Flight Test Nation 2009 Airshow And Open House
Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave, CA
I still don't know what came over me, but I just had to see this airshow with the boys. I love having two kids to share this sort of thing with; I'd never have thought of it if they hadn't found books in the Transportation section at the library about modern bombers and fighters. My ride last May on a B-17 started all this, though I guess I've always been intrigued by the cool planes flying over our house. And they love talking about the planes with me.
I made a motel reservation for the night before the airshow -- which mercifully was free -- and told Laura and Ryan we'd be in Southern CA that day.
I picked the boys up from the CDC just after school ended on Friday, filled with excitement and anticipation about our trip. Fortuitously, a pair of fighter jets zoomed in formation overhead just as we were getting into the car. What are those things?
We stopped twice on the way, once at a rest stop and once for dinner, at Denny's. Gabriel was beside himself at the dessert menu. "Denny's is the BEST place I've ever been to!" he exclaimed. He clarified that he didn't mean just restaurants, it was the best place at all. "We've got to come back here, Mom," he said emphatically. He couldn't believe it when I told him there were Denny's at home too, and that they would look exactly the same.
We were all business when we rolled into Mojave around 9:30pm. Quick bath, PJs, right to bed.
I usually put little stock in weather predictions for choosing clothes, but a predicted high of 76, combined with many memories of freezing my rear end off in deserts, led to not packing shorts for any of us. I started to doubt this decision when I saw everyone around us dressed in shorts and tank tops at 7:30am. It was still a little chilly when we parked on base around 8:25am, and I couldn't persuade the boys to leave their sweatshirts behind.
Parking was on a huge dry lakebed, with no markings for miles around, except identical port-a-potties at various points. I made a note of a distant hangar as a reference to find the car later, knowing that we'd be in for a search. (And oh, if only it had remained just this desolate as in this photo!)
We boarded a tram to get to the security area, passed through security, then boarded a coach bus to take us the 1.5 miles to the hangars and runway.
From arriving on the base, to getting to the show itself, it had taken almost an hour, and that was with little waiting since we were so early. The prime viewing right up at the fence at the runway was already filled, but we got a decent spot a few rows back, marked it with a little chair I'd brought (just the chair, no case allowed, nor any backbacks), then walked around to check out the static displays.
At an Information Booth in the main hangar, I asked where the B-2 Stealth bomber display was. "Uh, it's supposed to be over there," an airman answered, gesturing, "but it might not be there now. You never know with these things." Huh? How do you not know?
We walked through a big NASA plane (who cares, we're here for air, not space!) and a C-17 Globemaster, the plane I'd been most impressed with at the Watsonville airshow we'd been to last May.
For later reference, the C-17 is huge.
One of the library books we'd brought was about the B-1B Lancer, which Julian in particular wanted to see. We talked to its actual pilot, who told us about its movable wings and about getting shot at in Kosovo and how he avoided missiles by flying up and rolling fast. I couldn't follow most of his lingo, but I was seriously impressed anyway. (I noted that he wasn't much taller than I am, and remembered with amusement that of all the actors in Top Gun, Tom Cruise was the only one short enough to actually fit into a fighter jet cockpit.)
Gabriel asked the pilot how the plane's towed decoys work, and about putting the plane in line with the sun to fool heat-seeking missiles, a trick he read about that delights him.
I was a little taken aback when the pilot didn't have 100% confidence a B-1B would be flying today. "It's on the schedule," I asked, puzzled. The pilot answered, "Yeah, they were up all night with some electrical problem. You never really know with these things."
Not sure what this is, an F-16 I think.
The SR-71 Blackbird. Mach 3!
The view of a still uncrowded airshow, from a NASA transport plane. That's the B-1B bomber, and the C-17 transport behind it. And the still-short (!) line on the left to walk through this empty plane.
As interesting as the static displays were, we were there to see the flying. First, some parachutists, then the National Anthem. I was a little ashamed that the boys knew nothing about taking off their hats and where to put their hands, never mind the words.
Some F-16s opened the show with twin sonic booms (from a distance), carrying Gen. Chuck Yeager and Gen. Joe Engle (famous guys -- surely you've heard of Chuck Yeager, immortalized in the movie The Right Stuff). The sonic booms weren't too loud, but they were interesting, thunderlike pops.
An A-10 (ground attack plane) demonstration was very impressive, along with simulated bombing.
It started to warm up. The sun glared on us. Though it was only 10:30, the boys were already complaining about being thirsty and hungry. I took them to buy some some white T-shirts and some food.
Another problem with the airshow started to emerge -- lines. No outside food allowed; you have no choice but to buy the incredibly overpriced junk food at stands there. Well before lunchtime and the bulk of the crowds, the lines were already 20 minutes long for burgers, hot dogs and pizza -- all separate. The whole family had better agree!
We bailed to a pretzel stand, paid, and then ended up standing around another 15 minutes while the pretzels heated up. I finally asked for my money back, my New Yorker hackles rising and ready to make a serious stink, but then one of the pretzels was ready, and by the time the hamfisted money-handler found my $8, another pretzel was ready too. This would prove to be lunch.
The schedule for aerial demonstrations included a lunch break, but it wasn't clear if that was actually happening, or if we were given other demonstrations -- parachutists and a motorcycle -- during the "break."
There were a lot of long breaks and waiting between flying -- sometimes the demos came one after another, other times there were long downtimes. Doesn't the Air Force know how to time planes?
I was happy to see the heritage aircraft, especially the B-17. I'd flown on one, but never seen one flying. The sound is really the most remarkable thing about them, though nowadays all we'll ever hear is one at a time. That famous sound was known from hundreds of them droning together, dropping havoc upon German shipyards and ball-bearing factories.
The "White Knight" -- I don't know what the heck this is, but it's like a Siamese twin. It looks like two regular planes that got their wingtips glued together. Here it is flying past the huge C-17, as the boys and I were on some or other line.
The White Knight on the ground.
We'd been lucky enough to see a C-17 Globemaster -- a gigantic cargo transport plane -- fly at the Watsonville airshow last May, and I was looking forward to seeing it again. Its sheer size makes it stunning to watch. The only crowd gasp I heard through the whole show was when that behemoth took off at a steep angle like a lithe little stunt plane.
I mean, really, this thing carries tanks. It's just astonishing.
The C-17 flies over the C-17.
It's designed to take off from and land on very short and imperfect runways, as so many are around the world. I have new interest in the agile jet fighters now, but the gigantic utilitarian C-17 is my favorite.
The boys were content with some ice pops ($5 EACH! Robbery!) for a while, and some toy planes, but the sun continued to beat down relentlessly on us. We took refuge as possible in the hangars, but we all wanted to see the flying by the runway. I also wanted to hear the announcer, though I could do without the tired old rock music in the background. If they'd played "Danger Zone" I'd have barfed. (Besides, Top Gun was Navy.)
Finally, time for the jet fighters! The F-16 demo started, and right away I recognized the sound. That's what's always flying over our house on the way to Moffett! Gabriel especially was looking forward to this....but Julian. Julian! He suddenly became terrified of the sound, and also had a sudden poop emergency. I had a feeling one was prompted by the other.
Argh, I didn't want to miss this!! But he started crying hard, and I could tell if it was from fear or bathroom. I rushed him to the port-a-potties, right as the F-16 did an incredible fly-by right over the crowd. It was unbelievably loud, and Julian crumpled to the ground in terror.
Coming back from the port-a-potties, the F-16 demo continued with some rolls and other feats, none as loud as the fly-by, but still, any F-16 within sight is earthshaking.
I unwittingly took a little video, thinking I'd taken a photo, and caught the bit of Julian crying in terror at it.
Being in a small enclosed space like a port-a-potty makes it worse. I couldn't persuade him that it's less scary if you watch the plane. He wasn't at all comforted by my hugging him; in fact, he pushed me away. Gabriel watched the entire F-16 demo, flame coming from the jets and all, by himself.
It was downhill from there. Even though subsequent planes weren't as loud, Julian cringed as soon as he started to hear a jet. Gabriel and I found a spot by the rail to see the upcoming B-2 Stealth bomber, but Julian couldn't be persuaded to join us and he stayed 10 feet behind us at our established spot. This was the face I saw so much of this day that would haunt me for many days later.
I went back numerous times to try to convince Julian to stay with me, as he was still crying and screaming in fear every time a plane went by, but he refused! Julian couldn't be persuaded that it wasn't any quieter 10 feet away from me, but I didn't want to miss the fly-bys, so Julian stayed behind and cried by himself. I felt terrible and stayed with him as much as possible, but I wanted to see the bombers right up at the runway with Gabriel.
Julian's B-1B Lancer. Far too sleek a plane to be a bomber.
The wait for the elusive B-2 was long, again. The announcer said it was 4 minutes away, but it didn't arrive for about 10 minutes. It is the spookiest-looking plane!
The sun, the crowds, the waiting, the noise....they'd had enough. Even Gabriel now insisted he wanted to go. The show "Tora Tora Tora" was about to start, a re-enactment of Pearl Harbor, but they were adament. I hoped I could buy some time in the shade of the hangar, but it was hard to find any scrap of shade that wasn't already occupied. People had camped out in every shadow there was, under the demo planes, in the hangars, next to every building and structure.
We managed to find a cool spot in the hangar, and I called Laura. She and Ryan were on their way to meet us, but had hit some traffic. And now, we were planning to go too. Meantime, Tora Tora Tora had started, and it was actually one of the better "show" demos, since there were so many planes flying around, and lots of cool pyrotechnics.
But first...wow, an F-22 Raptor on display, right next to our refuge spot. The plane that the President just cancelled all future orders of, because it's so expensive and has never been used in combat. We would miss the aerial demo, but at least we could see an actual plane up close, and talk to an airman about it.
The boys didn't want to ask anything until I'd asked a few questions and thanked the airman and tried to move on. Then they each had questions -- I tried to leave about 5 times, but the question floodgates had been opened. "What do the bullets look like?" Gabriel asked. The airman didn't think much of the guns: "If you're in close enough range for a gun," he said wryly, "you're already in a lot of trouble." He explained with bemusement that "some general from the Old School probably insisted that a fighter plane has to have guns."
The airman tried to persuade us to stay -- the F-22 demo should start in just 10 minutes, after all. "But," he added, "you never know with these things."
We left anyway, or, tried. First, a line to get on the shuttle buses back to the parking. This was maddening; some lines moved really well, others, like ours, not at all. Arriving buses chose lines randomly, as the inexperienced airmen guiding the traffic weren't paying attention to queue fairness, and once started to incite an angry crowd whose line had been passed over too many times in the soaring heat. Gabriel wanted to bail and walk the 1.5 miles to the security checkpoint, but I knew Julian would be a serious liability.
Finally, finally, we got on a bus.
5 minutes later, we were at the security checkpoint. I had the boys visit the port-a-potty, no mean feat with all the stuff in their hands, and the row of potties being across from a road with cars streaming across it. We had to rely on more inexperienced and unclear airmen guiding traffic to tell us when to cross.
Finally, finally, we got to the parking area...or rather, the dry lakebed that served as a parking area (and an emergency runway for air and spacecraft under test, which is a large part of the reason Edwards was built here). I forewent the tram, since I knew we hadn't ridden that far on it the way in, and didn't want to get disoriented. So we walked, using one reference point I'd made when we arrived, a large hangar in the distance.
But the parking "lot" had changed drastically. There were miles and miles of cars now, and I couldn't even tell where the previous edges of parking had been. There were also a few hard-to-see signs with letters marking an area, but they were few and far between and hard to find, even if they had been there when we parked.
And, there was a long long line of cars at a standstill, apparently waiting to exit. I asked one of the many airmen guiding traffic, assuming I could find our card, how long the wait was to exit, and she said over an hour.
We started to search the aisles, first walking a long distance to pass a group of cars parked facing north -- we'd parked south. The boys followed along behind me as best they could, as I walked briskly, anxious to get to shelter of our car.
Meantime, the airshow continued. The F-22 Raptor demo had started -- it was well, well past 10 minutes -- and it was really amazing, but hard to concentrate on as we walked up and down interminable aisles of cars. I grew increasingly concerned. Julian was starting to lag, walking with his head down and increasingly exhausted with every step. The sun was relentless, the heat radiated from the dry lakebed. People die in places like this. We wouldn't die, of course, but it was becoming clear that we could be in for hours of searching until the thousands -- hundreds of thousands? -- of cars cleared out from the many, many square miles of parked cars.
We had started in the right area, I thought, but it's easy to get disoriented and start to doubt your memory. I felt terrible seeing Julian dragging his feet, trying to keep up but just out of steam, hot, exhausted, probably dehydrated and hungry too. We had a little water, and half a stale pretzel. At one point, we saw an Outback and got hopeful, but it was dark green -- not our car.
Increasingly fearful, I asked a guy standing on top of a pickup if I could scout for my car up there too. I saw a group of RVs that I remembered from when we had parked, and headed toward that. Still, nothing.
While we were looking, the airshow was concluding. Some awesome formations flew over us, and I got a pang again that I'd rather be by the runway watching this than out here searching for our car. It's not often you stop a search for a car with, "Hey look, there's a B-2!"
But I got over that fast -- I was increasingly worried about the boys. They had really had it, even Gabriel. I couldn't proceed with them.
I saw a pickup with flashing lights on top -- police -- and stopped them and asked if they could help me find my car. I felt like a real ninny, but I pulled the kid card: "If it were just me, I'd take my licks, but they're done." They assured me they would find my car, I gave them a description, and pointed to a port-a-potty where we'd wait. I parked the boys in the shade of the port-a-potty, where Gabriel said dejectedly, "All our plans for fun, ruined!" I tried to keep up positive appearances, but I was really really worried. We could be miles from the car and we could be here for hours.
I was having a hard time with cell service, too. I managed to get through to Laura on and off, and at one point asked them to come find us and bring food and water. I knew that'd take at least an hour, but it was some sort of rescue. She assured us they'd come find us -- the base was still open, we thought -- and I relaxed a little. Thank God for Laura and Ryan. A passerby took one look at Julian and sympathetically gave us a bottle of water.
Unable to sit and wait, I ran reconnaissance on and off from our tiny port-a-potty oasis, not daring to venture too far from the boys and risk getting lost. A woman came by to use the port-a-potty, and we compared predicaments. She had just found their car in a section nearby after a long search. "You parked around 8:25?" she said, "So did we -- but we were over there -- " she pointed to where I'd been when I'd stopped the cops. "This whole area was empty then!" she said, indicating the area we were now in. Then she added, "how can the cops find your car, there are millions of them!" I said I'd given them a description and partial license plate. And really, an Outback would stand out, since we'd seen no Outbacks, except one.
....wait a second....no Outbacks except one? Except one!
Renewed, I left the boys and set out again in the area she'd pointed out. My hangar reference point was right there, too. I set out at a gentle trot, grateful that my short running career gave me the confidence and endurance to keep up a decent pace for a while. Provided I don't have two little boys in tow, that is. I kept an eye on the port-a-potty so I didn't lose them.
Five minutes later, I spotted our car -- barely a row or two away from where I'd stopped the cops. We'd been in the vicinity all along, but just one area over.
I couldn't believe it. I was thrilled. I sprinted to my as-usual-unlocked car, dug out my spare key (also in the car), and drove the very short distance to the boys. I got out Gabriel's Bear and ran to him with it, shouting, "I found it! I found it!!" They were too tired to act overjoyed. I ran again to find the cops, who I'd directed into the wrong area, told them to cross us off our list, and thanked them.
I had a sinking feeling the one Outback we'd seen a long time ago and ruled out was our car all along, but I swear it looked dark green. Gabriel said it looked red. The glaring sun and reflections from the ground were very deceptive.
After futile attempts to brush playa dust off us (dry lakebed -- nasty, nasty stuff), we piled into the hot car and called Laura. Meet you in Rosamond, the exit lines are moving and we're on our way!!
It took another half-hour to get out, partly because one of the two exits had been inexplicably blocked off -- one entrance had been blocked that morning temporarily due to a security breach, the hazards of being on an Air Force base instead of a public airport -- but we finally got out on the road again. The closed exit forced us out the exit we'd entered, which meant 18 miles of driving past nowheresville to get to any civilization.
Cell service shined upon me, and we changed our meeting point with Laura and Ryan to a Denny's in Mojave. I knew the boys would be happy about Denny's. And after the 2-1/2 hour ordeal leaving the airshow, so was I.
What a relief to see our family, friendly faces, a crucial source of hope during our frightening search. As worried as I'd been about the boys, they recovered quickly and soon were annoying me with rambunctiousness, thrilled to see their aunt and uncle again.
We all hung out there for about 2 hours, though a restaurant isn't the best place for the boys to reunite with their aunt and uncle, as their energy came back in full force. Still, it was such a great -- and hard-won! -- visit, we were all very happy.
I changed into "driving clothes" (PJs, essentially), got gas, washed the windshield, settled the boys in, and hunkered down for a long drive home. They played I Spy for about an hour, then suddenly it was dead-silent. Zonked. We stopped one time for gas & bathroom, and got home just after midnight, 310 miles in 4-1/2 hours.
What a trip. It was a very challenging event in many ways. Lots of logistics and crowds, which usually I have very low tolerance for. Though many people had little kids and babies there, the harsh environment was borderline for even Julian. The food situation was appalling -- not enough vendors, horrible overpriced food, nasty lines -- all solvable if you can bring your own. The show itself was not run by people who run airshows, who know how to keep the show moving, there were lots of gaps and relatively dull displays. Who wants to see a motorcycle at an airshow? The people guiding traffic and answering questions were uninformed -- I asked several times on the way out if we were headed to the West Gate, and was assured yes -- except that the West Gate had been closed.
And the parking....ample, but impossible. Marking our location was difficult anyway, but I should have done something more -- like taken photos from the car of what the surroundings look like from it. I should have parked the boys much sooner than I did to go look for the car afoot myself.
If I had it to do over, I'd have arrived much later, so that the 4 hours or so the boys could take of the desert sun coincided with the most interesting flying -- and after we'd had a good lunch somewhere else. I'd have better clothing for us, been prepared with a way to find the car again (GPS anyone?), and tried to park closer to the exit if I had a choice. Maybe I'd leave Julian behind, as some of the planes really scared him.
And I'd take better pictures. My camera's failings really come through at airshows, but much of the adventure for us was not in the air. I should have gotten more photos of the scenes and people around us. Especially of the parking lot.
Still, in terms of the actual aircraft (and that's why we were there after all) it was unbeatable. The bomber formations -- which we only saw from the parking lot -- were amazing, given how different the aircraft were. The F-22 Raptor demo was astounding, what glimpses I saw of it.
Everyone asks if the Blue Angels flew, and the answer is, "No, the Air Force Thunderbirds demo team did not fly!" I can say with newfound authority: the Blue Angels are Navy! The only formation flying we saw was heterogenous and unprecedented: B-52,B-2s and B-1B bombers are drastically different planes.
But still, I came away with the impression that the Air Force is much more a seat-of-the-pants operation than befitting the reputation of military discipline. What was with all the gaps in the show, and all the doubt that our multi-million dollar superplanes would make it off the runway today?
We woke up safe and sound in our own beds on Sunday morning. But I was haunted by the image of poor little Julian shuffling along behind me and Gabriel as we searched for the car, too tired to tilt his oversized hat back off his eyes, stoically giving his all to keep up, without a word of complaint. It was heartbreaking. It had so quickly dissolved my usual resolve to tackle a problem with brute force and persistence. He recovered very quickly and was never in any real danger, but still, I'd pushed him much too far.
The boys and I are still having all sorts of fun talking about the show, and about things we saw and people we talked to. I asked them tonight what they liked and disliked most about our experience.
What did you like the most about the airshow?
Julian: the ice yogurt things, the B-2.
Gabriel: The B-1B Lancer, in the air (which we saw for about .8 seconds)
What did you like the least about the airshow?
Julian: that fast loud plane, I hated that.
Gabriel: I hated being so hot.
In retrospect, it really was very special to talk to a real B-1B pilot and other airmen; they are truly very accomplished and capable people. I felt like having two little boys with me gave me extra credibility; the truth is that most airmen are men, and they know well that young boys wowed by cool flying are the future recruits. Maybe the most we got out of it wasn't in the air, but on the ground.
Despite the numerous troubles, overall the boys (Gabriel especially) were excited about the whole airshow experience. It was really remarkable -- if disappointing that I couldn't fully enjoy it -- for me. Not just seeing the tremendous C-17 zoom around the air like a hummingbird, but moreso, sharing it with my sons.