Flying the Demo

What does it take to be part of the US Navy Tac Demo team? Turn ‘n’ Burn‘s Alan Kenny watched the display in Fort Worth, Texas and visited the team at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California in November. All images copyright of Alan Kenny.

An airshow. Over 100,000 people. Two highly trained crew members. Airshows are full of impressionable children, eager enthusiasts and awestruck families. The highlight for most is the fast jet high-speed pass, it is what people flock to airshows to see. They want to feel the rush, see the speed and hear the noise. The result looks fantastic and the shock of the sound that hits brings huge smiles to all at the show. But all the crew are thinking is ‘Do not break Mach 1.’

The crews who fly the F/A-18 US Navy Tactical Demonstration (Tac Demo) do so in their spare time. Many display teams in air forces around the world fly their displays full time. They’ll do a season or two showing off the capabilities of their aircraft. The Tac Demo teams from VFA-122 ‘Flying Eagles’ and VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ are instructors during the week and wow crowds at weekends.

VFA-122 are the West Coast Tac Demo team and based at NAS Lemoore, CA. Their demo jets are the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. They have more jets than any other at Lemoore, almost double the amount. Super Hornets are swapped and changed from other squadrons frequently, including former VFA-41, VFA-87 & VFA-151 jets now operated by 122. VFA-106 are the East Coast Tac Demo team and are based at NAS Oceana, VA. As there are still F/A-18C Hornets based there, they use them in their displays along with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Lemoore and Oceana are the master jet bases for the US Navy. All of the active squadrons and the FRS (Fleet Replacement Squadrons – previously called RAG Replacement Air Group), VFA-122 & VFA-106, are based at them. The squadrons are:

Lemoore
VFA-2 ‘Bounty Hunters’
VFA-14 ‘Tophatters’
VFA-22 ‘Fighting Redcocks’
VFA-25 ‘Fist of the Fleet’
VFA-41 ‘Black Aces’
VFA-86 ‘Sidewinders’
VFA-94 ‘Mighty Shrikes’
VFA-97 ‘Warhawks’
VFA-113 ‘Stingers’
VFA-122 ‘Flying Eagles’ FRS
VFA-137 ‘Kestrels’
VFA-146 ‘Blue Diamonds’
VFA-147 ‘Argonauts’
VFA-151 ‘Vigilantes’
VFA-154 ‘Black Knights’
VFA-192 ‘Golden Dragons’

Oceana
VFA-11 ‘Red Rippers’
VFA-15 ‘Valions’
VFA-31 ‘Tomcatters’
VFA-32 ‘Swordsmen’
VFA-34 ‘Blue Blasters’
VFA-37 ‘Ragin’ Bulls’
VFA-81 ‘Sunliners’
VFA-86 ‘Rampagers’
VFA-87 ‘Golden Warriors’
VFA-103 ‘Jolly Rogers’
VFA-105 ‘Gunslingers’VFA-106 ‘Gladiators’ FRS
VFA-131 ‘Wildcats’
VFA-136 ‘Knighthawks’
VFA-143 ‘Pukin’ Dogs’
VFA-211 ‘Fighting Checkmates’
VFA-213 ‘Black Lions’

The role of the FRS is to train or retrain crews on the Hornet/Super Hornet. New pilots who’ve just got their wings are posted to these squadrons to start the next step in their flying career. The Super Hornet is quite a step up, and a lot faster, than the T-45C Goshawk from the training squadrons. Pilots and WSOs who’ve had a time away from flying, in desk jobs or JTAC roles, are also trained by the squadrons.

2016 West Coast TACDEMO Team Members:
LT Nolan “Fat Hands” Lucas – WSO and demo team lead
LT Shaun “Buzz” Roessner – F demo pilot and assistant team lead (2017 team lead)
LT Brett “Lobster” Jakovich – F demo pilot
LT Justin “Skinny Jeans” Wedel – WSO
LT Jayson “Bobble” Trembath – E demo pilot
LT Scott “Bromer” Sulich – E demo pilot

During my visit to NAS Lemoore, I was escorted by LT Justin “Skinny Jeans” Wedel. He showed me around the base, explained how the squadron works and what it’s like to fly the demo.

Turn ‘n’ Burn: What did it feel like to be chosen as part of the team?

Skinny Jeans: It is certainly an honor to be a member of the demo team. The initial selection is chosen by the CO and the qualification is approved by the Commodore after successful completion of the training syllabus. I take pride in that.

TnB: Which maneuvers made up the routine?

SJ: There are actually three show profiles that we can perform; the high, low, and flat show. The show that is performed that day is decided on by the crew and is based on current weather. The high show consists of the dirty roll on takeoff to a half Cuban-8, the flat pirouette, the minimum radius turn to tail stand, the high speed pass to an abrupt pullover reversal, the vertical pirouette, the square loop, the inverted whisper pass, the high alpha pass to a Split-S, the horizontal pitch rate demo, a touch and go landing to a low transition, the photo pass, and the carrier break to a full stop landing. The low and flat shows eliminate the vertical maneuvers and include a carrier configured landing pass.

TnB: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the display?

SJ: My favorite maneuver within the show is the low transition. The aircraft’s close proximity to the ground, right in front of the crowd, allows for an intimate look at the aircraft and the aircrew. My favorite part of a show weekend however occurs before and after the performance. The interaction with the public and their opportunity to stand next to the jet, take pictures, and ask questions was just as important as the performance.

TnB: Are you aware of the crowd during the demo?

SJ: Absolutely. A majority of our maneuvers are based on a show center point that corresponds to a reference point such as a building or a set of coordinates. Typically, the crowd will be spread equally on either side of that show center point, but at some show sites that is not the case. If the site allows, we will adjust our show center in order to keep the performance in front of the majority of the crowd. Beyond that, our time is spent maintaining specific show lines and monitoring parameters within the jet.

TnB: What are you checking during the display (speed, etc)?

SJ: Every maneuver is executed at a specific distance from the crowd and at a specific altitude, airspeed, G, and/or AOA for both spectator and aircrew safety. These demonstration flights require a strict adherence to the flight parameters of each maneuver in order to preserve that safety margin.

TnB: Which is the biggest crowd pleaser?

SJ: The crowd tends to have the best reaction to the high speed pass, especially when a vapor cone appears. If it is fast, low, and loud, they are happy.

TnB: Can you describe the effects on your body at the most demanding sections? What G are you pushing? What is the positive and negative G?

SJ: Although a full demo profile is only 15 minutes long, it is a physically exhausting flight. A majority of the flight is spent between 3-5 G’s, but we’ll see as high as 7.5 G’s to -2.5 G’s. The negative G is undoubtedly the most uncomfortable and will cause you to see “stars” for a few seconds post maneuver.

TnB: Which was your most challenging show? Why?

SJ: Each show site this year presented it’s own set of challenges, so I don’t know if any one site was more challenging than another. The most challenging factor at any show is the weather. Although mitigated by the low or flat show, clouds can change from one pass to the next and from one side of the airfield to the other. Our briefed game plans were constantly updated airborne in order to execute a safe show.

Huge thanks go to my VFA-122 guide and escort, Justin ‘Skinny Jeans’ Wedel and Marcelo ‘Marc’ Calero NAS Lemoore Public Affairs Officer.

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