El Centro, California - While normally the roar of jet engines might fill the air at Naval Air Facility El Centro, back in October of 2013 a select group of photographers heard something a bit different... helicopter blades piercing through the air. Yes, it was time again for the twice a year NAF El Centro Photocall at the base. Unfortunately, this time it was met with sequestrations and the just ended government shutdown. With so much uncertainty in funding through every branch of the US Military, 2013 saw the cutting of all demonstration teams including the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds. This also meant cuts throughout the government including reducing flying times and delayed work on government equipment. With all of this uncertainty surrounding the military, there was one base that continued being vital not only to domestic military training for the United States, but also as a world-wide training center.
To read more about the history of Naval Air Facility El Centro and its role in the Military through the years, check out the photo reports section of Warbird Photos for more El Centro stories.
This is the third article on Warbird Photos detailing a Photocall experience. To those who are new to this site or a Photocall in general, this amazing outreach between a United States Military facility and photographers around the country is unprecedented and incredibly rare. In February and October, NAF El Centro opens its gates to a limited number of photographers, chosen through various aviation photography geographical groups, to come out to the base and see first hand the training that military aviators do at the base. NAF El Centro is a sort of staging grounds for visiting squadrons from all over the United States who use the base to launch training missions to the nearby Yuma live weapons range, fly Aircraft Carrier qualification landing practices on the painted carrier deck on one of the runways, or even just do a quick stop to get some fuel before continuing on to the next destination. The photographers get a chance to be on the side of the runways as various aircraft training at the time launch and recover mere feet from the wingtips as they go by. It's an incredible experience and something that many other bases have taken notice of with NAF El Centro having an incredible pool of media from these photographers to use for their operations. The idea behind the Photocalls is to not only be a public outreach to photographers, but to generate a unique look at the importance of not only the base itself but its mission and role in the US Military. During the early February Photocall, photographers get an added bonus of the US Navy Blue Angels using the base for their winter training before Airshow season begins. With these Photocalls, you never quite know what you're going to see as the rotation of squadrons and groups present on the base fluctuates daily. Sometimes it's a full house with F/A-18 Hornets, EA-6B Prowlers, tanker aircraft, some helicopters, and perhaps even foreign countries training at the base. Other times it might just be a small handful of residual aircraft finishing up their missions before heading home.
For the October 24 Photocall, it was quite the toss up of what might be there with the government shutdown having just been reopened mere days before the Photocall was to take place. Because of this uncertainty, there were a lot of shifts in the schedules of the training squadrons. What was originally going to be a day of a lot of aircraft packed into the base ended up being a rather light day of just a handful of aircraft. The base itself, while subject to the same shutdowns and tightening of budgets that all the other military facilities also must deal with, puts the mission of being a training facility first. For the base, it's a balance of being able to provide the best training for the US Military and giving the most resources they can to the aviators. NAF El Centro may seem like a small annex of a base in the middle of Imperial County, California, but in reality it's crucial to the training of hundreds if not thousands of aviators in a year's time, and is the Navy's premier aviation training facility. Even with the sequestration in affect, the base continues to put these aviators first. It is consistently ready for the squadrons if and when they are able to carry out their training missions. While the base might have appeared empty during the Photocall, it was still available for various transient aircraft that might stop by for some fuel or flight training. Additionally, while it may have been light on US Military aircraft, the base was quite active with another very important mission; international training for various countries.
Foreign groups from all over the world travel great distances to NAF El Centro to train in the nearby desert environments that can resemble a variety of foreign terrains where current conflicts are taking place. The effects of the sequestration here in the US don't interfere with these foreign visitors because their governments provide the budget for the international training. NAF El Centro acts as a diplomat; open for allied countries to come out and use the base in international cooperative training with resources that might not be found anywhere else. According to NAF El Centro, the base has seen training from countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and our neighbors to the north, Canada. This is on top of the world class training provided for the United States Army, Marine Corps, and Navy that also use the base frequently. These foreign countries do everything from standard flight training to live weapons training. For the foreign countries as well as domestic military, the base can even provide 'baby blue bombs' to fixed-wing aircraft which can then go out to various ranges to practice bombing runs on targets, with the ability for instructors to observe and grade the aviators. Larger and heavier weapons can be deployed on the nearby Chocolate Mountains (Barry M. Goldwater Range, or BMGR). Helicopters can do Dustoff (Medical Evacuation) or Brownout (where a dust cloud is created from the downdraft causing zero visibility) training with the desert landscape surrounding the base. Generally, foreign groups will utilize the base anywhere from six weeks to as long as three months depending on what their training requires. The different types of training that can be done at NAF El Centro and all the nearby ranges and terrain is staggering; covering just about every aspect an aviator will need in just about any worldwide conflict. Here are some of the training missions that can and very often do take place at NAF El Centro or the nearby ranges:
"Helicopters do day and night ops practicing desert landings, mountain landings, brown outs, search and rescue, surveillance, strafing, navigation, cargo handling and troop transport. Fixed wing aircraft will practice basic flight ops, FCLPs, navigation, bombing with small dummy bombs, live fire (at the BMGR) and air-to-ground tactics." - Kristopher Haugh, Deputy PAO, NAF El Centro
With all that, it's no wonder this base is chosen by other countries to send their assets to train. The coordination between the foreign countries, the various US squadrons, and the base are handled through the Fleet Liaison Office (FLO) which acts as the main contact for the various groups that operate at the base for training. Whatever these groups need, the FLO provides them the best resources they can at NAF El Centro. For the ranges and weapons testing, nearby MCAS Yuma controls these areas and coordinates with the various squadrons and groups both US and foreign when staging out of NAF El Centro. For all of us there for the Photocall, the visitors of the day were the Danush out of Karup, Demark. With their Agusta Westland EH-101 Merlin helicopters, the Danish were from the Squadron 722 Helicopter Wing. There were also a few British Royal Air Force Boeing CH-47 Chinooks that flew earlier in the morning, but did not fly during the Photocall. NAF El Centro had a bit of fame in the news media a few years ago when Prince Harry from the UK came to the base to spend a month training in an AH-64 Apache with his squadron. It's easy to see that this base is not only essential for the US Military, but a very important tool for international allies.
The Photocall started as always with photographers gathering outside the base near the main runway to capture the early morning arrivals and departures. It just so happened that the morning would end up being the busiest part of the day for NAF El Centro. With flights by the RAF Chinooks and several US Marine CH-47 Sea Knights (the smaller soon to be retired version of a Chinook), the highlight of the morning came from the departures of some fighter jets and tankers. Stashed among the shaded overhangs were eight twin-seat McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18D Hornets from VMFAT (AW) 223 known as "The Bengals" based at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina along with two McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extenders from the 305th Air Mobility Wing based out of McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. They had been training at the base, and it was time for a long flight back home along with the tankers to provide them with fuel. The Hornets took off four at a time with the tanker right on their heels. The Hornets then formed up with the tanker and headed on their way. The next set of four Hornets and tanker then launched and the surrounding air of El Centro got a lot quieter. Before the Photocall began, other morning surprises included two nicely painted Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs from VMFT-401 "The Snipers" based at MCAS Yuma that came in for a very quick touch and go landing before heading back to MCAS Yuma. It was a very quick flight training hop for these surprise guests and another example of how NAF El Centro is open for military guests from all over and at a moment's notice. Finally, around 11am it was time to head over to the entrance of the base to check in and get the Photocall started. During this time two F/a-18D Hornets from nearby VMFAT-101 'Sharpshooters' based at San Diego's MCAS Miramar came in to do some touch and go pattern landings before departing back to Miramar.
Once inside the base, the nearly 60 photographers gathered for a quick briefing and introduction for those who have never been to a Photocall. It was a very hot day, and being out on the tarmac for several hours meant making sure to stay hydrated, making sure to have proper hearing protection in case some jets came by, and to take any bathroom breaks now. The Public Affairs Officer, Michelle Dee, introduced the new installation Commanding Officer for the base, Commander Erik Franzen, who spoke a few words thanking the photographers for their dedication to telling the story of NAF El Centro. Everyone then loaded onto buses and vans (which required two trips to get everyone) and they were driven out to the runways. This time around, everyone was taken to the opposite side of the usual runway, which puzzled everyone. Because of the somewhat windy conditions, aircraft launching was reversed on the runway, a common practice even at commercial airports. As mentioned earlier, the originally planned day with abase full of aircraft had shifted all the squadron's schedules because of the sequestration, and now the base sat pretty much empty aside from the foreign visitors. It took a little time for the first sound of activity to fill the skies, but soon enough the sound of rotors was heard when one of the Danish Merlins returned from their quick sortie mission. The Merlin came in low over the runway after the tower let it know photographers were positioned at the end. Not too long after, another crew hopped into a Merlin and took off for their turn to train.
The day was mostly filled with the Merlins coming in and out of the base, with the NAF El Centro tower and the Navy escorts trying everything they could to get the aircraft to come by the photographers. They did the best they could to give everyone at the Photocall the most opportunities for photos they could, even urging some aircraft to make a quick pass if possible. Gaps between the aircraft activity were a bit long, but just about an hour into the Photocall, between the Merlin flights, a different type of helicopter was seen in the distance coming into NAF El Centro for a quick gas stop. It was a Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion from HMH-361 "Flying Tigers," based at MCAS Miramar. The loud and large Super Stallion flew directly overhead giving a nice look at the belly of the beast landing near what's known as the 'hot pit,' where aircraft can refuel while the engines and rotors are still moving. After grabbing some fuel, it quickly headed out and departed, unfortunately, on the other side of the base. Up next were several more Danish Merlin flights for the next few hours. The tower encouraged them to come by all the photographers, which resulted in two different Merlin crews giving a little hover demonstration over the runway directly in front of everyone. With the sun to everyone's backs, it was a beautiful look at this foreign aircraft, and I'm all too sure the Danish crew onboard were more than happy to pose the Merlin for some photos. They departed with a high speed pass across the runway giving another great look with the gear up. At this point, it had been a very helicopter filled day at El Centro, and with a brief surprise of very high altitude USMC VM-22 Ospreys from MCAS Miramar passing over the base on their way to MCAS Yuma (far too high to photograph), the day seemed like it would be filled with just that one Super Stallion and continual Merlin photos, which easily would have made the trip up there worth it.
To fill a bit of the gaps between the Merlin flights, the El Centro staff invited over the Federal Fire El Centro group with one of their large fire trucks. They put on a bit of a water spray demo, which looked very inviting to run through with the very hot temperatures. It made for some very unique shots as the mist created rainbows surrounding the truck. It took a little while more, but soon the distant shape of another CH-53E Super Stallion appeared coming in for another quick fuel hop. This time it came directly at the photographers that were positioned half way down the runway. Directly behind the Stallion were two Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawks from HSC-3 "Merlins" based at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. The two Knighthawks flew in one at a time and headed to the hot pit for some fuel, having to wait in line behind the Super Stallion and a refueling Merlin helicopter. Keep in the mind that on the other side of the base were also a few Marine CH-46 Sea Knights that had been sitting parked all day. At this particular given time, with all the other helicopters that were refueling, NAF El Centro had quite the collection of different helicopters. As the helicopters continued to refuel, the first fixed-wing aircraft finally appeared overhead in the form of a Grumman C-2A Greyhound from VRC-30 "Providers" also based at Naval Air Station North Island. The Greyhound came in with an overhead carrier break and landed on the runway. At this time, the Super Stallion finished up the refueling and was departing on the other side of the base. Thanks to the quick thinking of the Photocall Navy escorts, they got the tower to ask the Super Stallion pilot if he'd be able to turn around and do a flyby for the photographers. The Super Stallion crew was happy to comply and shifted course back over the main runway toward us with a pretty high speed and a nice low level. This would be my personal favorite shot of the day as the Super Stallion screamed by. Thanks again to the crew of '02' from HMH-361 "Flying Tigers" for the great flyby. As the Super Stallion's silhouette grew smaller and smaller, the same C-2A Greyhound that had landed was already taxing back out to the runway to start what would be the final bit of action for this Photocall.
Taking to the runway, the C-2A Greyhound dropped off a couple of personnel from the plane who went running from the aircraft to this little make-shift shack that sits next to the runway a few feet down. There's another shack just like this one on the other end of the runway as well. These shacks are called 'LSO' shacks, or Landing Signal Officer shacks, and resemble the spot on Aircraft Carriers where Navy personnel (LSO) will stand and give directions to landing aircraft in terms of height, speed, angle of descent, etc. If there's an issue with the landing they will wave off the aircraft to go around and try again. At NAF El Centro, a simulated Carrier Deck is painted on the runways next to the LSO shacks. With flight instructors inside the LSO shacks communicating with the pilots of the aircraft, they can perform Aircraft Carrier landing practice. This is called Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP). For the next few hours the Greyhound would touch down (or come within inches from touching down) and then be waved off by the instructors in the LSO shack to go around and try again. The aviators were being graded on their landing each time. After a few rounds of this, the Greyhound would land and taxi back to the runway holding short of taking off. Other pilots who came with the Greyhound would rotate so they all could be trained and graded on the landings. This whole process can take hours and go well into the evening as they continue to train multiple pilots with a single aircraft during a single stretch of time. This saves time as you can get the most training in without wear and tear on multiple aircraft during multiple occasions which would also require a lot of extra personnel. The sun began to set and cover the NAF El Centro landscape with a yellowish orange color cast as the Greyhound continued its routine circle of carrier flight training. Not too much time later, it was time for the Photocall to end while the sun slowly crept behind the mountains. The photographers were taken back to the staging area via bus and van, and everyone said their goodbyes and departed NAF El Centro with the sound of the Greyhound still making touch and go Carrier approaches fading in the distance. Till the next Photocall!