AutoMatters & More: 2017 NAF El Centro Air Show featuring the Blue Angels

Blue Angel returning over hay bales after practice to land at NAF El Centro
(Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Just a short, two-hour drive east of San Diego, located in California’s Imperial Valley past vast installations of massive, electricity-generating wind turbines, is Naval Air Facility El Centro – winter home of the Blue Angels. Excitement had been building all winter for their first formal air show of the year.

I say formal because the locals had already enjoyed watching the Blue Angels train for weeks at this base. These training flights were truly awe inspiring to watch as the pilots flew in formation, low and overhead as they cleared the chain link fence at the end of the runway and began each of their rehearsals. When they were done they returned to the same runway, flying just barely above the stacked hay bales and the dirt road that are just beyond the fence.

With these words from the announcer on March 11, the Blue Angels pre-season rehearsals were over and their air show season began: “Now, direct your attention to the ramp before you. Observe the military manner in which the six demonstration pilots approach their aircraft and are saluted by their crew chiefs.” With military precision the pilots march towards the planes, each one peeling off as they reach their F/A-18 Hornet and climb into the cockpit, where they are assisted by their crew chief.

Sky diving by the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs
Sky diving by the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Dating back to 1946, “the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, is the oldest performing U.S. military aviation demonstration team. We were first based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, flying F6F Hellcats. We continued flying Grumman Corporation aircraft for 22 years, transitioning in late 1946 to the more powerful and faster F8F Bearcat.”

“In 1950 we became equipped with jet aircraft, with the straight wing F9F-2 Panther – the predecessor of the swept wing F9F-8 Cougar, which were received in 1955.”

“In 1957 the Blue Angels became equipped with high performance aircraft, with the arrival of the supersonic F11F Tiger. In 1964 we received the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom, and flew this supersonic jet until 1974, when we transitioned to the A4 Skyhawk. We are now in our 31st year flying the combat proven Boeing F/A-18 Hornet.”

Vintage planes in a simulated dogfight
Vintage planes in a simulated dogfight (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

As exciting as winter training is to watch from the end of the runway, the public air show is better directed towards the audience that is located parallel to the flight line.

In the “opposing solo,” two Blue Angels fly towards each other at high speed and then pass each other along the flight line, centered in front of the spectators. “These maneuvers are neither stunts nor daring feats, but are refinements of basic techniques taught to every prospective naval aviator.”

In addition to the Blue Angels, there was a full slate of performers at the NAF El Centro Air Show: sky diving by the U.S. Navy Leap Frogs and the U.S. Army Black Daggers; a Hellcat and Bearcat tribute to the Blue Angels; and simulated dogfights between a WWII era P-51 Mustang versus a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, and a Korean War era North American F-86 Sabre versus a Soviet Union MiG-15.

Precision flying in very close quarters
Precision flying in very close quarters (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Aerobatic performers included Vicky Benzing, piloting her Extra 300S (; the Red Eagles Formation Team flying Yak-52 two-seat trainers (; and John Collver flying “War Dog” – a North American AT-6/SNJ built in Texas in 1944.

On the ground there was a car show and static displays of aircraft: Lockheed’s C-130 (four-engine turboprop) and Boeing C-17 Globemaster III (four engine turbofan) military transports; Boeing’s KC-135 Stratotanker military aerial refueling aircraft, which saw service in the Vietnam conflict and the Persian Gulf War (; North American’s P-51 Mustang fighter; Vought’s F4U Corsair; Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning; Fairchild’s PT-19 trainer; North American’s B-25 Mitchell bomber and many more.

Blue Angels in Opposing Solo maneuver
Blue Angels in Opposing Solo maneuver (Jan Wagner / C 2017 Jan R. Wagner, AutoMatt)

Entertainment included Nan-Sense high-flying freestyle motocross stunts.

Patrolling the area – and entertaining young and old alike – was the 501st Legion of costumed Stormtroopers and other characters from Star Wars. “Bad guys doing good,” each year they volunteer thousands of hours of their time to help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities. Check out their very cool website and its thorough costume reference library at

As always, it was a great air show. For more information about the Blue Angels, and to see their schedule of performances, visit

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Copyright © 2017 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #484