Headlined by a gathering of P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, the Planes of Fame Airshow 2018 at Chino, CA enjoyed a weekend of memorable flying and scorching weather.
The Planes of Fame Airshow always features an abundance of rare and unique vintage aircraft. Each year is typically built around a particular theme, with years past featuring significant gatherings of Corsairs, Bearcats, Warhawks, Thunderbolts, Lightnings and Mustangs. 2018 was accordingly built around P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, with six of the former and two of the latter assembled on the ground at Chino. Undoubted stars of the impressive line-up were visiting P-38F Lightning White 33 and P-47D Thunderbolt Dottie Mae, both newcomers to Chino having been restored to airworthy condition within the last year by Westpac Restorations and Allied Fighters (alongside Vintage Airframes and Anderson Aeromotive) respectively.
As ever, the airshow featured an impressive breadth and depth of participants. The Planes of Fame Air Museum’s large fleet of flying Second World War aircraft offer a strong backbone around which the rest of the flying programme is structured, with ten P-51 Mustangs of different variants joining four P-40 Warhawks, two Spitfires (albeit one was a wooden Allison-powered replica), two B-25 Mitchells and two Grumman Tigercats. Single examples of the Corsair, Avenger, Dauntless, Wildcat, Bearcat, Skyraider, Kingcobra, Privateer, Sabre and MiG-15 also featured amongst the near 50-strong line-up, complemented by a small number of interwar and civilian aerobatic types with the US Air Force A-10 demo team bringing things right up to date.
One optional ‘extra’ for those seeking unique photographic opportunities was a daily dawn photo-shoot offering a very limited number of photographers the chance to capture some of the participating warbirds silhouetted against the rising sun. With tickets restricted in number, the ‘shoot avoided the scrum that plagues so many well-attended photographic events – thus everyone was able to enjoy the access at their leisure.
A sizeable static display comprised a raft of modern and historic aircraft, ranging from the US Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III (put to good use by many to escape the intense sun) and a locally based civilian Blackhawk (fetching decked out in a scatty Orca whale scheme) to such disparate types as the OV-1 Mohawk, OV-10 Bronco, AH-1 Cobra, L-19 Birddog, O-2 Skymaster and Lockheeds EC-121 Warning Star and Electra. In combination with the Planes of Fame Air Museum’s hangar complex, the many based aeroplanes dotted around the site in public view and the excellent variety of trade stands ensured there was plenty to see before the flying commenced mid-morning.
Temperatures sat comfortably in the low 30s for Friday’s arrivals and practices and throughout Sunday afternoon, soaring to in excess of 35°C (95°F) on Saturday. The ramp temperature, meanwhile, pushed 60°C (140°F) at its hottest, putting the aircrew and raft of engineering staff and volunteers under quite some strain. Chino is positioned right on the edge of the desert – it’s dry, dusty and intensely hot during the spring and summer months. The large crew of volunteers, staff, engineers and pilots are all jointly responsible for making the event run so seamlessly, and all credit to them for delivering a tremendous weekend in challenging conditions.
The aforementioned gathering of Lightnings and Thunderbolts failed to match the numbers of 2013 (five flying Lightnings) and 2014 (four flying Thunderbolts) respectively, but the opening formation of three Lightnings and two Thunderbolts was unquestionably impressive. An imaginative spark started the flying display, as the five aeroplanes launched in sequence from Chino’s multiple runways, with no two aircraft using the same runway. The traditional show-opening rendition of the US national anthem, followed by a ‘missing man’ formation, took a slightly different turn this year; as the anthem reached its crescendo, a lone C-47 Skytrain dropped a stick of paratroopers (adorned in period airborne gear and utilising round canopies in a static line jump) over the main runway. Flying an intersecting line overhead and towards the crowd line were the quintet of P-38s and P-47s, a single P-38 pulling up and out of formation directly over the showground to represent the ‘missing man’. A unique, emotional spectacle to open the day’s flying that will certainly live long in the memory.
Following this, a lengthy sequence of formation passes from the three Lightnings and two Thunderbolts led into streamed solo runs and rolls, presenting the opportunity to see some of the real ‘stars’ of the show at closer proximity. Leading the pack was Allied Fighters’ absolutely stunning P-47 Thunderbolt Dottie Mae, flown by John Maloney at the show. Tucked tightly into echelon formation for several low and fast passes was Steve Hinton, Jr in Planes of Fame’s P-47 Thunderbolt, its razorback configuration and olive drab paint scheme contrasting well with Dottie Mae’s polished bare metal and bubble canopy.
The three P-38s followed (two Lightnings and a Mustang on Saturday, owing to technical issues), again flying by in formation (a mass of booms and horizontal stabilisers) and individually. Joining Chino resident 2 3 Skidoo was Comanche Fighters’ gorgeous Thoughts of Midnite and the Collings Foundation’s elegant silver and red machine – to see three P-38s in the air together was just sublime, and the grouping of four airworthy examples on the ground (Jim Slattery’s P-38 White 33 sadly sat out the weekend owing to technical issues on start-up) and a further two, courtesy of Yanks Air Museum’s F-5G-6-LO photo reconnaissance variant and long-term Chino resident Honey Bunny, in the static meant that a total of six Lightnings could be seen on the same airfield over the weekend. All told, only a churl would complain that the numbers of airworthy machines didn’t quite reach 2013’s high standard.
Chino traditionally punctuates its flying programme with a series of large-scale set-pieces featuring warbirds from the European, Pacific and Korean periods. The concept is to launch upwards of a dozen aircraft in succession to fly a right-turning racetrack pattern, filling the sky with aeroplanes for 10-20 minutes at a time. It can be an impressive spectacle and once everything is airborne there are often times where several aircraft are converging in the same piece of sky at different distances and altitudes. That keeps the sequences from becoming too repetitive, albeit the style of flying is limited exclusively to topside passes with little variation. As a means of demonstrating large numbers of aircraft it works well, but British airshow goers will doubtless be used to more dynamic multi-axis warbird sequences.
Preceding the warbird set-pieces was an interwar interlude featuring several vintage classics, notable amongst which were Yanks Air Museum’s beautifully turned out Lockheed Electra and Hangar 180’s exquisite Ryan STM-2. Joining the ranks were the likes of the Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3, Boeing Stearman, North American Navion, ERCO Aircoupe and Cessna 195, offering a change of style and pace following the fighter-heavy opening. Planes of Fame’s P-26 Peashooter (flown by Steve Hinton, Jr.) and Seversky AT-12 (with John Maloney at the controls) also participated, joining for a series of impressive passes in close formation – they are the only surviving airworthy examples of the respective types, and their pairing during the interwar aircraft parade made for one of the weekend’s highlights.
Following this was a demonstration by the wonderful Northrop N9M Flying Wing – the sole flying example of the type – in the hands of David Vopat for a routine effective in its simplicity. Though lacking manoeuvrability, the Wing’s unmistakable profile and guttural drone give it tremendous presence as an airshow act. It’s one of those aircraft types really synonymous with Planes of Fame and Chino and is always a delight to see put through its paces.
The quality and pacing of the European and Pacific cavalcades was particularly impressive, with scores of Mustangs and Warhawks joining other period fighters and bombers for two lengthy ‘free for all’ slots. Among the Mustangs participating in the European sequence was the 357th FG marked P-51D Swamp Fox, a truly stunning example of the type carrying under wing drop tanks for the duration of the show. A pleasure it was too to see P-40 Suzy mixing it with the ex-John Paul P-40E (once operated in the UK by Ray Hanna and the Old Flying Machine Company and now operated by the Warhawk Air Museum) and the former Hangar 11 Collection P-40 Lulu Belle, though the four assembled flying Warhawks never shared the same piece of sky.
The Pacific flypasts, meanwhile, were down on numbers as compared to recent years but still fielded some gems, none more so than Planes of Fame’s Dauntless which impressed with close passes in different configurations, including a low, slow banking turn with the undercarriage and tailhook deployed. Sunday’s Pacific display ended with a brief but punchy solo slot courtesy of Jason Soames in the Commemorative Air Force SoCal Wing’s Grumman Bearcat – solo high-energy warbird aerobatics are fairly unusual at US airshows, and in a programme dominated by predominantly ‘flat’ routines the Bearcat’s aggressive verticals offered a memorable tonal change.
Planes of Fame’s original Mitsubishi Zero joined Comanche Fighters’ Spitfire Mk.IX ML417 (formerly owned by The Fighter Collection and operated from Duxford during the 1990s) for a more dynamic sequence featuring P-51A Mrs Virginia and P-51B Boise Bee. Each close-coupled pair flew by in succession, the lead duo re-positioning at the end of the crowd line as the other ran in from the opposite end of the field; this style of cross-cutting opposition passes from the quartet, we were told by the commentator, was styled on the type of multi-axis warbird flying typically seen at Duxford airshows in the UK.
Unlike Duxford’s more conventional layout, the crooked Chino crowdline meant that the pairs could utilise two intersecting display lines whilst keeping low and close to the crowd with each flypast; the flow of low flying, high-speed passes offered more exuberance than afforded by the more typical race track pattern style, and is something I would enjoy seeing more of at Chino in years to come.
Moving into 1950s aviation, the annual Korean War set-piece saw several warbirds and classic jets scrambled to simulate close air support and ground attack. With a single T-6 acting as battlefield liaison, a formidable pairing of Grumman Tigercats led Skyraider and Corsair and two Mustangs for simulated low-level ‘gun runs’ on enemy troop concentrations while F-86 Sabre, T-33 Shooting Star and MiG-15 tangled at higher altitude. With “radio comms” from US Army units piped through the PA system to contextualise each pass (the story being that a US unit was pinned down by Korean ground forces) and a gaggle of powerful V12 and radial warbirds making high-speed passes, this sequence was one of the show’s high points.
As the warbirds cleared into the circuit, the jets began their lower-level mock dogfight, with each jockeying for position before the Sabre (flown by Steve Hinton) and MiG (piloted by Chris Fahey) entered a one-v-one engagement. Their sweeping, sky-filling aerobatic figures and close, low passes made for some truly exciting flying culminating in a series of formation passes with the T-33, the trio once again alternating position on each pass.
This was likely the most effective of the multi-aircraft segments in terms of build-up and spectacle, and did well to break the mould set by the larger scale warbird carousels. Though the paired warbird passes were a little more distant than the usual arcing flypasts flown during the European and Pacific sequences, the inclusion of the T-6 and the three classic jets operating at different altitudes combined with the imaginative use of atmospheric radio communications gave it the look and feel of a layered, engrossing set-piece. The only criticism I would level at it is that the strafing runs are crying out for some pyrotechnic accompaniment to enhance the theatrics.
‘Ace Maker’ Greg Colyer later flew a polished solo aerobatic routine in his T-33. Greg is a long established display act in his own right and his performance here certainly met the high expectations. His low-level aerobatics and extremely low and close fast passes, the likes of which we are unlikely to see again in the UK, really make an impact at an airshow like Chino.
Stew Dawson gave a terrific account of the Tigercat in another solo sequence, combining graceful vertical aerobatics with some stunning topside photo passes putting the Chino ‘bend’ to good use. The intersecting runways and dog-leg crowd line allow these solo performers to carry out particularly dynamic displays, constantly changing axis whilst flying vertical aerobatics. Putting that dog-leg to good use were the ‘heavies’ trio of PB4Y-2 Privateer and two B-25 Mitchells (Planes of Fame’s example and Aero Trader’s TB-25 Pacific Princess). Whilst not a display per se, the Privateer’s comparatively aggressive topside banking passes and ‘beat-ups’ offered one of the enduring memories of the weekend – it’s always impressive seeing an aircraft of the PB4Y’s size being hauled around with aplomb.
A big draw for many was the opportunity to see Reno Air Race legends Voodoo and Strega making a rare airshow appearance. In a nice touch reminiscent of the Reno Unlimited class races, the Super Mustangs were led in from high over the crowd’s right shoulder by the T-33 chase plane before peeling into a dive, arriving low, fast and practically locked together for an absolutely sensational buzz-run, the first of several passes carried out to simulate a mock air race. The pair then split to allow pilots Steve Hinton, Jr. and Jay Consalvi to fly singleton passes, with Steve in particular really hugging the deck on every run. This was a wonderful way to whet the appetites of those who haven’t experienced Reno, offering just a small taste of how these highly modified Unlimiteds look and sound when unleashed – all the more impressive with the knowledge that the Mustangs were flying sans race engines. Reno’s future is far from secure, and quite where Voodoo and Strega go from here is unclear. I deem it a genuine privilege to have seen the pair flying together with their race pilots at the helm.
Drawing the five-hour flying programme to conclusion was the US Air Force’s Heritage Flight, this year comprising A-10 Thunderbolt II (which flew a scintillating solo demo prior to the HF), P-38 Thoughts of Midnite and Planes of Fame’s P-47 Thunderbolt. The trio flew the traditional three Heritage Flight passes – topside, echelon and an impressive crowd-rear break – accompanied by Dwayne O’Brien’s saccharine We Remember. The concept draws together aircraft of yesteryear and the present day Air Force to honour the airmen who have given their lives in combat for the USA in all aerial conflicts America has been involved in; combining these two World War Two fighters with the A-10, still the pinnacle of USAF ground attack, pays tribute to the men of the US Army Air Force and their present day counterparts. Brief though the display is, there’s little questioning the impact of each pass, particularly the awesome crowd-rear arrival and split before each aircraft performs a simultaneous aileron roll. The final run through, which brought the A-10 in very close to the crowd, was a cracking way to round off a very powerful sequence and a fitting finale to a fantastic airshow.
A small number of technical issues gave rise to gaps in Saturday’s programme – uncharacteristic for the typically silky-smooth choreography of the Chino flying programme – the net result of which was a somewhat disjointed flying programme. Sunday’s effort, however, was as good a Planes of Fame Airshow as I’ve attended. Everything just seemed a little tighter, down to the timing of launches and recoveries during the multi-aircraft sequence, which were seemingly adjusted slightly on Sunday to ensure that the spacing between aircraft participating in the ‘carousels’ was kept to a minimum. Taking everything in the round – the aircraft, atmosphere, choreography and the feel that it all happens thanks to an amazing team effort – it was nothing less than a sensational weekend at one of the world’s most famous airshows.