Photos and story by Joe Kates, first published in Photorecon.net in 2016
Creating a Heritage:
In 1997, during the 50th anniversary of the USAF celebrations, a most unique formation took to the skies. That formation included the latest aircraft in the USAF arsenal wing tip to wing tip with vintage warbirds. The aircraft flew two passes left to right in front of the crowd, to the music of “We Remember” by Dwayne O’Brian. Then the flight concluded with a final pass from behind the crowd and a snap break, aileron roll out. Hardly a dry eye was on the ramp, as the aircraft landed.
The enthusiasm of the crowds on hand to witness that first flight was amazing, and the top USAF brass took note. The program continued over the years and grew in popularity. Since those early days, the USAF Heritage Flight has become a staple of air shows around the world.
How do you take different USAF aircraft and crews and get them to work and fly in perfect harmony with classic warbirds and their crews? Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) pilots go through many hours of formation flight training, and every day they maintain those skills while performing the assigned missions. Most of their missions are flown with similar types of aircraft, so the pilots know a lot about the aircraft of their wingman; they are flying the same aircraft for the most part. Formation flying at its best is still the most dangerous thing you can do in an aircraft. Now throw in a totally different aircraft type, like a WWII and a Korean War era fighter. Doesn’t this make for a logistics and safety nightmare?
To help the pilots and crews meet, work out the details of their dissimilar aircraft types, and practice in formation, the USAF formed the Heritage Flight Training Conference. Held every year at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., this is an effort to safely acquaint the crews with the dissimilar aircraft types in formations before the start of the air show season.
The Aircraft and Teams:
The civilian pilots of the Heritage Flight are veterans of the program with many thousands of hours of flight time; some are retired USAF pilots and have been flying in this program for years. ACC pilots and crews are selected for up to two years of service with the team. The application and selection process is long and thorough and is a pinnacle of their careers as USAF fighter pilots.
This year’s lineup included a few returning aircraft types and one very new one. Returning is the always popular F-22 Raptor Demo Team out of Langley Air Force Base VA and the F-16 Viper Demonstration Team, which is based out of Shaw AFB, S.C. and is sporting one of the nicest “color bird” F-16 paint schemes that I have ever seen. Yes – we all wish we still had the likes of the mighty F-4, A-10 and F-15 (both C and E versions) still participating in the heritage , but time marches on??????????
The New Kid on the Block:
The F-35 Heritage Flight Team includes one pilot and 10 maintainers, all from the 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. It seems everyone has an opinion on the F-35, and one thing is for sure is that it is about time the latest Gen 5 aircraft is shown to the world. And what a fitting way to display it’s flight characteristics alongside the WWII P-38 Lightning. I had the opportunity to witness this collaboration of aircraft, and yes, the F-35 is as crisp in the air as any fighter preceding it. It is especially a pleasure to watch in the air next to it’s WWII namesake, piloted by the one and only Steve Hinton.
For F-35 demo pilot Major William Andreotta, the experience has been exhilarating. “My team and I are very excited for this year,” said Maj. Andreotta. “We’re so honored to be the first ever F-35 Heritage Flight Team. We are really laying the foundation for years to come. We know it’s going to be a great season and we’re ecstatic about talking with different communities and showcasing the F-35.” Andreotta went on to say, “It’s surreal to be flying the latest and greatest fighter aircraft in the world and look over to see fighter aircraft from World War II, Vietnam and Korea right next to you that were at one point the greatest fighters of their generation.” Andreotta added “It’s like passing the torch in the lineage.” The team will travel to 16 air shows around the U.S. and abroad. The F-35 Heritage Flight Team gets to officially start their historic first season at it’s home, Luke AFB, when the “75 Years of Airpower” air show is presented to their Arizona hometown community April 2-3, 2016.
Training Media Day:
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base hosts this event every year, and the wonderful Public Affairs Office staff at the base again provided a private media day, which is usually hosted on the Friday of training week. This year was no exception as the staff went out of their way to provide ample access to all the demo teams and crews, both civilian and military. The day started with a sunrise “well almost” photo shoot on the ramp with no barriers around the aircraft. Media members were able to roam the ramp and talk to all the people involved in this historic program. After about two hours of this, the ramp was closed and we were marshaled to a media viewing area to capture preflight and flying activities.
Being from the Arizona area myself, I was able to attest to the successful safety learning curve used by the crews during the week preceding the media day. I was in the area near the base and was able to photograph the first days of practice from nearby. One can actually see the difference a few days make in the tightness and precision of the formation flying as the weekend arrives. The formations get tighter and the breaks more crisp, as to be expected in a learning environment like this. By Sunday afternoon the teams were so tight within their procedures; both air and ground crews were working in perfect harmony to display the most powerful Air Force to the world.
The USAF Heritage Program is a great way to “Keep ‘Em Flying” and to honor all who have given their service to this great nation, both in the air and on the ground.
Photorecon.net was honored to attend this historic event leading up to the air show season, a season we cannot wait to see get underway. Special thanks to all the staff at the 355th FW Public Affairs for all their hard work in making this happen every year. You guys rock.
The 2016 Teams :
2016 Civilian Heritage Flight Pilots
ACC Fighter/Attack Aircraft
F-35 Team Demo pilot Major Will “D-Rail” Andreotta
F-16 East and West Demo Pilot Major Craig “Rocket” Baker
F-22 Team Demo Pilot Major Daniel “FFits” Dickinson