009 MCAS Miramar AirshowThe home of the Third Marine Air Wing, MCAS Miramar is host to many different squadrons and aircraft ranging from fighter jets to helicopters.  MCAS Miramar hosts every type of US Marine aircraft currently in service except for the AV-8B Harrier jet.  There are several Marine rotary wing squadrons based at MCAS Miramar, ranging from CH-53E Super Stallions, AH-1W Super Cobras, CH-46E Sea Knights, UH-1N Hueys, and the new MV-22 Ospreys. Many of which were transfered from MCAS El Toro, the helicopter squadrons share the base with the fixed wing aircraft squadrons that are comprised of  F/A-18 Hornets and C-130J Hercules.  Many of these different squadrons have participated in various conflicts and well known battles of during the recent wars.  MCAS Miramar’s squadrons and personnel continually support the military in front line operations in the middle east as well.

The MCAS Miramar Airshow happens each year usually during the first weekend of October. One of the largest Military base airshows in the entire United States, the show brings nearly one million people out to enjoy the packed lineup demonstrating the fast and slow of the aviation world from aerobatics to the very latest high tech military aircraft.  Harking back to the days of the long gone MCAS El Toro airshows up north from Miramar, the Miramar show has the same qualities and standard line ups that El Toro used to have, making it a favorite among those who used to frequent the El Toro airshows each year until 1997 when they put on their last airshow before the El Toro based closed in 1998. The USN Blue Angels at the 2007 Miramar AirshowThe airshow lasts three days, with a practice show open to the public on Friday and the two days of the full show on Saturday and Sunday.  Admission is always free to the airshow, though the base offers grandstand seats and booth chalets that are able to be purchased.  The 2010 Airshow packed quite a bunch with the lineup of aircraft, ranging from demonstrations by the US Air Force’s F-16 Viper and F-22 Raptor, US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstration, and the US Marine’s demonstration of the AV-8B Harrier and Marine Air Ground Task Force simulated war. The show was headlined by the world famous US Navy Blue Angel flight demonstration team and the Canadian Snowbirds.  On static display for up close viewing was nearly every type of active Marine and Naval aircraft currently in service along with several US Air Force jet aircraft.  But while the airshow this year thrilled nearly a million people and caused thunderous roar in the skies above San Diego, it was an even that happened after the airshow on the Friday practice day that stands out above the other days of the show… when the sky rumbled from the unexpected arrival of aircraft that seemed to pop out of an action movie.

It was getting late, and myself and a few other photographers had stayed on the base pretty much until we were asked to leave by the MPs giving us time to not only take photos of the aircraft on display without airshow attendees in out shots, but to also beat out the traffic mess of people leaving the base once the show ended.  Taking our time walking back to our cars, it was only by happened chance that a series of delays caused us to take even longer to get there.  Had we left earlier than we did, this story and these photos would never have been.  Thankfully, everything fell into place, and as we exited the show line and made our way on the long journey through MCAS Miramar to the far tarmac where our cars were parked little did we know that something huge was inbound, a few miles out. The HHM-163 Squadron returns to MCAS MiramarFinally reaching the tarmac where our cars were located, which is normally the landing area and storage tarmac for the various helicopter squadrons at Miramar, we took some time to stop and get photos of the US Navy Blue Angel’s C-130 Hercules support aircraft named ‘Fat Albert’ before finally calling it a day and saying goodbye and that we’d all meet up the next day for the show.  Breaking off from them, I realized that my friend who’d accompanied me on the drive to Miramar from our home in Orange County had already started walking towards the car as he was ready to sit down and rest.  As I started to catch up, I spotted the car (which wasn’t really difficult as there was only about 20 or so cars left), and that’s when I heard the distant rumble of something. I paid no attention to it at first, thinking it was a distant civilian chopper or some random marine huey coming in.  But as I continued to walk forward, the sound got louder, echoing through the tarmac off the hangars.  I started to scan the skies, unable to ignore the sound at this point.  Figuring I’d see a lone Huey, I looked for the unmistakable shape, but the sound kept getting louder and yet I was unable to spot anything.  Now the roar of something big was beginning to turn the heads of people who were lingering towards their cars like I was, and I found myself stopping in my tracks and scanning the skies.  It was then that I noticed what appeared to be a few distant dots towards the north west towards the setting sun.  Squinting trying to make out what these couple of dots were, it hit me that it wasn’t just a couple of dots, but instead a LOT of dots and they were all heading towards MCAS Miramar.

Running to catch up with Andrew, I pointed out upon reaching him, where the sound was coming from.  Excitedly, I still couldn’t make out what they were, but I quickly put on the largest lens I have, a 100-400mm Canon lens, in an attempt to identify what was headed our way.  The HHM-163 Squadron returns to MCAS MiramarIt was then I started snapping photos and realized that it was a massive gaggle of helios coming in.  Dropping pretty much everything we were carrying, I started to snap photos like crazy as Andrew put my spare 100-400mm lens on his Canon 7D and started to take video of the thunderous roar that has everyone on the tarmac looking skyward.  Soon, the shapes of all the helios came into clear view, and every jaw of everyone in that parking lot hit the ground as everyone scrambled for any sort of camera they could get ahold of to take photos.  The ground was shaking from the power of all the helicopters combined, and any silence that had fallen over Miramar was broken with the deafening roar. Flying in a loose formation over the nothern entrance to MCAS Miramar, the helios started to descend rapidly as they now headed towards the east side of the field on the other side of the base from where we were located, the location where the Marines had moved all the helicopters that would normally be sitting where our cars now were parked.

Figuring they would land with the other helios off to the east side, everyone that was left in the parking lot was taking as many photos and movies as they could before the helios disappeared behind the massive hangars.  Leading them were three attack Bell AH-1W Super Cobras, followed by two Bell UH-1N Hueys. AH-1W Cobras lead in UH-1N Hueys at MCAS Miramar Finishing up the formation was a squadron’s worth of Boeing CH-46E Sea Knights, nine of them to be exact. The Sea Knights and the Hueys were a part of the HMM-163Evil Eyes‘ squadron, part of the 3rd Marine Air Wing and Marine Aircraft Group 16.  The squadron name was formerly known as the ‘Ridge Runners’, but they go by the nickname ‘Evil Eyes’ with the sinister eyes painted on the nose of the squadron aircraft.  As all the choppers rounded the corner on the east side and sunk below the hangars, the realization of what we’d just seen hit everyone and laughter and excitement followed.  Figuring that the impromptu show was over, people started to once again pack up and head towards their cars.  The distant roar of the choppers could still be heard echoing in the distance. Suddenly, the roar of the choppers intensified as they rounded the corner on the east side of the runway and started to follow the runway down where the airshow had taken place. This brought them back into view slightly, but behind the tower and obstructed by the distant airshow aircraft and Miramar buildings.  ‘If only we were still on the airshow flightline!’ I thought to myself as at that moment they were hovering in front of what was the crowd line.  Some people decided that it was time to go so they went ahead and continued to pack up leaving and missing what was about to happen.  As we watched the aircraft lower towards the ground in what appeared to be their landing, we all silently wished that we were back at the show.  And that’s when they turned towards us.

Before I finish the rest of the story, I’d like to present something a bit different.  The first Airshow Review produced video of the arrival of the helios at MCAS Miramar.  It’s rough footage because of the chaotic spontaneous moments that happened as the helicopters arrived, so bear in mind it’s raw footage shot by Andrew Lockerbie on a Canon 7D SLR (yes, a digital SLR camera video).  Andrew took the best shots he got of the arrival and edited together with some fun Transformers music to make this wonderful montage of the events that happened to give you all a great moving visual idea of the sights and sounds of what we witnessed.  This will be the first of many Airshow Review videos to come, especially once the new Airshow Review site is opened.

After realizing that we’d seen the last bit we could as the choppers appeared to be landing, suddenly the Cobras continued forward down the runway, and turned inward on the taxiway… straight towards us.  The Cobras came in on a slow hover, followed by the two Hueys.  The heat haze from the engines and the sleek attack shape of the Cobras made for photos and video that could only otherwise be seen in action movies.AH-1W Cobras hover in to their landing spots followed by UH-1N Hueys The light was perfect, the sun was setting the the orange glow hitting one side of the aircraft.  All those who were left were perfectly dead on facing the choppers as they came closer and closer.  Looking back now, it only seemed like miliseconds that they were coming at us, but the time on the photos I took said it was a few minutes that they were hovering towards our cars.  From the photos, it seems like the Cobras are far too close to eachother considering their rotor blade lengths, but it’s all just an illusion.  Looking straight at the Cobra coming towards you, you couldn’t help but to be proud that it’s the US Marines in the United States Military that has magnificent helicopters like this out there support our ground troops and fighting for America.  Staring down the barrel of the nose mounted Gatling gun on the lead Cobra would strike fear on anyone out there in the fields of battle.  The Cobras continued forward until just before where we were all standing, and they one at a time banked to their left and sat down in the helipad spots that were adjacent to the parking lot, only a few feet away.  The sound was incredible just from the three Cobras, and the Hueys coming in behind them brought up the a distant rear sound.  At this point, a ramp crew had come out from the hangars nearby and were guiding the helios in to their landing spots.  It was clear they were going to pack them all in to the little area next to the parking lot.

As the Hueys began their left bank to their landing spots, the distant thunder of nine CH-46E Sea Knights took over as the Cobras began to cut their engines after finally touching down.  HHM-163 CH-46E Sea Knights taxi to their positions at MCAS MiramarThe Sea Knights had already touched down, and were taxiing over to their parking spots rather than hovering. Lined up in two rows, the Sea Knights made their way towards as everyone as well, the white eyes on the front of them seeming to stare at us with a smile.  The Cobras and Hueys had landed on the far edge of the landing area all in a row, and by watching the ramp crew it was clear they were going to taxi the Sea Knights right up to us and literally only a few feet from the barrier where our cars were parked.  As the Sea Knights approached, some of the choppers switched sides of the two rows to even themselves out, almost like a funny little cartoon. Now that the Hueys and Cobras had shut off, all that was left running was the nine Sea Knights as they continued closer and closer, eventually getting incredibly closer to us than the Cobras had.  With the rotor blades nearly going over our heads, the wind from the downdraft of the blades became really strong, throwing every little rock and piece of gravel into the air.  No one left watching this could do anything but smile and laugh as it was almost unreal how this had all fallen into place for us to witness.

The Sea Knights continued their taxi passing by us one at a time till the little landing area had filled with Sea Knights lined up one after another in two rows. A CH-46E Sea Knights taxis into position at MCAS Miramar The sound was incredible as they waited doing final shut down checks before shutting the engines off.  Taking that opportunity to get some probably never to get again photos, everyone who had any sort of camera from a professional DSL to even camera phones were taking any photos or video as the various crew members started to exit the helicopters to do final shut down inspections.  I had to wonder what they were thinking seeing all of us standing there taking photos and cheering.  The entire area became alive with HMM-163 crew members in what was at one point a silent parking lot with only a handful of people walking to their cars now a loud hot ramp full of many many Marines exiting the choppers.  Finally, one by one the Sea Knights shut down completely and soon the silence took over once again as the last Sea Knight’s rotor blades came to a hault.  Pilots and crew were appearing out of what seemed like no where, crammed into the Sea Knights and Hueys.  As they excited, slapping began by all the amazed witnesses for the spectacle they’d seen.  And just like that, it was over.

The photos continued as the crew members prepped the various choppers for their nighttime slumber rotating the various blades and anchoring them down for the night. The setting sun shines behind a crew member preparing a CH-46E Sea Knight Other crew members and the pilots removed the various items of luggage and gear and a chopper at a time they walked through the parking lot towards their hangar to head home.  Only a few airshow spectators remained now, mostly die hard photographers who were getting every last photo they could as the sun set in the San Diego sky.  Once once the last little sliver of the orange ball had slipped beyond the horizon did everyone start to finally call it a day and head for the final time that day to their cars.  While finishing up my photos, a ramp crew member walked up to me and asked if he could get ahold of some of the photos.  He mentioned that he’d been working on the ramp at Miramar for several years, and this was the most amount of helios he’d seen come in at once in a lot time, and wanted some photos since normally there’s no one there (civilians) to get photos when they come in.

Now that everything was coming to a close, we all had a chance to reflect on what happened and what photos we got.  It was an amazing opportunity and sight to see for everyone who was left.  We all agreed that we felt bad for those who had left the show just as it ended or pretty soon after.  They all missed out on a very rare opportunity.  Talking with some of the crew members, we found out that the choppers had been taking part in urban training operations out at NBVC Point Mugu for a few days.  Looking back now I’m amazed at how everything perfectly fell into place for us to be able to be there at the right place at the right time.  There’s so many factors that could have caused us to leave earlier or still be walking through the base when all this happened.  It was by far one of the best aviation moments of the year for myself, and many of the other photographers with me.  Of course, the rest of the airshow was amazing and full of some really great aviation demonstrations. However, it was this event after the practice day of the airshow that I believe will stand out the most for everyone who was left in that parking lot that Friday evening as HMM-163 descended from the heavens and gave us quite a show.

The sun sets in the San Diego sky behind a CH-46E Sea Knight at MCAS Miramar

I’d like to thank all the pilots and crew of HMM-163 for the great display that day.  While they were just doing their job and, like any other day, it was something really special for all of us.  For more photos of their arrival, and the rest of the photos from the first day of the airshow, you can visit the Warbird Photos gallery located here.


One Response to “MCAS Miramar 2010: Arrival of a Squadron”

2010: Best Photography Moments | Musings of an Aviation Photographer on: 1 January 2011 at 4:55 AM

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