El Centro

Naval Air Facility El Centro

Photography: James Woodard | Ryan Kelly | Ryan Tykosh
Words: James Woodard

To anyone who follows the Blue Angels, there is one place that always seems to be at the top of their lists for seeing them: Naval Air Facility El Centro. As the winter home to the US Navy Jet Demonstration team, the views offered here are like none other because of the proximity to the end of the runway from the viewing area just outside of the base. I knew I wanted to make it out there to experience this first hand and after talking to some fellow Full Disc Aviation members this past fall, we started to plan the trip. We arrived the Wednesday before the annual El Centro air show which is always the big opening for the Blues. If we had to describe the journey in a single word, I think we would all choose EPIC.

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The week leading up to the adventure was nerve-wracking not only because of the excitement of what was to come but also because we started to pay attention to the weather around Philadelphia for the date we were scheduled to leave. It wasn’t pretty; another winter NorEaster was coming through the morning of our flight. We communicated every couple hours asking each other what the forecast was and seeing if anything changed. The estimates stayed right for the most part, and with a 0600 flight we decided to stay in a Hotel near KPHL so we could avoid driving through the weather that night. Waking up to snow-covered vehicles wasn't an ideal situation, but our flight was still on schedule. We weren’t 100% confident that we were going to be able to get in the air until we were boarded and headed for de-icing. Step one of our epic journey was complete as we took to the air Wednesday morning as planned, despite Mother Nature making it interesting. El Centro here we come.

The Blue Angels first arrived for winter practice at NAF El Centro in 1967 and have continued to train there every year during January-March prior to their show season. Located 120 miles east of San Diego in the Imperial Valley section of California, El Centro was commissioned in 1946 as a Naval Air Station, and it now serves mainly as a training facility. The facility is equipped with a Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System (FLOLS) at each approach end and carrier flight deck lighting that allow pilots to simulate carrier landings. NAF El Centro also has many ranges that enable aircrews to develop their skills, including a remote-controlled target area to practice ordnance delivery. East of the facilities perimeter fence is Low Road; this road is about 600 feet from the end of runway 12 or the beginning of runway 30. Low Road is where the action is, in past years there have been hay bales stacked which would allow you a better view “over” the fence. Unfortunately this year they were not set up, but that did not change the fact that it was an epic trip!

Our flight landed in Phoenix, after going through their system of car rental pickups, which seems to be less than ideal, we started our 4-hour drive heading west. The ride to El Centro went smoothly with some small bits of excitement like seeing Heisenberg and Pinkman cooking in the desert, a couple of sightings of cousin Eddie and the random tractor-trailer on fire along the road. We were in communication with an El Centro local who was keeping us up to date on the Blues schedule for the day. We knew we had to push it to make their 2:30 practice, we arrived with enough time to make a few acquaintances and prep ourselves mentally that we were actually in El Centro.

With this being one of the last training flights of winter training, some of the family members of the Blue Angels were amongst the crowd that had assembled at the viewing area. It was nice to talk to some of the pilots' parents and share some past images with them. We heard the distinct sound of the F18 power-up; it didn't take long before they were taxing. We thought to ourselves “OMG This is actually happening!” Containing the excitement was hard. The formation taxied out to use runway 12, meaning they were coming right over us after takeoff. Terrific! We could hear Blue Angel #1 Commander Eric Doyle over the radio communicating with his team. Next, we saw the smoke, and we knew it was on. Looking through our camera lenses, we saw them barreling towards our position just as we have seen in the numerous videos online that made us interested in this special place in the first place. They kept on coming, filling more and more space in our viewfinders until they were just moving too fast, too close to keep up with. At that point, it wasn't just the sight of having the premier Jet Demonstration team of the world taking to skies right in front of you. It is also the sound of eight general electric F404ge-402 engines screaming past. Not to mention the feeling of nearly 100,000 pounds of thrust and the smell of the jet fuel being burned that makes this a unique experience that we will never forget.

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As a Gold Star Family member, I was honored to receive on-base housing and access. The NAVY goes above and beyond to take care of Gold Star Families, and this trip to El Centro was no different. After the Blues practice on Wednesday, we started the check-in process, meeting the Gold Star Coordinator for NAF El Centro Mr. Curtis Mclaurin at the gate then continuing to the base ID building to receive our passes for the ensuing days. We were grateful to join the Friday night music and food fest and enjoy VIP access to the Commanding Officers Chalet for the show Saturday. Staying in a house on base had plenty of benefits of course, but a big bonus was being able to take our time and shoot the stunning entrance to the base. As one passes through the gates, it’s impossible not to notice the Blue Angel static displays all around. First, you see the current F18 sitting about 10’ above the ground at a pretty sweet angle. Next, there are some historical Blue Angel variants including an F4 Phantom and an A4 Skyhawk, and bringing up the rear is the F11 Tiger, also “on a stick” about 15’ off the ground.  

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For weeks, we eagerly awaited what would be in the sky, and on the ground. Some of the most intimate shots can be captured when the opportunity to be up close with these aircraft on the ground. As the weekend drew closer, more and more aircraft were listed to appear. We were ecstatic to see that the lineup on the ground was heavy with Warbirds. In addition to El Centro being a new venue for us, being able to photograph aircraft we don’t typically see on the east coast was refreshing. Planes of Fame and the Commemorative Air Force sent a multitude of aircraft. We had hoped Thursday would allow us to see some of these aircraft arriving at El Centro. After a slow start, things began to pick with the arrivals from the Commemorative Air Force’s Southern California Wing, Planes of Fame, The Red Eagles Formation Team, Palm Springs Air Museum. We were thrilled to be able to catch some various military aircraft come in as well.The Navy sent a P-8 Poseidon from NAS Jacksonville across the country, VFA-87 sent two Super Hornets to greet attendees of the air show at the gate, VMFA-232 sent a pair of Hornets, and a pair of EA-18 Growlers from VAQ-129 were displayed. We spent the day Thursday from Low Road catching the arrivals, and of course, another spectacular Blue Angels practice that afternoon.

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Typically we are used to seeing an air show “rehearsal” day the Friday before shows; generally, these are open to media and, if held on military bases, military personnel and their families. However, this was not the case at El Centro, so Friday was in limbo for us; we were not sure where to go to see the action. Reports were saying that they were going to close Low Rd around noon once the show box was in place. We figured we would head that way in the morning and see what happens. We’re glad we did, what we witnessed that afternoon was beyond thrilling and possibly the best part of the trip. We will get to that in a moment.

After a couple more arrivals, some excellent flying started taking place around noon. Getting to see the Commemorative Air Force Southern California wing (CAF SOCAL) with their Bearcat and Hellcat perform in close relative proximity to us allowed for some great angles and even better sound as the radials tore through the air above us. A couple of jet demos were performed by Greg Colyer in his T-33, a MiG, and the Planes of Fames MiG-15 and F-86 Sabre. Finally, it was time for the US Navy Tac Demo to take to the skies. We were hoping to see the West Coast team from VFA 122, but due to a shortage of jets, the team from VFA 106 out of Oceana came to fly in the beautiful California skies.

Being situated where we were gave us new angles of their performance, and maybe the best angle for what was to come. We had an idea something cool was going to happen when they came down on the far side of the runway heading right for us at an incredibly low altitude. At the same time, there was a Lamborghini racing down the runway giving the illusion of a “race.” The Super Hornet stayed low and kept on coming right towards us, keeping that low altitude. My mind raced, “holy sh*t this is going to be crazy.” Finally, at what seemed like the last possible second, he pulled up, right in front of the crowd that had gathered at the spotting location. Loud doesn't even describe the sound an F18 Super Hornet makes as he is right above you climbing. Ryan Kelly had his self-preservation mode kick in and ducked in the car right after it happened, the other Ryan, (Ryan Tykosh) hung in until the monster dust storm overtook him at which point he also dove in the car to protect his camera equipment.

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I was set up a little to the left and got a slightly different perspective of the event. I hadn’t really fully grasped what had just happened until I also got hit with a blast of wind about 15 seconds later. After the dust settled around me, I turned towards the other two and they were not visible. All I could see was a wall of dust and dirt. After several more seconds, it finally cleared enough to see the other two near our car. Tykosh was caring for his gear like a mother bird in the back seat and Kelly was standing tall in the swirling dirt with a massive grin on his face. After the dust settled, literally, our joy sounded like little kids on that special Christmas morning after they all got what was on top of their lists.

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The Blues finished up Friday’s afternoon flying activities, except this time security showed up and made everyone leave the area. We moved to a new location on the road east of where we had been set up the previous days. This still provided for some unique angles, so we weren't too upset about being relocated. After what we experienced in the last couple hours, we were very excited about the day's events.

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We had signed up to attend a nighttime photo workshop that was hosted by 3G Aviation Media, something that we were looking forward to. The plan was to meet up at the Dinner event that NAFEC hosts the night before the show, this is also where the Blue Angels get officially introduced for the first time for the show season. Getting to witness this was a something we did not expect, however, we are grateful that we were in attendance for such a great occasion. Seeing every crew member introduced onstage in front of a cool El Centro sign and the Blue Angel Commander exchanging some framed Blue Angel Plaques with the El Centro Commanding Officer was a great way to kick off the night activities. After the presentation, we bumped into the Blue Angel flight surgeon LCDR Juan David Guerra, who we follow on Instagram and who will regularly communicate with fans because he is just that great of a guy. We chatted briefly about our experience so far and what we hoped the year would bring, making it quick so he could make his way over to a group of kids seeking his autograph.

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It was then time to make the long walk along the ramp to where the statics were set up. We had met the instructors from 3G Aviation Media when we arrived on Wednesday, Douglas Glover, and Joe Copalman. From the first time we met them they were more than happy to share advice with us, but more importantly, they were some of the nicest guys we’ve met and were an absolute blast to hang out with. They introduced us to some other well-experienced aviation photographers at dinner Thursday night, and being able to share stories and ideas with that kind of skill and experience was invaluable.

After a brief introduction to night photography, we all scattered to get unique angles. Starting at the PBJ, we then made our way to the B-24 in time for the fireworks. We were in awe that we had the privilege to be alone with these beautifully kept aircraft. For a short time, fireworks brightened the California desert sky and the echoes of booms could be heard as they lit up these aircraft. After the fireworks, the faint sound of whispers and shutters opening-closing were the only sounds to fill the flight line. The instructors did what we asked of them, adding light here, taking light away from there, in order to get the best possible shots. The whole night shoot was an enjoyable learning experience, and we hope to be in the presence of such great instructors once again.

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Show day was finally here. Go figure, we travel from the unpredictable east coast weather to see an airshow in the desert, and Saturday we wake up to a dreary wet day. Not enough rain to cancel anything, but enough to make it a nuisance. Once we got into the show, we hit all the statics before it got too crowded.  Being up close with a number of Warbirds we were seeing for the first time was a humbling feeling. The only flying PBJ, YB-24, P-51A, and one of only a handful of P-38s flying in the world were in attendance. Two C-47s also took up a row of their own on display. There’s a certain vintage smell to these aircraft, and there’s a feeling of pride that one feels when next to them. There were a number of civilian aircraft and helos on display. A special sight to see was the Marines AV-8B Harrier. One of our highlights was being able to talk to the Marine pilot who brought the jump jet in from MCAS Yuma. He was gracious in allowing us to grab a couple of portraits of him and the Harrier.

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A healthy combination of vintage and modern, the El Centro team got it right on the static display. They pulled aircraft from Planes of Fame, the Commemorative Air Force, and others based across the country for the one-day show. We made our rounds getting all the detail shots we wanted and made our way to the PB4 where the crew was actively preparing for the day, and this allowed us the opportunity to get some shot of her insides. We slowly made our way to the check-in area for the Chalets.

Being our first time there we did not realize that the crowd line at El Centro was on dirt. It was raining. Enough said. We did have our VIP passes to the CO Chalet which was in an asphalt area, so that was a plus, but we still had to trek through some mud. Our chalet was stationed right in line with the blues; this allowed for some beautiful shots pre-show of all them lined up to perfection. After grabbing some food and water, it was show time. With the weather the way it was, we were not sure how we were going to like the lighting and the angle of where we were. We stayed in this area during the Hellcat and Bearcat demonstration, seeing both of them in the air above the current Blue Angels was a pretty unique sight and we are glad we were able to witness that.

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We ultimately decided to go a little rogue and move to another location for a better chance of viewing angle and lighting. As we arrived at our new location, which was secluded, to say the least, we were nervous if we would be able to stay there. Once we got a nod from an MP as he drove by, we knew we were good to go. We were now set up at extreme show left, allowing us to see the performers dive into the show box and see the jet demonstrators taxi to the runway right in front of us, even getting a wave from the Navy Tac Demo team. It was quite a thing to being some of the only people to witness (from that vantage point) the official start of the 2018 Blue Angels season. We had an after-show photo opportunity set up by 3G Aviation, so we started to head back towards show center to meet up with the others during the middle part of the Blues performance.

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The crowds thinned out quite quickly after the show with the help of the security officers. The group of photographers we joined were the exception, led by Douglas Glover and Joe Copalman, and we were happy to be linked with them. Having to explain the situation to the officers numerous times we were finally able to set up off of the hot ramp and wait for some action. We were hoping to catch departing performers taxi right by us; however, some of the planes were prevented from leaving due to weather in their home areas. The P51, P40, and T28 from Palm Springs Air Museum were able to head out though, and we were successful in getting some lovely images of them. Next were the Marine helos, a Cobra and a Huey. It was a great experience to see the whole process of the crew performing preflight and then lifting off. We were hoping to catch some more activity, but we were ultimately asked to leave the area by security before anything else left. All in all, it was a great experience, and afterward, we made plans to meet up for dinner and drinks with some of the other aviation photographers.

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As we woke up for the last day of our stay we knew we could take things slowly; our flight back home did not depart Phoenix until later that night. There were still some statics around the base that we had not captured yet, so we made sure we did that before leaving the base. Having time to waste and knowing that some military departures had not happened yet, we headed back over to Low Road. Others had a similar idea, Doug & Joe from 3G also showed up there, but they had intel that said the E2 Hawkeye was going to do some passes around noon. We knew what our morning was consisting of now. Ultimately we were happy to catch the P8, a Growler, some Hornets, and the E2 Hawkeye all depart Sunday morning. Once that was done it was time to say goodbye to El Centro and hit the road. What to do with the extra time we knew we were about to have in Phoenix? Well, we felt it as an obligation to hit up an In & Out Burger while on the west coast. I think it lived up to the hype. With the help of a local aviation photographer we met the previous night, we were given a location at Phoenix Sky Harbor to shoot arrivals and departures. It was a great location and the lighting and scenery there was tremendous, but after four days at El Centro it was kind of hard to get too excited about it. We enjoyed it nonetheless. Later that night we got on our flight and headed back to the cold that was awaiting us back in Philadelphia.

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Looking back at the trip we are still in awe of how great it went, from being able to experience the Blue Angels doing a diamond takeoff right in front of us to VFA 106 dusting us out, everything was what we hoped for, plus some. We can't go without giving special thanks to NAFEC for providing us with the access, and to Douglas Glover and Joe Copalman with 3G Aviation. The night shoot and post airshow shoot was great but even better was getting to hang out with them and absorb the knowledge they shared with us. Combining all of these experiences and we got a trip that will be hard to top, but we are going to try.